My reply was this:
"Martin Luther King was the unquestioned leader of the American Civil Rights movement during our period of transition from racial segregation to integration. As a Christian minister, he taught non-violence, and his leadership steered us safely through the changes without the kind of catastrophic violence we might have had otherwise. He was willing to risk his life for this cause, and his life was taken because of it. He is a true hero to everyone who loves justice."
I didn't appreciate him at the time, during his ministry. I was a know-it-all young white man from a segregated high school in Florida, and I thought he was a dangerous trouble-maker and probably a Communist. Only later did I realize how very important he had been, and how much we all owed to him for leading us safely through those perilous times, which could have turned into a disaster, but did not. And only recently have I come to discern the Holy Spirit shining within him, leading him every step of his way, even unto death.
Because he was so important to the struggle for racial integration in the United States, it is easy to label him simply as a "mid-twentieth-century American integrationist." But this vastly understates his full importance as a brilliant social thinker for all people, now and in the future. The racial situation in the USA in the 1950's and 1960's provided the setting for King himself to function and succeed then and there. But His ideas are enduring and transferable to us. They are valuable today in many different settings, and they can be used by many different people. They are not at all limited to black people in the United States in the mid twentieth century.
So how can we grasp the main ideas of Martin Luther King? And how can we begin to apply these ideas to the problems facing us and all people in the world today?
For me, the best place to start is by reading (and maybe memorizing) his "Letter From The Birmingham City Jail." This letter was written by King alone, over a period of a few days, apparently without notes, while he was held prisoner in the Birmingham City Jail on charges related to his activities in organizing an economic boycott in support of racial desegregation. A prestigious group of mainstream religious leaders had published a severe criticism of him and his methods, and King was highly motivated to respond.
This powerful combination of emotional circumstances seems to have lit a creative fire in King, and a wonderful outpouring of perfectly-expressed ideas was the excellent result: "Letter From The Birmingham City Jail." In this letter he outlines twelve of his most important concepts, and he summarizes each of them in a few well-chosen words.
1. THE INTER-CONNECTION OF ALL PEOPLE - "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."
2. A GENERAL METHOD OF ACTION FOR NONVIOLENT SOCIAL CHANGE - "In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: (1) Collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive; (2) Negotiation; (3) Self-purification; and (4) Direct action."
3. THE CREATIVE TENSION OF DIRECT ACTION - "But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word tension. I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth." "Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with." " . . . the purpose of the direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation."
4. THE RIGHT TIME TO DO GOOD - "We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right." "Frankly I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was "well timed . . ."
5. THE GRANTING OF FREEDOM - "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."
6. THE PURPOSE OF LAW AND ORDER - " . . . law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, and that when they fail to do this they become dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress."
7. JUST AND UNJUST LAWS - " . . . there are two types of laws: There are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that 'An unjust law is no law at all.' "
8. SOMETIMES WAITING MAKES THINGS WORSE - "It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively." "We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation."