Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement

by Albert J. Raboteau

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Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929, the son of Alberta Williams King and Martin Luther King, Sr., pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. King’s childhood was happy and secure, though all too early he was made aware of the hurts inflicted by racism. Like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, he entered the ministry, and throughout the years of his leadership in the civil rights movement, he remained a preacher, regularly occupying the pulpit for Sunday worship, and drawing upon the black church tradition in which he was formed for both the style and content of the political speeches he delivered at demonstrations and appearances in the public square. Courses in philosophy, ethics, and theology at Morehouse College, Crozer Theological Seminary, and Boston University provided King with the opportunity to develop an intellectual framework for systematic analysis of the relationship between Christianity and society, but the existential base for his commitment to social justice was already established in the tradition of black religious protest exemplified by his father’s and grandfather’s embrace of social gospel activism. Strongly attracted to the intellectual life, King might have combined ministerial and academic careers by choosing job offers at schools in the North, but in 1954 he chose instead to accept the fateful call to pastor Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.   

King’s life was turned from its expected trajectory by an unexpected event: the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, which King neither started nor suggested, but which irrevocably changed him from the successful pastor of a moderately comfortable congregation to the leader of a national movement for racial justice. As spokesman for the boycott, King was overwhelmed by threats against his life and his family. Reaching the end of his endurance, he sat at his kitchen table late one night over a cup of coffee, trying to figure out how to escape his role without appearing a coward.

And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it. I prayed, ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage they will begin to get weak.’ And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ . . . I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. (Barrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 258)

He committed himself to the movement completely despite his growing realization – more certain as the years went by – that it would cost him his life. In King’s view, the struggle for civil rights presented the nation with an unprecedented historical opportunity. “The problem of race and color prejudice remains America’s greatest moral dilemma. When one considers the impact it has on our nation, internally and externally, its resolution might well determine our destiny. History has thrust upon our generation an indescribably important task–to complete a process of democratization which our nation has too long developed too slowly” (Washington, Testimony of Hope, p. 117). But, he warned, the moment could be lost, and if it were, the consequences would be dire. The concept of kairos gave a sense of urgency (“the urgency of now”) to the calls for a national renewal that could only come about through non-violent direct action. King admired Gandhi’s philosophy and life-long practice of nonviolence. Nonviolence was the only method that respected the dignity, indeed the sacredness, of the person. King also lambasted current attitudes and behaviors that debased human freedom and deadened human consciousness, especially the mindless striving after power, status, and wealth–consumerism, which he described as a dangerous collective illusion that effectively reduces persons to objects and relegates interpersonal relationships to manipulation and exploitation. In short, King warned, “we need to move from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.” He based his belief in the value of the human person on our common identity as children of God, made in God’s image and so worthy of respect. “Every man is somebody, because he is a child of God” (Washington, p. 255). And the image of God “is universally shared in equal portions by all.” “Every human being has etched in his personality the indelible stamp of the Creator.” If any person is “treated as anything less than a person of sacred worth, the image of God is abused in him and consequently and proportionately lost by those who inflict this abuse” (Washington, p. 119).

Human relationship then should be ruled by love—love defined not as affection but as “an understanding, redeeming good will for all. “When I speak of love,” King explained, “I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all the great religions have seen as the unifying principle of life.” Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. Thus, not only acts of violence but internal attitudes, such as hate or bitterness, even resentment had to be abandoned because they contradicted the internal logic of personality and the ordering law of the universe.

For King, the interrelatedness of human beings—the hidden wholeness that binds us all together—is the key to understanding and accepting our responsibility for social justice. “Whether we call it an unconscious process, an impersonal Brahman, or a Personal Being of matchless power and infinite love, there is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.” “All life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” (Washington, p. 254).

Belief in our fundamental interrelatedness moved King to take an international perspective on the social problems of his era. He perceived clearly the connection between the struggle for civil rights in America and the independence struggles of colonized peoples around the world. Earlier than most, he pointed out the link between violence at home and violence abroad, as he spoke out against the Vietnam War. Recognition of the interrelatedness of all persons, he claimed, lays upon all people of goodwill the radical obligation of compassion. Beyond barriers of race, nationality, and religion, we must identify ourselves with the poor, the oppressed, and the wretched of the earth. We must become the voice of the voiceless, the face of the faceless, to an unheeding and uncaring society. However, this kind of identification, if it is to be authentic instead of merely sentimental, requires sacrifice and empathy, not just pity. As Archbishop Iakovos stated at the memorial service for the martyred Unitarian minister James Reeb, who was clubbed to death during the protests for African American voting rights in Selma in 1965: “There are times when we must risk everything, including life itself, for those basic American ideals of freedom, justice and equality, without which this land cannot survive. Our hope and prayer, then, is that we may be given strength to let God know by our acts and deeds, and not only by our words, that like the late Reverend James Reeb, we, too, are the espousers and the fighters in a struggle for which we must be prepared to risk our all.”

The struggle to overcome “the giant triplets of racism, excess materialism, and militarism” remains arduous. Kairos time may be helpful if it leads to urgency, but misleading, if used as an excuse for inaction. “The time has passed: the movement is over.” It is not over, unless it is over in our lives. The sacrifices of those exemplars in the civil rights struggle mustn’t lie immured in memory in Civil Rights museums, but recalled to life in the many sacrificial acts, small and large, by which we seek to re-member our sundered communities and in James Baldwin’s memorable phrase, “achieve our country and change the history of the world” (The Fire Next Time, p. 97).

The Civil Rights Movement exemplifies for us the faculty of empathy, nourished through the telling of and listening to each other’s stories. Learning and practicing the habits and virtues of citizenship and democratic process from childhood on. If we hold leaders and each other accountable to their promises and obligations; if we treat opponents not as enemies but as potential allies; if we trust to civil discussion and do not shy away from argument based upon different opinions, values, and religious beliefs that are as important to others as our own are to us; if each listens carefully to each, with respect and forbearance; if we encourage one another in speaking truth to power, no matter the danger; if we keep faith that change is possible, when we work for it no matter how long and hard the odds seem. Then, and only then shall we too “overcome.”

***For King’s life, David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross:Martin Luther King, Jr.and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Washington, ed. A Testament of Hope; and Branch’s three-volume series, America in the King Years are indispensable.

For more on King and Archbishop Iakovos, see Professor Raboteau’s 2006 Orthodoxy in America Lecture.

Albert Raboteau is Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion at Princeton University and author of A Sorrowful Joy: A Spiritual Journey of an African-American Man in Late Twentieth-Century America.