In his mere 39 years of life Martin Luther King, Jr. (accomplished enough to merit the national holiday we celebrate. But in the 50s and 60s, up until a bullet ended his life on April 4, 1968, many people did not honor him; and many whites, including FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, hated him. Today, several developments of recent years threaten his legacy.
A 2013 Supreme Court decision declared unconstitutional key parts of the King-inspired Voting Rights Acts of 1965. Subsequently, various Republican efforts to reduce black-voting strength have been successful. In 2016, racism helped elect Donald Trump. Since then, despite the celebration of MLK day, President Trump has rekindled a smoldering racism that never really left us. Thus, it now seems fitting to reflect on seven important lessons that his brief life taught us, lessons that are still insufficiently heeded and greatly needed.
The first is the importance of possessing proper values, with love topping the list. In the early 1960s King stated that “love is mankind's most potent weapon for personal and social transformation.” Ever since being heavily influenced by Gandhi’s teaching in 1950, while a student at Pennsylvania’s Crozier Theological Seminary, he had begun developing a theology and philosophy based on love. (MLK was a brilliant student, and completed his formal studies by obtaining a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955.)
In his biography of King, historian Stephen Oates sums up Gandhi’s teaching and its influence on King. “Gandhi’s goal was not to defeat the British in India, but to redeem them through love, so as to avoid a legacy of bitterness. His term for this—Satyagraha—reconciled love and force in a single, powerful concept. With barely restrained enthusiasm, King embraced Satyagraha as the theoretical method he had been searching for.” King considered Gandhi “probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful effective social force on a large scale.”
King also understood Satyagraha to mean “a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be a recipient of violence than an inflictor of it.” “By 1953,” Oates writes, “King’s analysis had led him to reject war, any kind of war.”
In 1957 MLK delivered a powerful sermon on “Loving Your Enemies.” In it he said, “Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.” He also spoke of the need “to organize mass non-violent resistance based on the principle of love.” Moreover, he analyzed and amplified in great detail various meanings of love, especially agape, (“understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all”). In February 1968, just two months before his assassination, he told a congregation at Ebenezer Church in Atlanta that he wanted to be remembered as someone who “tried to love and serve humanity.”
True, a half century later his message has not been forgotten. At the royal wedding of Britain’s Prince Harry and U. S. actress Meghan Markle in May 2018, U. S. Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry (author of The Power of Love) quoted MLK on love and applied his words to the present.
But in this age of political polarization, an all-embracing love for all, including our political opponents, is more difficult than ever. Such love requires empathy. After his Montgomery, Alabama home was bombed in 1956, with his wife, Coretta, and infant daughter inside, King recalled how he was “on the verge of corroding hatred for those responsible.” But then he tried to put himself in their places and he realized that their “whole cultural tradition . . . teaches them that Negroes do not deserve certain things. . . . When they seek to preserve segregation they are seeking to preserve only what their local folkways have taught them was right.”
If there is one quality that stands out in reading a King biography, it is his single-minded determination, to create a better America, and thereby a better world.
The second lesson of MLK’s life, however, is that such love and empathy should not weaken our resolve in battling for a better world. If there is one quality that stands out in reading a King biography, it is his single-minded determination, to create a better America, and thereby a better world. From helping coordinate the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1954 to planning a march for Memphis sanitation workers in 1968, we see a decade and a half of tireless efforts. And the obstacles in his path were such that most good-willed individuals would have been overwhelmed long before 1968: fierce and hateful segregationist like Alabama Governor George Wallace; death threats to MLK and his family; challenges to his leadership, including from more militant black leaders like Stokely Carmichael; and federal government opposition, especially from FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, who ordered the bugging of MLK’s hotel rooms, but also from President Johnson after MLK began his harsh criticism of LBJ ‘s Vietnam-War escalation. One other obstacle was an internal one—self-doubt.
We can only imagine how difficult it must have been for him to persevere in advocating demonstrations, sit-ins, marches, boycotts, and other non-violent (but still disruptive) tactics in the face of almost constant opposition, sometimes even from well-meaning friends. As someone who took the words of Jesus about humility to heart, it was only natural that he sometimes wondered if he was acting more for egotistic reasons than for loving ones. In his Ebenezer- Church sermon mentioned above, just two months before his death, he acknowledged that he too shared the common human “desires for recognition, for importance.”
