Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was a reverend and scholar committed to social justice and nonviolent action, viewing love itself as a potent social force. King wrote six books and numerous articles on the subject, stressing the rational and moral necessity of “Love in Action.” The most influential leader of civil rights in this country lived by, and led with, an ethic of love that went beyond his religious upbringing or pastoral career.
King’s perspective on love and nonviolent resistance resulted from a long intellectual journey that involved deep contemplation of some of the most notable social thinkers — from the “utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, the revolutionary methods of Marx and Lenin, the social contracts theory of Hobbes, the ‘back to nature’ optimism of Rousseau, and the superman philosophy of Nietzsche.” As he writes about these thinkers in his book Stride Toward Freedom (1958), King explains that the intellectual and moral satisfaction he failed to gain from their writings could be found in the nonviolent resistance philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi.
Gandhi’s philosophy was based on the concept of “Satyagraha.” Satya is a Sanskrit word that equates truth and love, and agraha suggests insistence or force. Satyagraha is a social force that originates in truth and love, and is an instrument for collective transformation. It is a philosophy based on the principle that the means to achieve ends are one and the same, completely inseparable. An unjust approach to justice cannot result in justice. Violent means cannot achieve peace. Acting out of selfishness cannot result in social good. Based in Satyagraha, Gandhi facilitated a profoundly influential philosophy and method of social reform that successfully challenged the British Empire and won freedom for India.
Martin Luther King, Jr. found Gandhi’s philosophy to be the “only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.” He used the concept of satyagraha when developing his own perspectives on nonviolent resistance in the United States. Some viewed the nonviolent approach to be overly compliant or passive. But King believed as Gandhi did–that by unveiling elements of injustice and legitimate discontent and also recognizing the ties that connect people together, nonviolent resistance can function as a strong social force to raise consciousness and impel social change.
Martin Luther King, Jr. utilized the principle of Satyagraha throughout his writings and speeches, including the famous “I have a dream” speech delivered from the Lincoln Memorial on August 28th, 1963 during the March on Washington. In the first part of “I have a dream,” King identifies the appalling social conditions in which the “manacles of segregation” and the “chains of discrimination” continue to create poverty and injustice for a segment of the population that is refused opportunity and is left to “[languish] in the corners of American society.”
“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. This note was a promise that all…would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.”
After shining a light on injustice, King stresses the need for urgent, unequivocal and sustained action:
“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy…to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice… to open the doors of opportunity to all…to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”
“And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back.”
King emphasizes that resistance requires an offensive approach in which forward thinking individuals seek out opportunities to identify and reveal key elements of social problems as well as connect with others in solidarity for social change. Likewise, loving instigators for social justice set clear goals about what would, or would not, constitute a satisfactory result.
“We can never be satisfied as long as…the Negro is the victim of unspeakable horrors of police brutality…our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities…the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one…a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.”
“No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
King’s approach to nonviolence does not call on people to suffer injustice or accept unsatisfactory conditions, but it does offer a vision of unity and peace. Nonviolent resistance based in love requires dislodging complacency, reaching out to others to find common ground, recognizing that ends and means are inextricably linked, and visioning the world changed and taking actions to facilitate that result.
In the second half of the speech King paints a portrait of a better future that inhabits equality, justice, integration, and racial harmony. Drawing upon the Bible and key elements of the American dream, King speaks across audiences to draw them together. The words “I have a dream” are repeated in multiple stanzas to invigorate hope and a commitment to the urgent and meaningful action he specifies in the first part of the speech.
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.”
“that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
“that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”
“that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
“that…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.”
“that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
“This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
Even as King reveals discontent and dissatisfaction with the status quo he also elevates the audience toward dignity, discipline, solidarity, and spirit.
“We must…conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence…we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
With an ethic of love in action, Martin Luther King, Jr. promoted truth, human dignity, and an enthusiasm for social betterment as the basis of sustainable social reform. Recognizing the ends and means together, King saw the value and necessity of refusing to be satisfied with suboptimal, and at times egregious, social conditions. Dr. King also recognized the vital role of social scientists in studying the mechanisms of injustice and engaging in its alleviation. As we continue to work toward a just society, King’s legacy of love in action offers clear insight into the potency of love as a catalyst for social change.
This article was published on Psychology Today on January 20, 2013. Another version of this article was published on Pink Ribbon Blues last year.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia. His father was the pastor of one of the two most prestigious black churches in the city, and his maternal grandfather was second pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church.
King skipped ninth and twelfth grades, and, after receiving high scores on the college entrance exams, entered Morehouse College at the young age of fifteen. He graduated with a B.A. in sociology in 1948 and went on to study theology, first at the Crozer Theological School in Pennsylvania and then at Boston University where he received his Ph.D. in 1955.
It was in Boston that King met Coretta Scott who had been enrolled in the New England Conservatory to study music. They were married in 1953 and later had four children. In addition to her role in the civil rights movement, Coretta Scott King was active in the peace movement.
In 1954, King, Jr. became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where he and his family resided until 1959 when he left to direct the activities of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta. From 1960 until his death in 1968, King, Jr. was co-pastor with his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Dr. King was a pivotal figure in the Civil Rights movement. Following the events of 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to step to the back of a bus, King was elected President of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which organized the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott.
King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 and served as president of the organization for eleven years. Jailed numerous times on racial issues, King maintained that peaceful resistance was the only viable strategy for social justice. King’s words – “I have a dream” – echo nearly fifty years after they were first spoken at the March on Washington in 1963.
Martin Luther King, Jr. received many awards for his leadership in the civil rights movement, including, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
Following the peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed The Voting Rights Act which outlawed discriminatory practices such requiring otherwise qualified voters to pass literacy tests in order to register to vote.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered on April 4th, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee while organizing a protest against the low wages and intolerable working conditions of sanitation workers.
For more information on Martin Luther King, Jr. visit The King Center.