Part II: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Way of Love, Not Hate

In the final three sections of his speech, Dr. King reaffirms his commitment to non-violent activism, reiterates the structural changes that must occur in American society, and concludes with a clarion call to hope in the midst of the on-going struggles for justice.

Dr. King’s Christian faith and vision fortified his conviction that genuine, enduring change could only come through a non-violent strategy.  In King’s assessment, the 1965 Watts riot and other similar acts of violence failed to produce results reflective of a genuine transformation of hearts and minds with regard to the dignity, worth and just treatment of African Americans.  As King explains,

At best, the riots have produced a little additional antipoverty money allotted by frightened government officials, and a few water-sprinklers to cool the children of the ghettos. It is something like improving the food in the prison while the people remain securely incarcerated behind bars. Nowhere have the riots won any concrete improvement such as have the organized protest demonstrations. When one tries to pin down advocates of violence as to what acts would be effective, the answers are blatantly illogical. Sometimes they talk of overthrowing racist state and local governments and they talk about guerrilla warfare. They fail to see that no internal revolution has ever succeeded in overthrowing a government by violence unless the government had already lost the allegiance and effective control of its armed forces. Anyone in his right mind knows that this will not happen in the United States. In a violent racial situation, the power structure has the local police, the state troopers, the National Guard and, finally, the Army to call on-all of which are predominantly white.

King is aware not only of the inability of violence and hate to create authentic change, but he is likewise cognizant of the way in which the power structures in society were (and in many ways still are) stacked against blacks (e.g. the police and military were “predominantly white”).  King adds,

It is perfectly clear that a violent revolution on the part of American blacks would find no sympathy and support from the white population and very little from the majority of the Negroes themselves. This is no time for romantic illusions and empty philosophical debates about freedom. This is a time for action. What is needed is a strategy for change, a tactical program that will bring the Negro into the mainstream of American life as quickly as possible. So far, this has only been offered by the nonviolent movement. Without recognizing this we will end up with solutions that don’t solve, answers that don’t answer and explanations that don’t explain.

King’s admonitions are wise, demonstrating his knowledge of the complexities involved in attempting to dis-lodge unjust power differentials (what Foucault might call large-scale “asymmetrical power relations”) caused by deeply embedded ways of thinking about blacks and whites.  For King, a man so evidently gripped by Christ’s transforming love and concerned with true reconciliation between blacks and whites, non-violence is

the most potent weapon available to the Negro in his struggle for justice in this country. […] And I say to you, I have also decided to stick to love. For I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love.   I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. And I have seen too much hate. I’ve seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love. And the beautiful thing is that we are moving against wrong when we do it, because John was right, God is love. He who hates does not know God, but he who has love has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.

King was in no way blind to the violent crimes and injustices carried out on a regular basis by whites against blacks.  However, he chose to love, not hate.  His volitional decision to refuse to retaliate in kind, to refuse to be consumed by bitterness, to refuse to hate all or most white people (when he had every reason to do so), is in my view one of the most potent evidences to the reality of Christ at work in this world.  Of course this does not “prove” in some airtight mathematical way that Christ is God; however, it communicates and incarnates the gospel message in a concrete way that causes both Christians and non-Christians to take note.

In the next section, King raises questions about the economic structure of American society.  While explicitly stating that he is not advocating communism, he challenges us to re-evaluate our economic system and the disparity of wealth and poverty it allows.

[O]ne day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

Employing Hegelian dialectical structures of discourse, King stresses that his vision is that of a higher synthesis, a “Kingdom of Brotherhood” [which I’m sure includes “Sisterhood” too].

What I’m saying to you this morning is that Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the Kingdom of Brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of Communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.

Here I believe King’s Christian faith allows him to speak to the heart of the matter regarding these “triple evils,” namely, sin and the need that all human beings have-whatever the color of our skin happens to be-the need to be liberated from our hatred, greed, bitterness, and self-absorption, and liberated to love, generosity, forgiveness and a sense of solidarity and communion with all human beings. For King, Christ alone, who endured hatred and suffered on behalf of all human beings, can bring about this transformation-or as King puts it, paraphrasing Jesus’s words to Nicodemus, “you must be born again,” “[y]our whole structure must be changed.”  No people group should be seen as objects or property to be used, manipulated and consumed for the furthering of those in power.  For, as King expresses in prophetic and kerygmatic tones,

[a] nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will ‘thingify’ them – make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. What I am saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, ‘America, you must be born again!’

The concluding section of King’s speech simply cannot be summarized without losing something of its passion and rhetorical impact.  So read it for yourself, read it out loud, allow the words to live in you, and pray that God will restructure your own (and my own) thinking about race and how we might participate in and live out of the love for which King fought and died.