Closely connected to MLK’s perseverance was a third lesson of his life—the significance of courage. For that virtue does not mean having no fears—facing so much opposition and threats to his safety and that of his family, he naturally had them—but acting in behalf of our values despite our fears. In the final months of his life he was especially apprehensive about death threats, but said, “You know, I cannot worry about my safety; I cannot live in fear. I have to function.” And he not only functioned, but did so with great courage knowing it could cost him his life.
A fourth lesson we need to learn from MLK’s life is the importance of perusing a hopeful, inspiring, and unifying vision. President Trump has spoken of making America great again, but it is not a unifying dream, but one that appeals especially to older, nostalgic white males who wish to go back to the days when white-male leadership was clearly dominant. Contrast that with MLK’s dream most beautifully articulated in his famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech: “I have a dream that one day down in Alabama. . . little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. . . . With this faith . . . . we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands.”
In his final book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1968), he wrote: “As we work to get rid of the economic strangulation that we face as a result of poverty, we must not overlook the fact that millions of Puerto Ricans, Mexican American, Indians and Appalachian whites are also poverty-stricken. Any serious war against poverty must of necessity include them.” This unifying multi-racial vision came at a time when, as Oates writes, “the country was coming apart in a cacophony of hate and reaction." (In the summer of 1967, “race riots shook the nation to its core,” and white backlash was on the rise.)
Right after the paragraph calling for multi-racial unity in his final book, King addressed two other issues that teach us fifth and six lessons: we must think holistically, recognizing the interconnectedness of issues, and we must think globally.
Regarding a holistic approach, he wrote, “For the evils of racism, poverty and militarism to die, a new set of values must be born. Our economy must become more person-centered than property- and profit-centered. Our government must depend more on its moral power than on its military power.” In April 1967, he had stated,” When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
In Where Do We Go from Here? he wrote that “we must ask why has our nation placed itself in the position of being God's military agent on earth, intervening recklessly in Vietnam and in the Dominican Republic [in 1965]. Why have we substituted the arrogant undertaking of policing the whole world for the high task of putting our own house in order?”
For at least a decade, King had been thinking more globally and was critical of white imperialism in Africa and other parts of the world. In 1957, he had travelled to Ghana to help it celebrate its independence from British control. As Oates indicated, MLK believed then and continued to believe that “both segregation in America and colonialism in Africa were based on the same thing—white supremacy and contempt for life.” After the disastrous Bay of Pigs U. S invasion of Cuba in 1961, he wrote that “there is a revolt all over the world against colonialism, reactionary dictatorship, and systems of exploitation. Unless we as a nation join the revolution and go back to the revolutionary spirit that characterized the birth of our nation, I am afraid that we will be relegated to a second-class power in the world with no real moral voice to speak to the conscience of humanity.” In his Nobel-Peace-Prize speech of 1964 he commented on the need for global understanding and love.
By the summer of 1965 “the events in Vietnam haunted King . . . . He could not bear to see his country muscling its way into the internal affairs of another nation, bombing and shooting people—and brown-skinned people at that—under the deluded excuse of stopping Communism.” As LBJ kept increasing troops there, a disproportionate number of Afro-American soldiers lost their lives and more federal dollars were diverted from the “war on poverty” to the war in Vietnam. In April 1967, in a New York Riverside Church speech, he displayed great empathy for the Vietnamese people when he stated:
So they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children.
The seventh and final major lesson MLK taught us is to work ecumenically with others (of varying races and beliefs) to bring about a better nation and world. As one scholar observed, King’s demonstration marches “brought together people from the South and North, from widely differing church traditions, not only Christians but also Jews and humanists.”
Undoubtedly, there are other lessons that we could learn from King’s life. And there is more that could be said about the similarity of his ideas not only to Gandhi, but also to that of other religious thinkers like Walter Rauschenbusch, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Rabbi Abraham Heschel. Finally, one could acknowledge that King had his flaws and failings—some regarding women and marital fidelity. But who among us humans does not, including others that we honor like Washington and Lincoln? Nevertheless, like the lives of those two presidents, MLK’s is well worth honoring.
Walter G. Moss