By Joseph Orosco
In Winter of 2014, I taught a seminar on the political philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. The class takes a historical view of King’s work, tracing his thinking from the period of the Montgomery Bus Boycott until his final works dealing with the Vietnam War and the Poor People’s March. I asked students, at the end of the class, to reflect on what they had learned about King as a result of the class and how it compared to what they knew of him from their pre-college education. Here are some of the thoughts they shared with me about the impact of King’s philosophy on their thinking.
This class has taught me that Martin Luther King, Jr. is not only an accomplished activist, but a deeply thought-provoking philosopher. The ideas that he presents across his body of work and the ways that he is able to communicate them through a variety of rhetorical techniques and well-reasoned arguments should make him admirable in the eyes of any aspiring philosopher, and he certainly has a lot to offer the modern world in the way of advice for solving problems. As much as things have changed, it is revelatory how applicable his practices are.
I found it extremely useful to read through his works chronologically, and I am particularly lucky to have been assigned The Ethical Demands for Integration. It has so many ideas presented with solid argumentation and appeals to reasoning and morality within individuals from all cultures and backgrounds. King values the movement toward integration not only as a legal goal as pursuit of rights, but as a moral transformation – if we do not value others, we cannot realize our own selves:
The universe is so structured that things do not quite work out rightly if men are not diligent in their concern for others. The self cannot be the self without other selves. I cannot reach fulfillment without thou. Social psychologists tell us that we cannot truly be persons unless we interact with other persons. All life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny (King 122).
This quote struck me, and I’ve been reflecting on it for months now. Because our actions affect the whole world, not just ourselves or the people we directly interact with, there is a distinct importance in respecting others and influencing the world in as positive a manner as we are able. To do any less is not just an avoidance of moral responsibility, it is a personal deficiency.
What may be most striking to some, and definitely the most important of King’s ideas, is that practices of nonviolence seek to help the oppressors, not to oppose them. King would say that those who oppress others are in fact also oppressing themselves. They are as much caught up in the system as the oppressed individual, and nonviolence will teach this – “he must respect the adversary who inflicts the system upon him” (King 125). In this, there is a moral obligation of their own self-interest for the oppressors to help the oppressed. Even if you are not a religious person, even if you are not invested in the “American Ideals” of freedom and justice, even if you do not consider yourself a decent person, you hurt yourself by hurting others.
It is a somewhat radical position to take that oppression harms the oppressors – after all, they are “above” the oppressed. It also seems apparent that they should be seen as opposition by the oppressed peoples for putting them in such a position, but this is not often the case. If we consider our own circumstances and the people who have made our current positions possible, we recognize that it is only through collaboration and communal effort that we achieve our greatest accomplishments, and our most fulfilling ones. King’s legacy must be to seek that common good – transcending the use violence to achieve our goals by recognizing the worth of all individuals, even the oppressors.
When I came into class, I knew of Dr. King as a figure, one of those illusory historical characters we’re taught about in school before we move on to the next one. I knew his synopsis, I knew his soundbyte. I knew his emphasis on nonviolence, but I didn’t know what it really meant, and I didn’t know how important it is to a social cause. When I came into class, I knew there was something more I should know about King, and I left class knowing it. What it turned out to be was much more than historical knowledge, or really anything I thought I could learn in a classroom. What I learned from King has changed my life.
The first thing I was drawn to about King was the way he spoke in old videos. He seemed to emphasize the right words, and say the right words to touch you, or inspire you to act. When we read his speeches in class, they were given a different quality. This was no longer just a remarkable orator, he was also a philosopher. But he was different than the usual philosopher, because he was a human being first. His philosophies were not abstract, and they never strayed far from the emotional. I learned that King was the most human of any historical figure I’d ever read about. His indiscretions reduced his mythological status, and that only strengthened the bond I had with his words. He was a person, like me. His unwillingness to compromise in his Civil Rights demands were what he was known for, but what really inspired me was the philosophy behind that: his unconditional love of all humans. This spoke to me most vibrantly in his practice of agape, which was the loving of your enemy.
