Some Thoughts on Martin Luther King, JR

January 20, 2014

I’ve been asked to speak at Siena Heights University’s annual celebration of Martin Luther King Day.  I am to speak for 5-10 minutes and comment upon what King has meant to me.  Here’s what I will say:

I am very honored to have been asked to share some thoughts on the importance and legacy of Martin Luther King.

As a teacher I often include King’s speeches and essays in my classes.  Whenever I teach my students about King I am reminded that he was a self-described “extremist for love.”  I want to talk about what that means—what it means to be an extremist for love—and then touch on how King’s example inspires me.  To understand all of this, I think we need to understand the strategies King employed in attempting to enact social change and the exceptional courage and pride he carried within himself and awoke within others.  Throughout this brief talk I will quote from King’s very powerful “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

A little historical background.  By the mid-1950s, Jim Crow Segregation had been in effect for over sixty years.  While the NAACP had done much to challenge and slowly dismantle these laws, many African-Americans had begun to lose patience with the long arc of history and its slow movement towards justice.  Centuries of economic abuses had left African-American communities impoverished; and, perhaps more significantly, physical violence and a culture which dehumanized African-Americans left many “living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next […] plagued with inner fears and outer resentments […] forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness.’”  By the mid-1950s, many African-Americans had reached the point where “the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”

In 1955 Martin Luther King was a twenty-six year old Baptist minister in Montgomery Alabama.  After being brought in to help coordinate the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King found himself thrust into the national leadership of a new civil rights organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Rather than continue to wait and suffer the dehumanization and violence of American racism, King and SCLC embraced a strategy of non-violent direct action.

It is important that we remember how radical this strategy was—and that it was this strategy that made King and the SCLC “extremists for love.”  While their campaigns began with and sought to engage in advocacy and negotiation, King and the SCLC were prepared for the fact that white Southerners were unlikely to admit that there was a problem or engage in honest dialogue with African-American activists.  When dialogue and negotiation fell apart and white Southerners proved once again that they were unwilling to see African-Americans as fully human, King and the SCLC would engage in direct-action campaigns—sit-ins, marches, boycotts—which sought to “create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which ha[d] constantly refused to negotiate [would be]  forced to confront the issue.”  Well aware that these actions would be met with violence and arrest, King and the SCLC were careful to pray and engage in self-purification so that they would be prepared to “present [their] very bodies as means of laying [their] case before the conscience of the local and national community.”

This took immense courage and immense faith.  King and his associates would directly face down segregationists and were threatened with very real violence; many of them were assaulted and some were even killed for standing up against American racism.  But, through his abiding faith in both Christ and the American dream, King found within himself a truly awesome reserve of strength, conviction, and pride.  It was this strength, conviction, and pride that enabled him to stand up to the face of injustice and peacefully face down violence and brutality.  This strength and conviction also lay at the core of his written work and the very eloquent and personal testimonies that have served as inspiration to others who sought, and continue to seek, a more Christian, democratic nation.

By 1965 King and the SCLC had experienced considerable success.  Their direct action campaigns had successfully pushed the federal government to enact laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and to consider laws that would be folded into the Civil Rights Act of 1968.  These laws helped dismantle many of the harshest Jim Crow laws and helped speed the nation towards fuller racial equality.   But King’s work was not done.  In the last years of his life he turned his attention to poverty, fair housing, and an end to war.  I think we far too often focus on King’s dream of a color-blind society and forget that this dream was only possible if all people were freed from the oppressive, dehumanizing effects of poverty, poor housing, and poorer education.  So, in his final years, King turned his attention to this structural inequalities which shackled people of all races.

Now, how does this part of King’s work, his status as a self-proclaimed “extremist for love,” influence me?  I have not had to face injustices as severe as those faced by King and his associates.  I am very aware of the fact that the relative comfort and ease of my life would not be possible if Martin Luther King and others had not so courageously faced down forces of discrimination and dehumanization and in the process made our world more just and more free.

But, these forces continue to exist—we still live in a time in which poverty, unfair housing, and unevenly distributed educational opportunities prevent many from reaching the promises of the American dream.  King’s work can continue.  Not only through the continued striving for an end to racial discrimination but also through a struggle for fair housing, equitable education, and economic freedom for all.  King once said that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”  I hope that we all leave here today inspired to speak out against injustice and to devote ourselves, through our prayer and study but also through our time and energy, to making sure our nation continues on a path towards a time and place in which the dignity and humanity of all is respected, honored, and celebrated.  We might not be called to place our bodies and freedom on the line, as King and his associates did.  And, we might not be called to travel the country, as King did.  But here in Adrian we can devote our time and energy to organizations like Habit for Humanity, the United Way, the Adrian Rea Literacy Center, or many of the other opportunities coordinated through Siena Serves.  And, even when we are not directly working to end injustice, we can see as King did, from a place of empathy for all people, and speak as King did, calling out for fuller freedom and justice.

Thank you.

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