Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Challenge of Idealism

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Better Angels Magazine

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was born January 15th, 1929. He died, still a young man, April 4th, 1968, the victim of an assassin’s bullet. The night that Dr. King died, Americans, particularly African-Americans in urban centers, rioted across America in agony over the injustice of the slaying of Black America’s foremost leader and the premier moral voice of the nation. One place where there was no riot, however—though there might have been—was Indianapolis, Indiana.

Standing on the back of a flatbed truck, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, then a candidate for President, spoke to a crowd of yet unknowing African-Americans anticipating a campaign speech. There was no Twitter at the time. Information still moved slowly enough for Senator Kennedy to have known what the hundreds of people before him had not yet had a chance to learn. Brushing aside warnings that he could not be secured if the crowd tore into violence, “Bobby” made the crushing announcement to those gathered before him. “I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens and people who love peace all over the world. And that is, Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.” The scream that went up from the crowd is chilling to listen to even now. It signaled a hurt that explained the violence that erupted in cities from Chicago to Washington D.C., in the greatest wave of social unrest to sweep America since The Civil War. But peace remained in Indianapolis.

Bobby Kennedy continued:

“Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human-beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are, and what direction we want to move in?

For those of you who are black, considering the evidence evidently is there were white people who were responsible, you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, and greater polarization. Black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. 

Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand compassion and love.”

One might think it ironic that, elsewhere across America, people turned to violence to express their frustration that a great man of peace had been slain. But this reaction is not so difficult to understand. It bespeaks the frustration those who believed in Dr. King’s cause felt, not only with the system of oppression he gallantly challenged, but with the noble and restrained means by which he challenged it. In calling for spiritual and personal discipline, in calling for a refrain not only from violence, but even from an internal attitude of hatred towards the oppressors, the philosophy of nonviolence which King championed removed the primal mechanism by which his followers, like the vast majority of human-beings, cope with extreme anger over injustice— to vehemently express it.

It is therefore easy to imagine that the riots that King’s death sparked were, on some level, expressions of frustration not only with the vicious racism that claimed his life, but also frustration with the peacefulness by which King chose to confront such hate. In the tragic moment of his death, how could King have not seemed naïve to some? How could love truly stand as a weapon against tyranny and violence?

This was the tension gripping those who had to choose between the righteousness of King’s nonviolent philosophy and the ravenous anger that seemed a more plausible, or at least more gratifying, vehicle to be deployed against the evil of state-based racism and domestic terror. But in truth, all people who invest their hope for a better collective future in the tools of idealistic morality must wrestle with this tension, when their opponents employ more destructive kinds of tools.

Given the near universal acclaim granted King’s memory today, one might be surprised to learn of the hostility with which his nonviolent message was received, and not merely by whites who opposed his political aims, but also by black activists who otherwise had common goals. King was booed in Harlem when he traveled there to make peace after the 1964 riots. That year saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the following year saw the passage of the Voting Rights Act, largely a direct consequence of King’s activism. Historic gains to civil rights had been made under King’s leadership, yet the perception of many was that this movement was failing. For some, the idealism of Martin Luther King, Jr. was a philosophy of appeasement for which he ought to have been scorned. In spite of his movement’s victories, as the end of King’s life neared, his nonviolent message was accepted by fewer people.

As Cornel West writes in his essay Hope and Despair: Past and Present[i]:

“Young revolutionaries dismissed and tried to humiliate King—subjecting him to a walkout during his address at the historic New Politics convention in Chicago in 1967 or loud booing and heckling (by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activists) at King’s address at Liberty Baptist Church in Chicago in 1966. Professional opportunism among his colleagues…eclipsed his message of love-driven activism.”

Philosophical ideals of love and brotherhood, compassion and forgiveness, can be uncontroversial so long as they remain in the realm of the theoretical and the rhetorical.

Applied to the living questions of politics, culture and war, however, idealism meets two challenges: the challenge of securing acceptance by those who sympathize with its rightness yet doubt its practicality, and the greater challenge of maintaining acceptance by those who do choose to act upon idealistic principles, only to encounter the hateful disapproval suffered even by those whose cause is love.

John Adams faced the disapproval of his friends and countrymen when he chose to defend, in court, the British soldiers who opened fire on American colonists in The Boston Massacre. Adams’s general sentiments lay with his fellow Bostonians in their resentment of capricious British authority. A propaganda campaign against the British soldiers was launched, meant to rally American opinion against the policies of a British government that Adams would eventually help lead the colonies to war against. Yet Adams’s idealism, his commitment to truth and justice and conscience over popularity, led him to defend these British soldiers in the court and ensure them a fair trial by law, rather than allowing the wayward will of the mob to break down order in the name of freedom.

Adams’s colleague in the Continental Congress, John Dickinson, was forced to withstand the withering criticism of his fellow delegates (including Adams) for his principled opposition to war with Britain. For this, many doubted his patriotism, although he had dedicated his career to advocating the rights of the soon-to-be American people. American history is littered with examples, great and small, of individuals putting aside their partisan sympathies to stand an on ideal of greater import and greater power in their own eyes—and paying a price for doing so.

To stand upon a moral ideal before the call of short-term political pragmatism and the pressure and condemnation of one’s fellows is a hard task. The fruits of such efforts are not always immediately evident, even if the signs of their impact are there. This is, in a sense, the riddle at the heart of the story of the Christian gospels: that love and sacrifice may lead to death upon the cross. Yet the aftermath of our moral sacrifices is the purifying of our consciences and the salvation of the future. If we dare to have moral courage, whatever the level of our strength or ability, the reward is worth the price.

This was King’s view:

“When I took up the cross, I recognized its meaning…The cross is something that you bear and ultimately that you die on. The cross may mean the death of your popularity. It may mean the death of a foundation grant. It may cut down your budget a little, but take up your cross and just bear it. And that’s the way I have decided to go.”

For men and women across the country who loved King, who believed in his larger cause, it may have seemed that the fruits of the moment did not justify the sacrifice King gave for bearing this cross, the burden of love. Yet for those in Indianapolis, Bobby Kennedy, an idealist who himself would be cut down in the midst of his effort to uplift his fellow man, gave a profound reminder that the seeds of King’s ideals, planted through effort and sacrifice, could yet bloom in the work of those who would carry his mantle, as indeed, they have.

Let us recognize, then, that the moral struggle, the best struggle, the struggle to bring forth what is good in human nature, is ever the hardest undertaking for those committed to the wellbeing of society. But it is what we must give ourselves too.

Let me conclude as Bobby concluded, then, on that dark night in Indiana in King’s honor.  Let’s “dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man, and make gentle the life of this world. Let’s dedicate ourselves to that.”

[i] Cornel West’s contribution essay in To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Tommie Shelby and Brandon M. Terry.

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