MLK: Strength to Love


As the youngest of six brothers it's a common theme for everyone in the family to assume I know something that I was too young to experience. "Of course you know the story about the tennis ball in the tail pipe!" But I didn't, because I hadn't been born, and the story had been told so many times before I was old enough to remember and they all assumed I remembered it. It happens all the time. It's not upsetting. It has taught me to be more inquisitive about established histories - to find my own perspective through inquiry.

This year on January 18 we acknowledge the birth, life and enduring message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The day has always been a part of my national culture but while considering it last week I was struck by the minimal knowledge stored in my brain. I vaguely remember a report in second grade but at that age it couldn't have been more than a fly-over because there was scant personal life experience to understand the gravity of his life. Every American kid is introduced to the holiday, to the basic story, to the focus on non-violence and the sit-ins and the speeches; but many of us haven't taken the time to understand who Dr. King really is. It's really important to find out what something means to you personally through effortful research beyond just accepting the common wisdom, especially for a topic as earnest as MLK.


Dr. King the orator

From the preface of Strength to Love by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

"In these turbulent times of uncertainty the evils of war and of economic and racial injustice threaten the very survival of the human race. Indeed, we live in a day of grave crisis. The sermons in this volume have the present crisis as their background; and they have been selected for this volume because, in one way or another, they deal with the personal and collective problems that the crisis presents."

I remember my dad thinking and talking about the 1960's. He specifically said that he thought our country changed when JFK and MLK were assassinated. He said that his generation of youth had been raised believing their government had their interests at heart and that a fissure from that confidence became clear based on those two events. Speaking for myself it's easy to think of MLK in colorless video proclaiming his dream to 250,000 people from a pulpit on the National Mall above the reflection pool, but that was the climax of his story. I think it's vital to recognize that his influence was born of a time when so much of the population was furious about government leadership and the reluctance to demand equality among citizens. When conditions are awful great leaders rise.

"I have been rather reluctant to have a volume of sermons printed. My misgivings have grown out of the fact that a sermon is not an essay to be read but a discourse to be heard. It should be a convincing appeal to a listening congregation."

This is revealing on two levels. Firstly, it's great to recognize Dr. King and his message evolving over time - from inquisitive young student to grass roots minister to SCLC president and eventually to a worldwide voice of the civil rights movement. He was a minister first and always, speaking articulately and with conviction to his congregation. Secondly, I love thinking about the intensity of spoken discourse. I read the sermons in Strength to Love out loud and tried to practice my voice as a convincing appeal. It's more powerful that way. Maybe it's something you can try with your students. It's not an easy skill to attempt, let alone master.


On altruism

From Chapter 3: On Being a Good Neighbor, Strength to Love by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Referring to the parable of the Good Samaritan Dr. King imparts the edict of "loving thy neighbor as thyself" and the associated question "who is my neighbor?" His answer: "He is 'a certain man' - any needy man - on one of the numerous roads of life." He further describes the Good Smaritan saying "It seems to me this man's goodness may be described in one word - altruism."

Altruism is defined by as the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. The sermon elaborates on universal, dangerous and excessive altruism.

  • Universal altruism - "One of the great tragedies of man's long trek along the highway of history has been the limiting of neighborly concern to tribe, race, class or nation." The Good Samaritan helped someone who needed help without regard to his tribe, race, class or nation.
  • Dangerous altruism - "He risked his life to save a brother." Dr. King asked what we are willing to risk to help someone in need. To truly help someone in need you should be willing to risk your own comforts.
  • Excessive altruism - Here he distinguishes between pity and sympathy. "An expression of pity devoid of genuine sympathy, leads to a new form of paternalism which no self-respecting person can accept" and "true neighborliness requires personal concern." Giving money to a cause is much less effective than sympathetically giving of yourself to the cause.

Later he talks about how federal enforcement of desegregation can't achieve what peoples' willingness to enforce spiritual truth can. "Something must touch the hearts and souls of men so that they will come together" and "true integration will be achieved by true neighbors who are willingly obedient to unenforcable obligations."

