Words of Hope

The Language of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement

Living in a country with democratic traditions, one may take for granted individual freedoms bestowed by government. But those freedoms have not been equally applied. The 20th century saw struggles around the globe to correct this inequality. The apartheid system of racial segregation in South Africa came to an end. Australian Aboriginal peoples were granted full rights of citizenship. In India, caste-based discrimination against “untouchables” was outlawed, at least in theory. These and similar movements reflect significant campaigns to end generations of discriminatory practices.

America, too, was involved in such a struggle. July 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the passage and signing of the Civil Rights Act, which would transform the lives of African Americans living in the southern United States.

Up to 1964, an oppressive system of segregation and “Jim Crow” practices, named for a 19th-century minstrel character whose portrayal of black life grew to be associated with segregation methods, denied many African Americans access to a variety of “white only” public establishments and services, quality education, and the ballot box.

Jim Crow laws also created a class system where African Americans were set apart as inferior and were expected and conditioned to act with deference toward white society. At best it was a dehumanizing stain on the nation; at worst it was a monstrous system that tolerated beatings, bombings, burnings and lynchings. Although the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution had ended physical slavery a hundred years earlier, economic, emotional and class slavery continued. The Civil Rights Act outlawed segregation in public facilities and put an end—at least officially—to racial discrimination in employment and education.

The dynamic period of change occurred in a 10-year window, beginning in 1954 with the US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned the policy of segregating education by race into “separate but equal” components. Separate education had never been equal. Now school boards and state legislatures throughout the South were directed to provide equal education opportunities through integrated classrooms “with all deliberate speed.” However, rather than providing a remedy, “all deliberate speed” soon devolved into “make haste slowly,” as state plans for compliance proceeded at a paralyzingly slow pace.

Gradual progress toward resolution reflected the overall approach of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which sought change through legislative and legal process. But as efforts toward civil rights reform were yielding few results, the mood in the South began to turn against the gradualist approach. Having just fought a world war aimed at democratic values and freedoms, many found it difficult to restrain a desire for democracy at home. Also, with increased urbanization and migration to southern cities, African-Americans sought access to better jobs, better housing and basic civil rights.

For the next decade, the American civil rights movement would be inextricably linked with the story of one man and his pivotal role—in particular his pivotal words—in stirring a people as they strove for racial equality.

From the Back of the Bus

Most historians point to the 1955–56 Montgomery Bus Boycott as setting the tone for the modern civil rights movement in America. The event was sparked by the refusal of black bus passenger Rosa Parks to yield her seat to a white passenger. The boycott lasted more than a year and ended when the US Supreme Court ruled the bus segregation law unconstitutional. The Montgomery experience taught participants that mass direct action produced faster results than legal process alone.

The bus boycott had been led by the youthful pastor of Montgomery’s Dexter Street Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr. The movement was never a monolith with a single leader, however; different organizations merely aligned themselves, despite differences in strategy and leadership, around the common goal of speeding justice and inducing the federal government to act. They employed a variety of direct-action methods including boycotts, marches, sit-ins, freedom rides, and voter registration and education projects.

When the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) came into being soon after the boycott, members elected King as president. The SCLC was different from other organizations fighting for civil rights; its leaders were ordained African-American ministers from across the South, and its campaign for civil rights reform was based on the most stable social institution in African-American culture, the black church. This would prove hugely important to the movement, which faced the immediate problem of mobilizing the masses for direct action. The black church provided an organized reservoir of manpower for protest through its association with the SCLC.

But the motivation and inspiration for action came from the language of its president. King possessed unique and powerful oratory skills capable of stirring the masses to action in a way unmatched by other movement leaders. And he spoke in a decidedly different manner than others. His was the language and cadence of the black pulpit, and he drew from the full range of biblical imagery. The idea of throwing off the chains of segregation found its parallel in deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. As King stood on the proverbial mountaintop and looked into a promised land free of racial bitterness, he stood with Moses looking over the Jordan River into the Promised Land of Canaan.

King characterized the struggle as a moral issue requiring a change of heart and mind. He offered a language based on biblical morality. Confrontations along racial lines were transformed to a domestic morality play of good versus evil.

