Overcoming Hatred: The Continued Relevance of Martin Luther King Jr.

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How is hatred to be overcome? An age-old question, it remains perhaps the most pressing problem in the world today. Hatred has many attractions. Foment­ing hatred is often a pathway to power. Hatred forges people together against a common enemy and releases strong emotions: anger, revenge, superior­ity, and contempt. An ugly emotion, it is also an addictive one. It encourages cruelty on every level from individual slights to genocidal assaults. It spurs moral as well as physical cruelty, humil­iating and stigmatizing victims, denying their perspectives, their worthiness, even their full humanity.

One simple response to the prob­lem of hatred would be to deny it any quarter or hiding place, beginning with defining all expressions of hatred as hate speech and to proscribe them. And certainly many regimes have forbid­den expressions of hatred. In fact, they have radically curtailed free speech in the name of preserving peace and security—especially the speech of their detractors. Far more democratic think­ers have endeavored to develop concep­tions of hate speech that are compatible with the means and ends of democratic life. But the task of reconciling the values of open expression and mutual respect remain delicate and vexed.

A second response to the problem of hatred would be to hold its propo­nents morally accountable—even when they may not be legally accountable—for expressions of bigotry and abuse. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum, summarizing a variety of research in the social sciences, observed in her book Not for Profit, “people behave badly when they are not held personal­ly accountable. People act much worse under shelter of anonymity, as parts of a faceless mass, than they do when they are watched and made accountable as individuals.” They further behave badly when no one “raises a critical voice.” And they do so “when the human beings over whom they have power are dehu­manized and de-individualized.” Those who seek to overcome hatred can profit from these lessons.

A third response would be to rec­ognize that hatred resides in all of us, not just our opponents and detrac­tors, whom we may easily dehuman­ize in turn. Recognizing the aggressive, oppressive tendencies in others must be accompanied by recognizing similar tendencies in ourselves. In doing so, we not only avoid hypocrisy but are also far more likely to attain the moral, psycho­logical, and political balance necessary to social justice.

Within such a framework, we might profitably reconsider the historic strug­gle of Martin Luther King Jr. and those with whom he joined in the struggle for civil rights for African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. King has suffered the fate of many American heroes. He has been elevated to a kind of secular saint­hood (despite his sincere insistence that he was in no sense a saint), and his deeply human struggles converted to empty pieties. Yet, nearly a half century after his death in 1968, he still has much to teach us, not only about entrenched racism, economic inequality, exploi­tation, and militarism, but also about the nature of hatred, the intense moral courage needed to combat it, and the power of love.

King’s answer to the forces of hatred was nonviolent resistance in the pursuit of what he called the “beloved community.” Extolling the teachings of the Christian Gospels and the pow­erful example of Mohandas K. Gandhi, he never claimed any originality for his thoughts on these matters, and he free­ly borrowed language from others. Yet he spoke with remarkable consistency about the best means to achieve jus­tice, freedom, reconciliation, and full human dignity, and he did so during an especially turbulent time, from the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boy­cott through the momentous passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965 to the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign.

Even though King reiterated his message on numerous occasions, often using many of the same phrases and passages, there is no one speech or essay that contains it all, and numerous that proclaim its essence. That said, one of the best expressions of his position remains his essay “Nonviolence and Racial Justice,” published in Febru­ary 1957, shortly after federal courts declared racial segregation of Mont­gomery buses unconstitutional. Here, King insisted that nonviolent direct resistance was not a meek surrender but a spiritually strenuous confronta­tion of injustice and oppression. In this process, however, protesters aimed not “to defeat or humiliate their opponents, but to win their friendship and under­standing.” As King tirelessly insisted, “The end is redemption and reconcili­ation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.” In placing the principle of love at the center of nonviolence, King sought to reverse the familiar cycle of mutual enmity and bitterness. In speaking of love in this fashion, King was quick to add, he did not mean a sentimental love or personal affection. Rather, he extolled love in the spirit of mutual understanding and redemptive good will. He fervently rejected any notion that the struggle against hatred and oppression was a zero sum game in which every winner presumed a los­er. Instead, the sort of protest that he championed represented a victory for everyone. As he declared in another address in December 1956, the power of such spiritually militant action could “transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age.” Such love could “bring about miracles in the hearts” of all. As a fer­vent Christian, King believed that such efforts would be assisted by divine ones, for God was on the side of justice. King frequently quoted and paraphrased the prophet Amos, saying, “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” The Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, created by acclaimed sculptor Maya Lin, bears this inscription.

