Victor Nuovo: MLK went beyond civil rights

Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.
— Martin Luther King Jr.

39th in a series

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), MLK, did not only theorize about social ethics, he embodied it, and gave his life for it. The fundamental truth for which he gave his life is the principle of freedom and equality for all persons. It is the very principle upon which this nation was founded, although the founders applied it narrowly, taking it to be applicable only to white men, and even more narrowly to white men with property. But the force of truth cannot be denied, and over the course of time, it has taken root in the minds of many people and has flowered in many and various ways.

The 14th Amendment to the Constitution is one of its offspring. It guarantees to all citizens the right of equal protection of the laws, and it prohibits any state from making any law that denies or limits this right to any citizen or group of citizens.

In 1954, the justices of the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that laws permitting separate facilities for Blacks and whites violated the 14th Amendment and in a supplemental decision it ruled that schools must be integrated “with all deliberate speed.” It argued that “separate but equal” is a contradiction in terms, which indeed it is.

On Dec. 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks (1913–2005) was arrested after she refused to give up her seat to a white man. Her courageous act marked the beginning of the great American Civil Rights Movement, which ended with passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Rosa Parks’ arrest, which was a clear violation of her civil rights, and of the 14th Amendment, led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, organized by the leaders of the Black community. They chose the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to lead it.

His role in the boycott won him national recognition. A gifted orator, he gave the Civil Rights Movement voice and definition. He made clear from the outset that the struggle for justice must involve direct action: protests, sit-ins, boycotts; he counseled that protestors must be willing to endure the violent reaction of segregationists to force them to submit to their injustice. He called for resistance, a struggle against injustice, and he called for courage. But he added something more: The struggle of Blacks against white injustice, this struggle for justice, must be nonviolent.

MLK learned from the example of Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869–1948) that nonviolent resistance could be made into a weapon of great political power. By it, Gandhi defeated a great empire and won independence for India. MLK did more than imitate Gandhi. He was not only an activist, but a theorist, and by word and deed, he gave expression to the practice of nonviolent resistance, he lived it, incarnated it, and wielded it as a weapon with which he was able to secure the blessings of liberty for his posterity.

This is MLK’s legacy to us. And it is literally a wonderful legacy, for it is a veritable wonder, a paradox: nonviolence as a weapon of power that defeats empires and overcomes police states, which is what those states had become that attempted to enforce segregation. Whoever would honor this legacy must learn of it and write it on their hearts.

In an article, published in 1957, MLK summarized his theory of nonviolent resistance in four points. First, “it is not a method for cowards,” for it is resistance against hostile authorities that enforce their will through violence; second, its purpose is not to defeat one’s enemies, but to gain their moral renewal. Protests and boycotts and other forms of direct action are not “ends in themselves,” but moral acts that awaken “a sense of moral shame” in one’s opponents: Their motive is love, their purpose is redemption and reconciliation. Third, the targets of resistance are the “forces of evil” not persons who are driven by them. Evil is the enemy. Finally, nonviolent resistance must not be driven by anger or resentment, but motivated by love. It becomes clear that MLK’s theory of nonviolent resistance is informed not only by Gandhi, but also by Jesus of Nazareth, by the Sermon on the Mount. His theory of nonviolent resistance is a mixture of these two; and a very potent one when put into action.

MLK’s interests went beyond civil rights. He desired to establish justice wherever there was injustice, and he perceived that the plight of poor and disadvantaged people everywhere was unjust. It must be resisted. As a clergyman, he had little interest in saving souls; the purpose of religion is to reform society: “Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.” In this regard, MLK acknowledged the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr. Finally, although he was not a pacifist, MLK saw the folly of foreign wars, in particular, Vietnam. In 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

On April 4, 1968, King was in Memphis where he had gone to lead a protest of striking sanitation workers against the city government. He was assassinated.

There is no doubt that Martin Luther King Jr. was a great man. But he was not without fault. He was a philanderer, and in the light that the #MeToo movement has cast on male behavior, he does not appear great, and it would be wrong to turn out that light, for it is the light of justice. He did what he did and it was wrong. But his achievement as a civil rights leader still stands. He died bearing witness to the truth.

Postscript: For a copious source of MLK’s writings, see “A Testament of Hope, the essential writings of Martin Luther King Jr.” (Harper Collins) Also worth reading is Rosa Parks’ “My Story” (Penguin). Visit your local bookshop.

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