Racial discrimination . . . is a cancerous disease that prevents us from realizing the sublime principles of our Judeo-Christian tradition. It relegates persons to the status of things.”

Martin Luther King Jr., “The Negro and the American Dream” (September 25, 1960)

In a 1960 address titled “The Negro and the American Dream,” King stated, “The primary reason for uprooting racial discrimination from our society is that it is morally wrong.” He put a finer point on the genesis of the morality discussion in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God.” Invoking God’s law in the discussion brought deeper meaning to the discourse and encouraged the passions of believing supporters.

King’s speeches were part sermon and his sermons were often speeches addressing long-denied freedoms and basic rights of citizenship, self-determination and human dignity. Whether a general appeal to end segregation or a more specific discourse on related issues, his speeches often incorporated biblical themes—for example, that the moral law of the universe is based on the law of God, which exceeds the law of man; that concern for and nonviolence toward all is the primary tactic of the civil rights movement, based on Christ’s teaching of love; and that present-day deliverance for the black person from segregation practices foreshadows future deliverance for all humankind in peace.

Such language struck a familiar chord with many movement participants, especially those under the umbrella of the SCLC; church pastors, after all, were leaders in the black community. And so, inspired by the language of and a thirsting for deliverance, churchgoers became early foot soldiers.

Biblical themes in King’s language were present from the beginning. As the call for a boycott of Montgomery buses went out in 1955, organizers announced a mass meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church. On short notice they asked King to address the several thousand assembled people. But he was nervous: “How could I make a speech that would be militant enough to keep my people aroused to positive action and yet moderate enough to keep this fervor within controllable and Christian bounds? I knew that many of the Negro people were victims of bitterness that could easily rise to flood proportions. What could I say to keep them courageous and prepared for positive action and yet devoid of hate and resentment? Could the militant and the moderate be combined in a single speech?”

Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible.”

Martin Luther King Jr., Nobel Lecture (Oslo, December 11, 1964)

King decided to appeal to the African-American Christian faith: “I want to say that we are not here advocating violence. We have never done that. I want it to be known throughout Montgomery and throughout this nation that we are Christian people. We believe in the Christian religion. We believe in the teachings of Jesus.”

Change by direct action required confrontation. But confrontation based on an eye for an eye only resulted in everyone becoming blind. There was a better way than responding to violence with more violence.

The Language of Nonviolence

Much has been written about the source of nonviolence and its application to the civil rights movement. The example of Mahatma Gandhi and the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr and others influenced many movement leaders, including King. But for him the adoption of the tactic had deeper significance: “I came to see . . . that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”

The long-taught doctrines of the black church provided the foundation for the doctrine of nonviolence transmitted to blacks in Montgomery. Church-going blacks were familiar with Bible passages instructing that Christ’s love conquered hate and that individuals should love everyone, including oppressors.

In his book Stride Toward Freedom, which recounts the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King described that event as “the chronicle of 50,000 Negroes who took to heart the principles of nonviolence, who learned to fight for their rights with the weapon of love.”

These were not just words that King spoke; he led by example. During the events in Montgomery a bomb exploded at his home. As an angry mob assembled, King urged the crowd not to panic. He calmed them with words from the New Testament, reminding them that “he who lives by the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52, paraphrased). He reportedly went on to say, “We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. Love them and let them know you love them.”

You asserted that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. . . . Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because His unique God-consciousness and never-ending devotion to [the Father’s] will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion?”

Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter From Birmingham Jail” (August 1963)

King’s brand of nonviolence sought not only to avoid physical aggression against others but also that which occurs within: a violent spirit. In an article for Christian Century magazine, he stated: “In struggling for human dignity the oppressed people of the world must not allow themselves to become bitter or indulge in hate campaigns. To retaliate with hate and bitterness would do nothing but intensify the hate in the world.”

He continued: “When we love on the agape [Greek for “godly love”] level we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but because God loves them. Here we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed he does.”

Gaining Momentum

Following the success at Montgomery, the civil rights movement spread across the landscape of the South. Various waypoints and experiences served to crescendo efforts among the different groups fighting for an end to all forms of segregation and racial hatred.

In 1960 four black college students gained national attention by sitting down at a white-only lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, giving birth to sit-in demonstrations that helped spawn the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Sit-ins added new life to the movement and began a process of sustained mass activism.