This philosophy took a while to sink in. How can I not hate the guy who steals my bike? How can I not hate the girl who cuts me off in traffic? Then I thought: does hate help anybody? Is hate creative? I realized that love offers incredible benefit, and hate merely offers mental anguish to the one who holds it. I realized that I do not have to like my enemy, as King said, but I owe it to myself to love them. If I disagree with somebody, it is pointless to approach them with hate. Nobody ever responds positively to efforts of hatred. Instead, I must approach with love, I must approach with dignity and respect. I must understand that they are human beings fit with a brain, with a moral compass, and have been shaped by their own experiences. I must understand why they feel a certain way in order to not only try to help them, but also understand myself. It is love that mends and heals, it is hate that destroys and poisons.
I always considered these things, but it took King to help me realize that it wasn’t something I should do, rather, it was something I HAD to do- if not for the people I harbor resentment towards, MYSELF and my own mental well-being. Through this epiphany, I discovered that King’s preaching of agape is his most important humanistic contribution. If everybody practiced agape, I have no doubt we would be living in the utopia King declared the Beloved Community. Luckily, King also taught us of the will to fight tirelessly for what’s moral in the face of evil- and in the modern age, it appears the evil present in King’s time has not disappeared, instead, it has dispersed. Nevertheless, even in our darkest times, we must follow King’s example if we have any desire to turn the potential for love we have within into love that helps medicate our wounded world.
I have spent the past ten weeks studying the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as a result, my understanding of his ideas and values has changed significantly. In our first week, our instructor, Dr. José-Antonio Orosco, asked us to list what we thought we knew about King and his work. Although I felt somewhat knowledgeable about the subject, I could not recall where I learned these things. Moreover, my list about him was quite vague and superficial.
Many weeks later, I now feel as though I have a deeper understanding of King and his work. It would be difficult to make it an exhaustive list of what I have learned, but there are a few things that I would like to mention. For instance, central to King’s philosophy on racial justice is the notion that the United States must become both desegregated and integrated in order to create a “beloved community.” The beloved community is just that: a desegregated and integrated society, wherein all people are treated justly and with dignity. King notes that many individuals historically used the terms “desegregated” and “integrated” interchangeably, but contends that these terms have significantly different meanings. King describes desegregation as the elimination of legal and social codes that deny black people equal access to schools, parks, restaurants, and so on. Contrarily, though admittedly abstract, King suggests that integration requires a creative, inclusive, and genuine attitude toward the process of desegregation. King suggests that desegregation is the physical inclusion of people of all races while integration is the spiritual inclusion of people of all races. This is, of course, a simplification of his work.
Having learned so much more about King, I’ve come to the realization that what I was taught in school and through the media about King was largely a whitewashed version of him and his values. For example, the National Basketball Association (NBA) is a particularly prominent supporter of Black History Month. The NBA runs advertisements celebrating Black History Month with sound bites from players discussing the importance of remembering and celebrating King’s accomplishments. Whether these players draw from their own personal knowledge or reiterate slogans provided by the NBA is unclear. However, the overwhelming message is that these players are thankful for, and celebrate, black Americans like Dr. King who chose to “dream big.” I’m not sure whether to cry or to laugh.
If we are to continue to celebrate King in the future, let us do so with integrity. How radically different would our society be if we taught what King truly preached and not simply that he said he had a dream of a desegregated America? Consider if King’s beliefs regarding the evils of racism, militarism, and materialism were taught in our schools and broadcast widely on television for the next 50 years. Would our society not be significantly different? Students would be taught to strive for the beloved community—a self-conscious, integrated society devoid of racism. The ever-growing military industrial complex would be widely challenged and potentially dismantled. Consumers would more strongly consider the moral implications of the excessive and unnecessary accumulation of resources—especially if other members of our community are living in poverty. This, I believe, is the society that King would want us to live in.
In summation, my studying of King has drastically changed my understanding of his work and his relevance within the United States today. I contend that if we considered teaching King’s work beyond the “I have a dream” sound bite, we may actually take a step toward a less racist, less militarized, and less materialistic society.