In summary, if we want to improve the world and strengthen our spirit we have to be willing to help anyone in need and do so with all of our spirit, taking great risk and caring beyond the prescribed legalities.


The dynamic learner

In hindsight we tend to remember a sanitized legacy of Dr. King, but he was extremely motivated to solve our country's greatest problems through any means possible so long as it excluded violence. This is so important to me. We're addicted to superheroes in this country. Seeking perfection we neglect to notice its impossibility and are eager to label it falsely. It's so very illogical to think of anyone as perfect because a perfect person can't learn anything new from their own mistakes. King didn't have the answers but he was committed to finding them and he experienced a learning journey like everyone should.

From the TIME article "10 Historians on What People Still Don't Know About Martin Luther King Jr.":

"TIME put the question to 10 experts whose recent or forthcoming books touch on the topic: a half-century after his death, what is something that most people still don’t know about Martin Luther King Jr.?"

"It became hard to remember why, or even that, King was the most hated person in America during his lifetime. But the King that we need to remember is the one who keenly understood what he was up against." Gary Dorrien, author of Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel

"One way King felt that equality could be institutionalized was through enforcement powers of the American presidency...The President could link federal funding to racial nondiscrimination requirements, and could also appoint a 'Secretary of Integration,' who King envisioned overseeing such processes across the country." Shayla C. Nunnally, author of Trust in Black America: Race, Discrimination, and Politics

"Many people might imagine that he initiated the campaigns just as a drum major heads a band from the outset of its performance. Actually, King was not a prime mover behind any of the civil rights campaigns between 1956 and 1968 for which he is known, except the first one...In each case he joined campaigns already well under way. Once a campaign was in progress he infused it with his charismatic leadership, oratorical power and nonviolent principle – a legacy of another kind." Joseph Rosenbloom, author of Redemption: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Last 31 Hours

If you're committed to anything, project or cause, the best trait you can have is committment to success. Dr. King tried many strategies and joined many movements when he saw potential to improve our nation, contributing his leadership skills to strengthen momentum. He was much more than the man who delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech. He understood the problems we faced as a nation, he had the courage to attack them and to be hated for it and he kept the motivation to find non-violent solutions.


The futility of revenge

From the TIME article "10 Historians on What People Still Don't Know About Martin Luther King Jr.":

"Many wrongly interpret King’s disagreements with Malcolm X and Black Power advocates as essentially a series of debates about strategy. However, King thought as much about ends as he did about means...Even when the question is about means, this shouldn’t be understood in a narrow cost-benefits sense. King insisted that not all effective means are morally acceptable or praiseworthy. Self-respect, solidarity, sacrifice and fortitude are among the virtues of the oppressed. Despair, bitterness, rage and cynicism are tragic vices." Tommie Shelby, co-editor of To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Of all the concepts from my research into MLK I'm most impressed with his integrity. He understood that achieving equality for all people could only be effective in perpetuity if earned by purest means. What good is it to overcome oppression with revenge? How can we preach respect and practice agression?

This is the most visceral lesson I learned from this exercise. I'm not physically, verbally or spiritually violent but I'm also pretty impatient with those who are. I can be easily frustrated. To me, the most admirable quality exhibited by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many others is their willingness to maintain composure through adversity. I should work on fortitude.


There are many sorts of holidays on our calendar. Valentine's and Halloween are fun and colorful and a bit consumer-driven. President's Day is patriotic but feels like a remnant of our Colonial era. Thanksgiving and Hannakuh focus on family and gratitude. Columbus Day is debatable.

MLK Day aspires to incredibly noble human pursuits. If we strive to be great as a nation this holiday should hold a place in our upper echelons of remembrance and influence. We should celebrate this day more fiercely and purposefully than any other. The holiday and his abiding passions deserve more than remembrance; they deserve ardent action and thoughtful examination.

Here are a few classes related to this topic:

Ike Martinson
Ike is addicted to life in the Pacific Northwest. He enjoys the mountains, the lakes, the food, the people and all the seasons. He is an amateur chef, a commercial pilot and a terrible painter.

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