learning more about MLK Jr.
In March, we enjoyed our second visit to the Martin Luther King Jr. national historical site in Atlanta. The boys were old enough to appreciate it this time. The primary museum is excellent; the secondary museum is helpful; and the historical parts of the site are a nice complement to the entire experience. We heartily recommend a 3-4 hour visit there!
When we were in the gift shop, I picked up a book of "essential works of [MLK] for students" entitled A Time to Break Silence. I aspire to always be a student, so it seemed like an appropriate book for me and, hopefully, the boys. The book includes 18 essays/sermons/speeches, including his most famous. I had read those before, but it was good to read them again-- and great to read some of his other works.
A few thoughts/reflections...
Let me open with a number of cool points from Walter Dean Myers who edited the volume and wrote its introduction. First, Myers describes MLK in "Daniel 1" terms. When King was leading the protests in Montgomery, he didn't compromise or merely protest, but offered viable, face-saving alternatives to the oppressors: first come/serve seating on buses (with blacks continuing to board from the rear of the bus); courtesy from drivers; and some black bus drivers to be hired (p. xiii).
Second, Myers highlights the role of television in making the protests far more effective-- and King imagining this impact, prophetically (xv). We often hear about the impact of TV on the Kennedy/Nixon debates. And I had thought about TV's impact on the public's perception of the Vietnam War (vs. earlier wars). But I hadn't thought through its contribution to the civil rights efforts on the ground.
And two smaller things: I did not know that Montgomery had banned the NAACP, only to have the MIA (Montgomery Improvement Association) arise in its place (xi)! And I did not know that a white Methodist minister had courageously put his girl in school with Ruby Bridges (xvii), helping to move the ball down the field.
Now to MLK Jr....
The book includes a number of his sermons. They were well-constructed and orthodox in their hermeneutics, theology and application.
In particular, he referred to the "power" of love many times: from the "strength" required to love-- to the power of non-violent resistance in love (15, 21, 72, 118). In this, I was reminded again of the remarkable references in Ephesians 3 by Paul-- exhorting them to have the power (Gr. dunamis; the term we use for dynamite) to grasp the love of God. King notes that "love" does not mean "like" (21). He applauds Gandhi touching untouchables, by comparing it to the power of love it would have required for Eisenhower to take Ruby Bridges by the hand to lead her into Central High School in Little Rock (72). And on non-violence, he notes "the extraordinary willingness to fill the jails as if they were honors classes and the boldness to absorb brutality, even to the point of death, and remain nonviolent." (118) What strength; what love!
Along the same lines, he talks about the power of non-violent activism for both the oppressed and the oppressor (48): "When, for decades, you have been able to make a man compromise his manhood by threatening him with a cruel and unjust punishment, and when suddenly he turns upon you and says: 'Punish me. I do not deserve it, I will accept it so that the world will know that I am right and you are wrong,' you hardly know what to do. You feel defeated and secretly ashamed. You know that this man is as good as you are; that from some mysterious source he has found the courage and the conviction to meet physical force with soul force. So it was that, to the Negro, going to jail was no longer a disgrace but a badge of honor." (All that said, for the importance of guns for the Civil Rights movement, check out this essay excerpted from a new book by Charles Cobb, This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible.)
I came into his discussions of Gandhi, wondering if King would water down the Gospel or the Person and Ministry of Christ along the way. I did not find that at all. In a sermon on agape love (7-13), King distinguished between "the Christian doctrine of love" and the "Gandhian method of nonviolence" through which that love operated (7): "Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, while Gandhi furnished the method." (8) He continues by describing the essence of non-violent activism: "it is not for cowards; it does resist"; "it is passive physically but strongly active spiritually"; "it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding"; "the end is redemption and reconciliation"; it is an "attack...directed against forces of evil rather than against persons"; "it is willing to accept violence...but never to inflict it"; "it avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit...refuses to hate". He connects the practice to the redemptive and unearned suffering of Jesus; he connects it to the concept of "disinterested" agape love (I Cor 10:24); it aims to restore creation and community; it is rooted in a faith that God is working on behalf of Justice and Love.
King had three particularly interesting points on "the law". First, laws passed are not equivalent to laws observed; there's theory and there's practice. Seven years after Brown, only 7% of black children in the South were in desegregated schools (120). Second, he talked about obeying just laws and rebelling against unjust laws a la Romans 13 (123ff). Third, King argued for legal approaches to be supplemented, as necessary, by non-violent activism (54). He saw the strategies as both/and rather than either/or.
King's comments about his two sets of opponents reminded me of aspects within both major political parties today: "The subtle, psychological technique of the North has approached in its ugliness and victimization of the Negro the outright terror and open brutality of the South." (46) Of course, today's "North" is causing a lot more damage than today's "South".
And then there were King's other enemies-- the "moderates". King critiques what he sees as their sins of omission (failing to act) and their sins of commission (their critiquing his decision to act). He raises this issue here and again, but most notably in the Letter from Birmingham Jail. "I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's greatest stumbling block is not the [KKK] but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of justice to a positive peace which is the presence of justice." (171) Today one finds similar sentiments from those who want to keep repressive institutions in place-- cynically, to help interest groups and crony capitalists or naively, in the belief that government activism will somehow produce magical outcomes.
I had always heard that King had communist sympathies, but that's obviously not the case as you read these essays. In fact, he roundly critiques communism and defends democracy (17-18)-- on both philosophical and practical grounds. He was probably on the same side as Communists on some issues-- most notably, the Vietnam War. But his opposition to the War was well-reasoned-- again on philosophical and practical grounds (e.g., see: p. 80, 85, 89, 94, 100-102, 106, 110). He also opposed the War because he saw it distracting the country from the War on Poverty, but the numbers do not bear out this concern (81-82, 103).
Finally, some small things:
1.) It was interesting to see King make a point of "more frequently and consistently, brutal acts and crimes by Negroes against Negroes." (4)
2.) King notes the numerical growth of churches in the first half of the 20th Century (34)-- 150 million people as "at least paper members", an increase of 100% since 1929 with only a 31% increase in population. At the same time, he notes that the Christianity was often flaccid and otherwise unimpressive. This fits my general impression that Christianity had an even-heavier cultural component than it does today. There are fewer paper Christians today (as a % of the population), but perhaps a higher percentage of (biblical) Christians and more likely, a higher percentage of disciples and disciple-makers.
3.) King notes the difficulty of forming and maintaining cartels-- and the frequent use of government to bolster those efforts. Blacks arranged for voluntary carpools to do their bus boycott and get around the government's segregation. After 11 months, the mayor introduced a resolution to make those carpools illegal (40). (In his intro, Myers makes a similar point-- that white employers also helped with transport, reducing the power of the attempted cartel [p. xii].)