Martin Luther King Jr. is revered in today’s America. Every child growing up hears hisname and knows of his greatness. All youth know his name, but not what he truly stood for.They hear “I have a dream” and know it was a magical piece of work, but do not dive any farther than that. I was no different as a youth. I knew of Dr. King, but not of what he truly accomplished. I knew America loved him, but not why. After this course, I know of his work and why he is great. With this knowledge I question if America really loves a man like Dr. King,who stands against America in many ways.
Class has directly affected how I view and understand Dr. King. Previous to learning about King I didn’t think about class as an inequality issue. I thought King worked for inequality, but on the front of racial inequality. I didn’t think that King addressed the issue of class, but I have come to see he has to deal with class. For him to achieve integration, the black people in America would have move up on class. Before the civil rights movement black people in America were of a lower class than white people. For King to achieve racial equality, class equality had to be addressed. It was his dream to create a society where African-Americans and whites lived together. His true goal was integration, to create a ‘beloved community’. King had to fight against class in America to achieve his goal of integration.
If there was one thing to take away from Dr. King it would revolve around a quote out of his famous Letter From Birmingham City Jail, where King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. This is directly relatable to today’s globalized world. King believed that the entire world was interrelated. He preached about the U.S often, but also talked about the rest of the world. He says that “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought.” King believed in not only helping out America but helping out all of the world.
With this attitude he could create his beloved community that he strived for. It also shows why people need to help and fight for other people. If I can’t be my best until my neighbor is their best, it gives me reason to make my neighbor better. King needed society to make this realization. If more had this mindset then his dream of the beloved community could exist. A white man could read this during the civil rights era and realize that he was hurting himself by bringing down the blacks in his community. King had this dream of the beloved community, and this was how King wanted to get there. Society should know this about, people should know and absorb that teaching of his. This teaching should last forever, for people can always put it to use.
In our globalized world these words hold true more than ever. In King’s time it was harder to see how everyone was interrelated. In today’s world it is simple, for technology makes the world seem smaller. These teachings could change the world we live instantly if, more people adopted them.
Dr. King’s work is famous across the globe. He changed the world we live in for the better. If his thoughts are adopted in today’s world, we can change the world as well.
In all honesty I didn’t know what this class was going to be like. I grew up learning that Martin Luther King Junior was an iconic figure of anti-racism. Every time MLK awareness was enforced in grade school, we read parts of the dream speech or learned about how King was assassinated. After a few years it became mundane, regurgitated information. Racism in America, to myself, was easily written off as a thing of the past, integration and desegregation were synonymous, and King’s stance on non-violence was ambiguous and all but entertaining. By the time high school rolled around, I stopped paying attention to it all. I’m ashamed to say that the history of King’s significance was uninteresting to me. I was too uninformed—submerged in white privilege and unaware of King’s economic and political views—to tie anything in my life directly to King’s legacy, except maybe my vague understanding of “integration”. I can remember that my teachers, schools, and the media put such a large emphasis on his death—his martyrdom—and King’s success in his efforts to help abolish racism. I took all of this as truth. It wasn’t until this class that I realized how far from the truth it was. It was never just about desegregation, or stopping the lynching of African Americans in the south. All of these achievements were great (All of which are not only attributed to King, but many other groups and individuals) but they were only the beginning of the battle. I have been awakened to realize the pressing racial issues that are still plaguing our nation today, and how they are directly related economic disparities caused by capitalism. Knowing this, I now respect King more as an intellectual, than as an icon. It’s tragic that his work was cut short, and that his philosophies that would so pertinently apply to systemic oppression today is muted by his martyrdom, and publicly silenced by those whom celebrate his “triumph” over racism.