In 1961 the Congress of Racial Equality initiated Freedom Rides on interstate buses from Washington, D.C., to Jackson, Mississippi, to draw attention to illegal segregated bus facilities along the route. With each succeeding wave of nonviolent action, they drew national attention to the national shame.

The tipping point of the movement is often referred to as the Birmingham Campaign of 1963. Birmingham was one of the most racially oppressive and divided cities of the South. Brutality was not uncommon. The civil rights movement was straining under the absence of congressional action that would enact lasting and meaningful change. A campaign of economic boycotts was planned for Birmingham to bring increased visibility to repressive conditions. Events in Birmingham dynamically affected the national conscience, as images of peacefully protesting men, women and children, being attacked by police dogs and sprayed with high-pressure fire hoses, were displayed across television screens for the country to see.

King was arrested and jailed. While there he penned “Letter From Birmingham Jail” in response to eight white religious leaders who were critical of the protest process. King argued for “the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest,” adding, “I’m grateful to God that, through the Negro church, the dimension of nonviolence entered our struggle.”

The Greek language uses three words for love . . . Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive good will for all men. Biblical theologians would say it is the love of God working in the minds of men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.”

Martin Luther King Jr., “The Power of Nonviolence” (June 4, 1957)

He cited Matthew 5:44, which explains the application of the moral law of God and how we are to treat fellow man: “Was not Jesus an extremist in love?” King asked; “‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.’” It’s a high standard—one that breaks the cycle of hatred.

A Better Country

King delivered his best-known speech, remembered as “I Have a Dream,” during the 1963 March on Washington, organized in part to influence congressional approval of John F. Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill. In citing the wrongs of segregation, Kennedy had told the nation, “We owe them, and we owe ourselves, a better country than that.”

King’s speech stirred the nation and introduced many to the moral rhythms of the black pulpit. The group conscience of not only the more than 200,000 people present but also much of America was united for change. He proclaimed that the words of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution represented a promissory note to all people of the nation. That promissory note had come back marked “insufficient funds,” he declared—an unfulfilled promise.

King went on to describe several moving “dreams” he had for America. Each signified the breaking of racial barriers, where all humanity would live in an an atmosphere of peace and equality.

Perhaps the least remembered dream is a reference from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. King stated, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together” (from Isaiah 40:4–5). The scripture is a prophetic reference extending beyond the present to a time when all humanity will live in peace with one another in the kingdom of God. King’s was the dual theme of present deliverance from the evils of a segregated society combined with the ultimate deliverance of all humankind.

Fulfilling the Dream

The Civil Rights Act was signed into law on July 2, 1964, and in December King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Accepting the award, he commented that in the future, peace would become a universal reality: “One day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land.”

In his last address to the annual meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King admonished those attending to continue to be dissatisfied with the status quo until all vestiges of racial inequality, including poverty, housing and security, are overcome. But his comments again extended beyond present-day deliverance from segregation and encompassed future deliverance as well: “Let us be dissatisfied until that day when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid . . . and men will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout ‘White Power!’—when nobody will shout ‘Black Power!’—but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.”

King’s comments regarding animals dwelling together and people having land of their own and living in peace are also taken from the Bible (Isaiah 11:6; Micah 4:4). Both allusions represent that ultimate future deliverance.

Although noble of effort and intent, the societal change envisioned by the Civil Rights Act was and remains incomplete. As we survey the global landscape we find that society is not yet racially unbiased. Racial tensions continue to exist and de facto segregation in job opportunity and housing is a fact of life for many. Man still struggles regarding right treatment of fellow man.

Completion on the scale envisioned by Martin Luther King Jr. requires more than legislation or activism. It requires a change of heart, a change of mindset. It requires a true understanding of the source and deeper meaning of much of the language used in the civil rights movement—an understanding of how we are to regard fellow man and of how true deliverance will come for all humanity.

The moral law, what is termed the Ten Commandments, guides our interaction with God and with one another. Christ not only explained but exemplified the law of embracing and expressing concern for others; He also echoed the prophets and pointed to the future kingdom of God, a time when true peace will be experienced by all. It is then that the dreams and language of Martin Luther King Jr. will find ultimate fulfillment.