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The life and death of a 'king'

By Noel Preston - posted Thursday, 19 April 2018

There are accolades and honours aplenty bestowed on Martin Luther King Jr, the Negro Baptist preacher. Chief among these "gongs" was the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 "for combating racial inequality through non-violent resistance". In 1986 President Reagan declared Martin Luther King Day a National Holiday observed each year around King's birthday (the 3rd Monday of the month). Posthumously, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and, with his widow, Coretta, the Congressional Gold Medal. As well as a special centre/museum in Atlanta, there are many, many other awards including street names and monuments dedicated as memorials.

For me, the most noteworthy tribute is the bust which stands high above the main entrance to Westminster Abbey as one of ten twentieth century Christian martyrs.

The passage of laws (the Civil Rights Act 1964 and the Voting Rights Act 1965), which ended official segregation and gave new rights to the descendants of slaves, is the most evident of achievements by the movement King led. Millions who hitherto lived in inferiority and subservience are now empowered. No longer "Negroes" - as their oppressors named them, and as King himself used this term - they are now "Afro-Americans". And an Afro-American has become President. Without King there would be no Obama.


Throughout his public life King insisted that non-violent direct action, and with it, non-cooperation with evil is the moral way to bring about change. Fifty years on, it is time to assess this strategy. But was it just a strategy? King would deny this. For King, this was the way to build "the beloved community", inclusive of white and black, which was his goal. This "dream" was primarily informed by the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and prophets of the Old Testament. In particular King had studied and adopted the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi and its modus operandi of non-violent resistance employed in the movement to liberate India from the British Raj.

In 1963 King published a book of sermons titled "Strength to Love". As a young preacher myself I regularly turned to it in my sermon preparation. More than once I used the following quotation from a sermon King named "Loving your enemies". Its eloquence expresses the heart of his philosophy of non-violent action.

To our most bitter opponents we say: 'We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because non-co-operation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is co-operation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.

Beyond its oratory this is an unqualified statement of his core belief. However, after 12 years of a non-violent campaign, doubts were being generated about the efficacy of non-violence for the movement against racism, war and poverty. There were activist critics who made it clear they saw King's movement as too soft and unable to bring about the revolution that was needed if racism were to be overcome at all levels in the USA. Indeed, it could even be argued that the political gains of the movement only came about because hard headed calculating politicians saw that King's way was a more politically acceptable alternative to the militant pathways of Black Panthers, Carmichael and Malcolm X. They concluded the most pragmatic way forward was to listen to King and accept his agenda to end racial discrimination. However, in confronting the issues of Peace and Poverty, as well as the racial divide, it may not be so clear that a Ghandi style, non-violent action would be the only way forward. An openness to multiple strategies, including inevitable violence, was being espoused across the movement for social change. King and his colleagues were being confronted with an argument for pragmatism over the idealism so apparent in his 1963 sermon on "Loving your enemies". Was the next stage of his public leadership for him to remain an idealistic prophet relying on moral persuasion alone or should he become a politician ready to sanction strategies of material coercion? His untimely death prevented us seeing the resolution of this tension, though that death itself was, in a way, a resolution.

I wonder whether Martin dusted off his copy of Professor Reinhold Niebuhr's 1932 book, "Moral Man and Immoral Society". Niebuhr was the renowned American Christian political ethicist of the mid-twentieth century. King was on the record as claiming Niebuhr was one of his mentors. So he was well aware of Niebuhr's early (1932) challenge to an idealistic and absolutist Christian ethic approach to politics. No doubt King had encountered, in "Moral Man and Immoral Society" Niebuhr's reference to the Ghandian philosophy/strategy. In it, Niebuhr passingly acknowledges that a Gandhi style non-violent activism may be an ethically suitable approach for America's racial minority to challenge segregation. That said, Niebuhr has much to say that implies there is little place for absolutist idealism in dealing with political issues. He affirms that "violence and revolution are not intrinsically immoral" and that, despite the "advantages of non-violent methods, they must be pragmatically considered in the light of circumstances".

Apparently, Niebuhr and King never engaged directly on this question. King certainly was strategic in calculating ways and means for his pacifist campaigning. To that extent he shares Niebuhr's contextualism in ethics. Niebuhr mostly stood in the shoes of the politician in his texts and teaching. In the end, King rejected that possibility and remained a twentieth century, martyred prophet who never renounced his absolute commitment to non-violence.


The question we are left with, in the case of King, is: Is his dream an illusion?

It is evident that King's dream remains unfulfilled in the USA and across the planet. Specifically, in my country, Australia, there are unresolved civil rights and social justice issues, including our failure to recognise First Australians constitutionally. Beneath the surface of our society, racism still lurks. Australia's recent treatment of asylum seekers, and the electoral support for it, is, in part, racist.

The America of King's grandchildren is still a racist society. Consider one statistic: by the early 21st century there were more black men in prison than in college. In North and South of the USA the crusade must still be waged that "black lives matter". America is still a nation built on violence and militarism. The corrosive addictions of American capitalism and militarism still destroy many lives – and the world still operates out of fear, division and greed.

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This is an edited extract from a lecture to be delivered by Noel Preston at St Matthew's Anglican Church Holland Park on Monday, April 23, 2018 at 7:00 pm. If you are interested in attending please contact Rev Allan Paulsen

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About the Author

Dr Noel Preston is Adjunct Professor in the Griffith University Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance. He is the author of Understanding Ethics (20O1, Federation Press, Sydney), and several texts on public sector ethics. His web page can be found here.

Noel Preston’s recent book is Beyond the Boundary: a memoir exploring ethics, politics and spirituality (Zeus Publications).

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