A few years ago, one of my co-workers (from another country) asked me this question: "What did Martin Luther King actually do to deserve a holiday in his name?"
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 presents 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."
9. MODERATION AND LUKEWARM ACCEPTANCE - "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."
10. EXTREMISM FOR LOVE - "Was not Jesus an extremist in love? 'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.' Was not Amos an extremist for justice -- 'Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.' Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ -- 'I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.' Was not Martin Luther an extremist -- 'Here I stand; I can do none other so help me God.' Was not John Bunyan an extremist -- 'I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.' Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist -- 'This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.' Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist -- 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice -- or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?"
11. ACTS WHICH MAY PRECIPITATE VIOLENCE - "In your statement you asserted that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But can this assertion be logically made? Isn't this like condemning the robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn't this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical delvings precipitated the misguided popular mind to make him drink the hemlock? Isn't this like condemning Jesus because His unique God consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to His will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see, as federal courts have consistently affirmed, that it is immoral to urge an individual to withdraw his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest precipitates violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber."
12. THE HEROISM OF NONVIOLENCE - "One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, and thus carrying our whole nation back to great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence."
An HTML page with the complete text of the letter and its history is located at http://www.loveallpeople.org/letterfromthebirminghamcityjail.html This is the original Public Domain version of the letter, published as he actually released it at the time, not the later edited version with copyright claimed by the King estate.
An ASCII unformatted text version of the letter, Public Domain, is located at http://www.patriot.net/users/bmcgin/birminghamjail.txt
A HUGE MP3 file, also in the Public Domain, with 19.4 megs of data and a forty-six minute playing time, is located at http://www.text-to-speech.org/birminghamjail.mp3.
Blessings to you. May God help us all.