I believe the most important of King’s philosophies is the fight against the three evils: Materialism, Racism and Militarism. Our nation struggles with all of these on a basic social level, and it is because they are perpetuated at the most fundamental systemic level. When we take a deep look at our economic, political and social structures there are tendencies to perpetuate the three evils in all of them. King believed that the way to abolish such evils is to change the system that they are created in. This system is capitalism. Capitalism fuels militarism in our political system, drives companies and individuals toward materialism, and subcutaneously perpetuates racism on all fronts. The three evils start at the fundamental level and then channel down to the individuals of our society. By the time the three evils reach the bottom, they have become abstract. A single company can exploit their workers, or an individual can commit a grand act of racism, but these problems start at the top. King believed that it is wrong to think we can tackle these problems by “flinging a coin to a beggar”. It is not about addressing individual issues but addressing systemic issues. And to do that, radical change of our economic, political, and social structures is necessary.
This class has humanized Martin Luther King for me. I have always idolized him and looked at King as a person who could do no wrong. There are a few things that we learned about that made me look at him as a flawed human. Although my perspective has changed I think it’s a good thing. One of the things I have learned as I have gotten older and gone through college its that everyone is flawed. Becoming an adult has made me realize that some people don’t always deserve the pedestal we put them on and others are still great individuals despite their flaws.
It was learning about King’s affairs, the view that some women had towards him and his actions in Albany that made me change my perspective. He is not the perfect civil rights leader that he once was. I think his flaws make him a better leader. Here you have someone pointing out the mistakes of our country’s leaders and citizens and according to high school history books is a perfect man and in actuality he is not. I have a new respect for him now because he is a man who has made mistakes and is asking others to correct theirs. I think this is what makes for a great leader and this is what made him the prefect man to stand up to racism. He is able to have forgiveness and understanding because of what he has gone through.
King’s idea that we are all interrelated and we need to create a beloved community I believe are the most important. This idea can be applied to more then just the civil rights movement. We have gotten to a point in our culture where we have forgotten that our actions affect more than just our country and us. Materialism, militarism and discrimination have shown that we think little of the people who are negatively impacted by our actions. We are so quick to consume the latest fads and trends that we forget that our material goods come from somewhere else and that there are people who are being exploited in order to make these things. War has been something that I have never understood, sure we may be fighting to right some supposed wrong but we never stop and think that this may have a negative outcome for someone else.
I think that if everyone were to step back and learn something from King, about beloved community, we might not be so quick to cause harm to others. I agree with the saying “actions speak louder than words.” We all seem to think that this country is the land of the “do-gooders,” where we treat everyone fairly but I think this is extremely untrue. We talk about being just and fair but we continue to harm others in horrible ways. We need to take a lesson from King’s idea of interrelatedness and think about how our daily actions affect those around us.
This class made Martin Luther King a man with dimensions. He will be an individual who accomplished great feats in the front of an oppressive culture that disdained him or didn’t want to be seen helping him. After reading many of his speeches and discussing his history the depth of his convictions and where they stemmed became apparent. From college he was thrown into the turmoil that became the civil rights movement, he was given great weight to bear because he believed in the intrinsic value in every human. Through our discussion we talked about some of the flaws King had which and, instead of diminishing him, it made him more approachable and not seem like some illustrious in the sky surrounded by ambiguity and vague prophetic sayings. His goals became real, too real, because he was a human who suffered through doubt and self-criticism yet still maintained his pursuit for a beloved community. He had a vision that scared people on both sides of the racial dispute yet he was unflinching.
King states, “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” (The Ethical Demands of Integration).
If there is one thing that people should remember about King it is the idea behind, and the implications of, this quote. King had seen the effects of desegregation and how, even though it was a good starting point, it was nowhere near the ending goal. For America to ever stop living it’s constant contradiction of saying it upholds justice above all else and then continually only give justice to the race who have a ‘higher’ value than the others, it needed to be fully integrated. This quote embodies the necessity of this goal. Everything we do is constantly affecting the others around us and, vice-versa, I am constantly being affected by everyone around me. If we do not change into a society that is completely integrated than no single individual will be able to actualize his or her full potential. When any group is being oppressed then every person around them feels it. The act of a single group can be as a cloud that blocks the sun for every person in a society, America is still in this cloud and to let it remain is absurd.
