It was a cold winter night in 1956 in Montgomery, Alabama. Michael had to attend a meeting at a nearby church and left his wife and baby at home. As the meeting was about to end, someone entered the room, telling Michael that his home had been bombed. He hurried home and found that the bomb had exploded on his front porch. He pushed through the crowd of people who had gathered in his home and found his family safe. Outside, an angry crowd was forming and wanted revenge against whoever had done it. Some in the crowd carried broken bottles and guns. As policemen arrived, they were insulted, and tempers continued to escalate. Then and there, Michael stepped onto his porch, and the crowd grew silent. Michael told them that his family was okay, and: “I want you to go home and put down your weapons.” He also told them that “violence would not solve their problems; it would only harm their cause. He reminded them of the teachings of the Bible: “We must meet hate with love.”
Michael King, Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929, the second of three children to Michael King Sr and Alberta King (Williams). In August 1934, King Sr. changed his name to Martin Luther King Sr. and his five-year-old son’s name to Martin Luther King Jr. This change stemmed from a multinational trip that pastor King Sr. took in 1934 for the Congress of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA). He was inspired by sites he visited in Germany associated with the Reformation leader, Martin Luther.
Monday of this week, January 15, marks what would have been the 95th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man whose life was pre-maturely and tragically ended at age thirty-nine. However, his was a life not short on its impact on American culture. His challenges to the status quo in human rights, while controversial, advanced truths and principles central to Judeo-Christian moral precepts and core to the American ideal of individual freedom and liberty under law.
King was ordained as a minister in 1947; he served his first pastorate beginning in 1954 while working on his Ph. D., which he received in 1955. That same year he began his civil rights activism when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, inspired by Rosa Parks. He stated, “First and foremost, we are American citizens….We are not here advocating violence…The only weapon that we have….is the weapon of protest…The great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.” Dr. King firmly believed that “when the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Perhaps King’s most substantive narrative, though, came through his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in April 1963. King was arrested for leading a series of non-violent protests against segregated lunch counters and discriminatory hiring practices in Birmingham, AL. While in jail, he received a letter from eight ministers stating that, while they agreed with his goals, they disagreed with his approach of leading in the demonstrations and challenging the law. Dr. King believed that peaceful civil disobedience was justified if that was what was necessary to bring the issue and debate to the Public Square and political forum. In his words, “…. [this] is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.” “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and enables the man who wields. It is a sword that heals.”
Dr. King’s conviction was rooted in the belief that there are two kinds of laws: just laws and unjust laws. A person has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws, but conversely one has a moral responsibility to challenge unjust laws and work to get them changed or abolished. On what basis is a law just or unjust? King stated, “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God, and an unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” In quoting St. Augustine, King wrote, “An unjust law is no law at all,” and in quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.” He further stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
King understood and confronted the great questions of his time, our time, and for all time in America and everywhere: Is law rooted in truth? Does law originate from an eternal and enduring moral authority? Is law transcendent, immutable, and morally binding? Or, is law a subjective and vacillating human construct or tool to be fabricated and used for political expediency and social engineering to serve the self-interest of those in power at the expense of those whom they are elected to serve? The answers we choose will determine the future of ordered liberty in America because whether America is a nation of laws or a nation of men is at the heart of our current crises on almost all fronts.
Perhaps Martin Luther King Jr.’s greatest legacy was to bring these questions and answers to the forefront of America’s social and political discourse, and especially as an opportunity to discern some of the cultural trends of our day in light of his teachings and principles. While Dr. King’s vision/dream of a color-blind America has not come to fruition, it has made great strides – though with some setbacks along the way. Some of these setbacks have taken forms that unfortunately stoke social divisions and civil unrest by embracing skin color over the content of character and reducing diversity from its reflection of inherent variation in human capabilities, capacities, and potential to simply identity groups often rooted in race and ethnicity. Seeing exclusively through the lens of diversity at the expense of unity and in supplanting genuine equality with an equity of equal outcomes results in a radical discrimination in reverse which is not inclusive but divisive and it nurtures and advances a culture of resentment and a tribal mentality. One form of racism is merely replaced by another. To be anti-racist requires racism, but in the correct form….as the narrative implicitly goes. It is extremely difficult – actually downright impossible – to square this with what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed and stood for.
King opposed all forms of discrimination. In his words, “Discrimination is a hellhound that gnaws at Negroes in every waking moment of their lives to remind them that the lie of their inferiority is accepted as truth in the society dominating them.” As such, King would reject the notion that Black Americans [or any minorities] should be considered strictly in terms of a group rather than as unique individuals created in the image of God, equipped with abilities, gifts, and ambitions to rise above prejudice and circumstances.
This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While King’s influence helped to advance this Act, it takes much more than legislation to bring and sustain long-term change to society. America is a different nation than it was 60 years ago. Religion was a stronger cultural force then and more consequential, I think, mainly because it more typically included a personal relationship with God, which translated to change in behavior and priorities. Martin Luther King was a pastor and as such, spoke the language of the Bible. He understood new legislation without new hearts could go only so far in seeing his dream realized. That is still true today.
Dr. King’s dream is still unfulfilled, but certainly no less worthy in 2024 than it was more than 60 years ago. Perhaps it is more worthy because it is so much more needed in our day. While the national observance celebrating Dr. King’s life comes just once a year, what it reminds us of and what it should inspire us to live is needed 365 days a year and beyond.
By Jeff Olson
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Featured Image: National Mall in Washington, D.C. – MLK gives ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Originally posted to Flickr by the National Park Service. Image licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.