So, I conclude by saying again today that we have a task and let us go out with a ‘divine’ dissatisfaction.” Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.  Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent sanitary home. Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality, integrated education. Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity. Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character and not on the basis of the color of their skin. Let us be dissatisfied. Let us be dissatisfied until every state capitol houses a governor who will do justly, who will love mercy and who will walk humbly with his God. Let us be dissatisfied until from every city hall, justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Let us be dissatisfied until that day when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. Let us be dissatisfied. And men will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout ‘White Power!’ – when nobody will shout ‘Black Power!’ – but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.

I must confess, my friends, the road ahead will not always be smooth. There will still be rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. There will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted. We may again with tear-drenched eyes have to stand before the bier of some courageous civil-rights worker whose life will be snuffed out by the dastardly acts of bloodthirsty mobs. Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. And as we continue our charted course, we may gain consolation in the words so nobly left by that great black bard who was also a great freedom fighter of yesterday, James Weldon Johnson:

Stony the road we trod,

Bitter the chastening rod

Felt in the days

When hope unborn had died.

Yet with a steady beat,

Have not our weary feet

Come to the place

For which our fathers sighed?

We have come over the way

That with tears hath been watered.

We have come treading our paths

Through the blood of the slaughtered,

Out from the gloomy past,

Till now we stand at last

Where the bright gleam

Of our bright star is cast.

Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. It will give us the courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

Let us realize that William Cullen Bryant is right: ‘Truth crushed to earth will rise again.’ Let us go out realizing that the Bible is right: “Be not deceived, God is not mocked. Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.’ This is our hope for the future, and with this faith we will be able to sing in some not too distant tomorrow with a cosmic past tense, ‘We have overcome, we have overcome, deep in my heart, I did believe we would overcome.’

3 thoughts on “Part II: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Way of Love, Not Hate”

  1. One of King’s most central legacies often lost in holiday remembrances is his stance against global poverty and his encouragement for all Americans to learn about and combat it.

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    Think about the global poverty statistics mentioned therein – comparing those in King’s time – to those in the present and then pass it on! This would certainly be an excellent way at both honoring King’s vision, and opening your own and others’ eyes to the currently still dreadful state of humanity.

    Can you take to heart the words King spoke just 4 days before he was gunned down? That’s what this flyer will ask you. Take the King Challenge – in his own words – and see.

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  2. Sister! Thank you for your wonderful tribute to Dr. King. Dr. King was the consummate African-American leader. That is to say that Dr. King maintained a sustaining eschatology (heaven-orientation) that helped him to guide the African-American community through their “Good Friday” state of existence- “seemingly forever on the cross, perennially crucified, continuously abused and incessantly devalued.” – Cornel West. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think of the position which Dr. King occupies within the larger historical narrative of America in general, and the African-American sub-plot, in particular (It truly has always been considered a SUB-plot in the eyes of the majority culture). He was a leading character in the climax of the drama and he recognized that he stood “on the shoulders of giants.” African-American leaders and intellectuals of the past like W.E.B. Du Bois were able to put their fingers on many of the problems. For example, one such problem was that of “double consciousness,” a phycological sense experienced by African-Americans whereby they possess a national identity, “an American,” within a nation that despises their racial identity, “a Negro,” the ability of African-Americans to see themselves only through the eyes of White Americans and to measure their intelligence, beauty, and sense of self-worth by standards set by others. However, a successful, thoroughly-Christian strategy would not be developed and implemented until the dawn of Dr. King’s leadership.
    His emphasis on anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, and anti-racist thinking and living proved to be a prophetic critique of and challenge to American culture. He was keenly aware of the fact that America was born out of revolutionary revolt and subversive rebellion against British colonialism and imperialism and that although much of white America viewed their country as the promised land, African-Americans viewed this same country as Egypt. With a prophetic, Christian lens, Dr. King was able to show America just how far it had wandered from its own revolutionary past.
    Perhaps the most beautiful feature of Dr. King and his work can be seen in the way that he pursued a particularly Christian, or gospel-centered freedom. Contemporary people see freedom as self-determination without limitations (an illusion), however, Dr. King’s ideas about freedom are profound particularly because they reach above and beyond such shallow conceptions of freedom to grasp the very source of freedom Himself.
    As you said, all Americans can and should celebrate the life of one of our great countrymen as we seek to embody that spirit of love in our peculiar context.

    Grace to you….

  3. Hi Russ,

    I really appreciate and resonate with your comments–I love the Cornel West quote. Thank you for contributing. Though it’s clearly not the same, I think that women–whether black, white, brown, etc.–experience the “double consciousness” of which you spoke (again in a different way), as well regularly being measured and defined by men. One of the things that I found interesting about Malcolm X (the movie) was the way that black women were constantly de-valued and stereo-typed within their own communities (a problem which of course transcends racial and ethnic boundaries).

    If you are interested and have the time, I’d like to invite you to do a guest post highlighting some of the great African American intellectuals, activists, artists and so on (Christian and otherwise) who have been marginalized (both male and female). If this is something that you might have time to do, email me via facebook and we can talk about the details or just give us a call since you have our number. If you don’t have time, I completely understand.

    Again, thanks for taking the time to further this conversation.

    Best wishes,

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