Lastly what people should be aware of is that King’s dream has not yet been realized. There is still a lot of work to be done, for the persistent voice of racism has merely changed its language. It does not yell outrageous racial slurs and commit heinous acts publicly as it once did. Now it plays a larger role, whether it is micro-aggression that one doesn’t even realize they are committing or in a prison system that oppresses people to the point where prison life makes more sense then the margins they are forced to live in once free, it is still here, everyday. The convicted attitude of King must not die with him, to let that happen would be detrimental to everyone, we must remember that, regardless of what believe, we are connected by single garment of destiny and we have a role in how it is weaved.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most well-known, and influential philosophers of the twentieth century. King is the American symbol of progress, hope and change for the African American community. From the moment we enter into grade school, as American children, we hear the wonderful victories that were won from the Civil Rights movement. King was a Civil Rights leader, however his methods to achieve social justice were unprecedented in America. He believed that the only method for the black community to use, if they truly planned to experience liberation from white American domination, was a non-violent approach to justice. This was the only ethically, politically, socially just means to achieve this righteous end. He learned many of his teachings from Gandhi himself, and the tactics that Gandhi used in the India emancipation from England, as a prime example of how the use of non-violence can be used to achieve a just end.
While I was aware in the past about the powerfulness of Kings message, I never was able to fully understand the logic behind his non-violent approach. I could never comprehend how a non-violent revolution was the only just means, in his eyes, to achieving this righteous end. As I will explain in more detail later, King’s concepts such as the beloved community, which is expressed though the Greek word Agape, meaning brotherly-love, has completely changed the way that I view manners of justice. While I might not completely agree with his methodology, his message is clear and undeniably durable. From the expression of these ideals, it is easy to understand how King has become an idol for all of America. To reach King’s beloved community, King argued that “we cannot go with the idea that end justifies the means because the end is preexistent in the means” (45). He believed that the only way to achieve justice was through practicing this non-violent approach. The black community must demonstrate that have the morally superior ground, and that they are not going to participate in this violent system. King believed that by using just means, other members in the community would see explicitly the unjust and brutal treatment that many people of color were subjected too. He did not think that the black community would ever be able to beat the dominant white power structure, so every violent effort would be futile.
For King, every person ought to love the other members of their community with what the Greeks called Agape love. This is not a romantic love, but a love that “is understanding, redemptive, creative good will for all men… it is this whole ethic of love” (47). There is an amazingly powerful force that is created when all the members of the community are viewed with intrinsic value. Agape is the kind of love that God has placed in all of his children. We ought to start to value people for their true worth. Most American’s already hold these as their core values; however, it is time that their actions began to reflect these beliefs. We must expand our moral awareness and become conscience of our actions. Racism is a major obstacle that stands between us, and our country truly living the American Dream. King believes that once the members of the community are expressing this moral worth to each other, we will be able to finally reach the beloved community. In the beloved community, true integration has occurred. Full moral, political and economic value is attributed to all of the citizens and each is liberated from the oppressive force of America. If this is already one of our core values, it is time to express it to all the citizens.
Once a year the country takes a day off to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Though not an old tradition, it is one that has certainly been embraced by our culture. Beyond his holiday, Dr. King is remembered throughout our nation. He has become a symbol within American history of our greatest triumphs, over racism, unjust war, and violence as a means of change.
Yet, there is much more to King’s legacy. Sadly, we have embraced King’s image, but little of his actual message. Much more than a voice against domestic racism, King was outspoken against American militarism, runaway capitalism, and the oppression and marginalization of anyone. He was a champion of nonviolence, a strong antiwar proponent, and an advocate for a responsible American economy. And at the heart of King’s message was a dream of brotherhood, a “beloved community,” based on inalienable human dignity.
Unfortunately, our culture trims King’s message of a community built on unconditional love down to something easy for us to handle. We accept desegregation, but rarely live in integration. Our leaders preach peace, but only in America’s interest. We are told to give charitably, yet buy more. Our culture reduces the message of King to soundbites.