These were hard principles to live up to, and King’s own faith in them was severely tested. In January 1956, while he was speaking to followers in the Montgomery bus boycott, a bomb exploded at his home. His wife, sleep­ing baby daughter, and a visitor escaped injury. As King rushed to the scene, so too did hundreds of neighbors and sup­porters, armed with knives, handguns, hunting rifles, and makeshift weapons, and ready to do battle with local seg­regationist authorities. His voice rising amid the rubble, King calmed the angry throng: “He who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. Love them and let them know you love them. . . . For what we are doing is right. What we are doing is just. And God is with us.” A year later, after a demented woman stabbed him in the chest, nar­rowly missing his heart, King sought healing for her rather than punishment. In doing so, he renewed his vow that, however violently others treated him, he would never inflict violence in return.

The principles of nonviolent con­frontation that King eloquently and passionately embraced were advanced along a variety of fronts, led by a diverse array of individuals and organizations. They were often defended, at times even by King himself, as a necessary political strategy as much as a tran­scendent spiritual conviction. Yet even as the Civil Rights Movement crested in the mid 1960s, proponents of Black Power and black nationalism demand­ed more aggressive action. Malcolm X, in particular, repeatedly mocked King as a meek accommodationist, contrast­ing the preacher’s nonviolent pursuit of racial integration with his own fierce demands for the black people’s just due “by any means necessary.” Trash-talking in streetwise fashion, Malcolm delighted in calling King a racial “trai­tor,” a “fool,” a modern “Uncle Tom,” and “Reverend Dr. Chickenwing.”

Indeed, King’s own adherence to his creed would be tested to the last days of his life. Coming to Memphis, Tennessee, in March 1968 to support a wildcat strike by exploited black sanita­tion workers, he was derided by a black militant group, the Invaders, as “Uncle Chickenwing.” Taunting his vision of racial harmony, “tell us about your dream,” they turned a peaceful protest march that he was leading into a riot, in which sixty-two people were wounded and a sixteen-year-old boy shot dead.

It was at this moment that King experienced a dark night of a soul, a momentary wavering of his faith. Per­haps, he wondered, “we just have to admit that the day of violence is here,” and that he should let it run its course. Still, he did not give in to such discour­agement. He returned to Memphis, determined to lead a peaceful and suc­cessful march. On the night of April 3, 1968, amid driving rain and crash­ing peals of thunder, he addressed a rapt assembly at Mason Temple. As on previous occasions, he spoke of his near fatal stabbing a decade earlier and of the many threats on his life. He also spoke of the rising tide of justice among oppressed peoples throughout the world. The “difficult days ahead” did not bother him, he said, his voice trembling with emotion as his listeners clapped and shouted encouragement, “Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. . . . And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. . . . I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

It was, of course, his last speech. The next day, while standing on the bal­cony outside his motel room in Mem­phis, he was shot and instantly killed. The speech facilitated King’s secular canonization, and it also made it easier to write an end to the civil rights revolu­tion and ignore his broader message by focusing on his martyrdom. Nonethe­less, for King, the American civil rights revolution remained incomplete, and it was, in turn, part of a broader revolu­tion, a worldwide campaign for social justice, economic equity, and human dignity. He identified hatred in all of its guises as a major obstacle in this strug­gle. The challenges of this revolution on behalf of human freedom and dig­nity and the clarity of his moral vision remain crucially relevant today.

Martin Luther King Jr. Speaks of the Beloved Community

There are certain things we can say about this method that seeks justice without violence. It does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding. I think that this is one of the points, one of the basic points, one of the basic distinguishing points between violence and non-violence. The ultimate end of violence is to defeat the opponent. The ultimate end of non-violence is to win the friendship of the opponent. It is necessary to boycott sometimes but the non-violent resister realized that boycott is never an end within itself, but merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor; that the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption. And so the aftermath of violence is bitterness; the aftermath of non-violence is the creation of the beloved community; the aftermath of non-violence is redemption and reconciliation. This is a method that seeks to transform and to redeem, and win the friendship of the opponent, and make it possible for men to live together as brothers in a community, and not continually live with bitterness and friction.

from “Justice Without Violence,” April 1957

Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method which you suggest is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that. Yes, love—which means understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill, even for one’s enemies—is the solution to the race problem.

from “Advice for Living,” Ebony, November 1957

I left India more convinced than ever before that nonviolent resistance was the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom. It was a marvelous thing to see the amazing results of a nonviolent campaign. India won her independence, but without violence on the part of Indians. The aftermath of hatred and bitterness that usually follows a violent campaign was found nowhere in India. The way of acquiescence leads to moral and spiritual suicide. The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But the way of nonviolence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community.

from Autobiography, Chapter 13, RE: March 1959

There is another element that must be present in our struggle that then makes our resistance and nonviolence truly meaningful. That element is reconciliation. Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.

from speech, April 1960

I do not think of political power as an end. Neither do I think of economic power as an end. They are ingredients in the objective that we seek in life. And I think that end or that objective is a truly brotherly society, the creation of the beloved community.

from Christian Century, July 1966

John F. Kasson is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of numerous books and articles focusing on historical aspects of American culture, including Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century America.

 

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Insights on Law and Society is edited by Tiffany Middleton. She can be reached at tiffany.middleton@americanbar.org.