Why Today’s Activists Should Read Martin Luther King
Español Martin Luther King Jr.’s book, Strength to Love (1963), is a window into the thought processes of one of America’s greatest freedom fighters, often celebrated but rarely understood. Almost 60 years may have passed since the Montgomery Bus Boycott and his heyday, but the personally selected compilation of sermons still has the potential to empower a new generation of followers, and it cuts through the superficial, second-hand accounts of which we are so familiar.
King, who had a PhD in theology from Boston University, reflects on personal experiences, doctrine, and readings from the Bible, Gandhi, and Rauschenbusch. He quotes Bible verses primarily from Paul, the founder of the church, to encourage his congregation and fellow Christians to fight oppression, primarily segregation.
Beyond the New Testament, King is particularly inspired by Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis, to “a serious study of the social and ethical theories of the great philosophers.”
This leads him to the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. And from Gandhi, King expounds the effectiveness of peaceful protest in the resolution of conflicts: “I came to see for the first time that the Christian doctrine of love, operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence, is one of the most potent weapons available to an oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”
Will we continue to march to the drumbeat of conformity and respectability?
In other words, peaceful protest is not to be threatening. Any retaliation against such protest will thus concede the moral high ground, be seen as unjust, and inevitably backfire and boost support for the cause.
King also conveys a deep understanding of the psychology behind each individual’s fears and beliefs, which helps him to see past and forgive acts of violence against the civil-rights movement. Further, when he gave those sermons, he realized that there were many who disagreed with segregation, but remained silent out of fear of rejection from neighbors.
“Many people fear nothing more terrible than to take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinion,” he says. “We must make a choice. Will we continue to march to the drumbeat of conformity and respectability, or will we, listening to the beat of a more distant drum, move to its echoing sounds?”
In appealing to people’s sense of moral righteousness and free will, King remains true to core values of Christian theology: love your neighbor and your enemies, forgiveness, and faith. Correspondingly, he explains how the oppression of others by physical, economic, or social vices is both ethically and morally wrong.
In this vein, he heavily criticizes communism as an evil system, one that takes away human freedom and dignity. Under communist rule, “Man has no inalienable rights. His only rights are derived from, and conferred by, the state. Under such a system, the fountain of freedom runs dry.”
King not only sees oppression as morally wrong; in his eyes, men have a civil duty to push back against it. To make the case, he shares the parable of the Good Samaritan, as one who stands up for what is right. The Samaritan assists a hurt stranger on the side of the road, without concern for his origin — the complete opposite of what is expected.
I could … react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force.
The message is timeless, and implores us to look beyond our assumed kin: “More than ever before, my friends, men of all races and nations are today challenged to be neighborly… No longer can we afford the luxury of passing by on the other side. Such a folly was once called moral failure; today it will lead to universal suicide.”
King tells of being imprisoned and stabbed, along with having his house bombed. Further, on several occasions his opponents threatened his family. But these injustices merely fueled his work.
“As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation — either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.”
As one who both believed in and lived the cause he was fighting for, King led by example — one that stands out to this day. He knew that segregation was a great injustice to all within the United States, and that civil liberties had to be extended to all, rather than a select few.
Even if originally published in 1963, the ideals preserved in Strength to Love speak to anyone who is faced with trying to create a positive change in today’s society. Contemporary civil-rights leaders can learn how to empower and uplift supporters for the cause, and they can draw optimism that positive change is attainable through nonviolent means.
Nicole Phillips is a Jamaican immigrant in South Florida who holds a bachelors degree in public relations and a masters in international and intercultural communication, both from the University of Florida. An avid reader and traveler, she has a passion for international development. Follow @nicksnacks22.
Fergus Hodgson contributed to this article.