Yet, that one day a year we get a glimpse of the realization of King’s “dream.” Many have transformed MLK’s day each year into a celebration of service to others, of giving of ourselves and our time, and of recognition to our need to work together to better our communities, not just our homes. It is a day on which we live out relationships focused on others. As we volunteer, give, and learn, we create a “beloved community.” Yet, though it is a great celebration of the ideals of Dr. King, there is a problem: it is just one day. The Tuesday after MLK Day each year we return to normal life.
I believe that King would lament what “his day” has become. If the “beloved community” is to become a reality, each day should be lived in service, charity, and justice, not just a Monday in January. His battles are still being fought. Racism, militarism, and materialism still shackle our realization of true democracy under chains fashioned over centuries of oppression. And one day a year is not enough time to loosen our bonds.
What is King’s message to us then? How do we live every day to create a just world? Is the struggle for true democracy, of a people in charge of their own destiny, who embrace their identity, and of a nation defined by justice and peace the heart of King’s legacy? I think these ideals are products of a simpler vision. King’s simple message is to serve others. Democracy, justice, and peace will follow. Once we make the conscious choice to serve our neighbors and treat our enemies with love, we unconsciously become the “beloved community.” King’s vision was grand. Yet living it out can be as small as our own neighborhood, school, or office.
If there is one thing I have learned over the last 10 weeks, it is that Dr. King’s words are very often misused, misquoted, and misinterpreted. That being said I think that the following quote speaks simply, yet it the most important lesson I have learned from Dr. King in my lifetime, and a question at the heart of all of his work, and the work of all who seek to carry on his legacy:
“Life’s most urgent and persistent question is: ‘what are you doing for others?’”
This class has completely changed the way I understand the ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr. For example, before this seminar, I thought the American Dream means that people from all over the world can have the freedom and inviolable human rights to pursue their happiness in the United States. But, in fact, Dr. King made the American Dream bigger. He said, “America is essentially a dream, a dream as yet unfulfilled. It is a dream of a land where men of all races, of all nationalities and of all creeds can live together as brothers.” He also envisioned that one day sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. But how did he make his American Dream possible? His answer is nonviolent resistance. He claimed that the nonviolent resister seeks to attack the evil system immediately and to win the oppressor’s friendship and understanding rather than to humiliate or defeat them. In a nutshell, the American Dream from Dr. King’s perspective is to achieve reconciliation and to create a beloved community in the United States.
Another example is about peace. Before taking this course, I thought that peace means freedom from disturbance, tension, violence and war. But, from Dr. King’s point of view, it is a negative peace and such a peace lacks some positive force. He said that black people were forced patiently to submit to insult, injustice and exploitation in a negative peace in the United States for a long time. So, Dr. King proposed that America should seek to develop positive peace which is not merely the absence of tension, confusion or war but is the presence of justice, goodwill, sisterhood and brotherhood. I think Dr. King’s distinction between negative peace and positive peace can make us more aware of that injustice may exist in a peaceful society.
Among many Dr. King’s ideas, the most important one, I think, is compassion. First, from his point of view, compassion is not merely a strong feeling of sympathy and sadness for the suffering or bad luck of others and a desire to help them. He thought that this kind of compassion is haphazard and superficial. True compassion for him is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that beggars are produced by our societies which need restructuring. I think what we can learn from Dr. King here is that we should use our compassion to realize that many social problems result from our social structure and then change the structure. Flinging a coin to a beggar does not really solve the problem.
Moreover, compassion also plays a significant role in Dr. King’s nonviolent resistance. He claimed that it can help us to see the oppressor’s point of view, to hear their questions, to know their assessment of ourselves. The reason why Dr. King emphasized the importance of compassion is to tell the nonviolent resister that their aim is to attack the evil system rather than individuals who happen to be caught up in the system. In other words, compassion can help us to realize that the oppressor is merely created by our social structure. And after figuring this out, we will be willing to stop violence against them. Today, I think, when we start a social movement, we ought to practice Dr. King’s compassion. It is because what we really want is to make constructive social change and have a beloved community rather than to defeat the opponent.