February 27, 2020

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: A Legacy in Words, Deeds

As we honor on Jan. 20 civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in 1968, we find that after so many decades, his words of wisdom still apply to the United States and countries around the world. The following are excerpts from King’s February 1960 speech at Temple Isaiah:

Excerpt 1: There can be no gain saying of the fact that a great struggle is taking place in our world today. And this struggle grows out of the quest for freedom and human dignity on the part of millions of people who have been forced to walk for centuries through the long night of oppression. Wherever you turn, whether it’s in Accra, Nairobi, Johannesburg, New York, Los Angeles, Montgomery, Alabama, to Little Rock, Arkansas, the cry is for freedom. To be sure, there have always been isolated, solo voices crying for freedom. But today, these voices have been transformed into a mighty chorus. The chorus ringing out with amazing harmony. And that is a real determined quest for freedom and human dignity.

Now, as this struggle continues in the world, many people find themselves asking whether we are making any real progress in the area of race relations and human relations. And this is a poignant, desperate question on the lips of our generation. Men are asking everywhere, “Have we really moved progressively toward the goal of racial justice?” And it seems to me that there are three basic attitudes that can be taken toward the question of progress in the area of human relations. First, one can take the attitude of extreme optimism. And the extreme optimist would contend that we have come a long, long way in the area of racial justice. He would point proudly to the marvelous strides that had been made in the area of human rights over the last few decades. From this he would conclude that the problem is just about solved now and that we can sit down comfortably by the wayside and wait on the coming of the inevitable.

The second attitude that can be taken is that of extreme pessimism. The extreme pessimist would argue that we have made only minor strides in the area of human relations. He would contend that the rhythmic beat of the deep rumblings of discontent from Africa, the uprisings in Asia, and the racial tensions in the United States, are all indicative of the fact that we are going backwards instead of forward. He will contend that at bottom, human nature cannot be changed. At times, he will get a bit intellectual with his arguments and he may turn to the realm of psychology and seek to show the inflexibility of certain attitudes once they had been molded. He may even turn to the realm of theology and seek to show that hovering over every man is the taint of original sin. And so at bottom, human nature cannot be changed. From all of this, the extreme pessimist would conclude that there can be no progress in the area of human relations or better race relations.

Now, it is interesting to notice that the extreme pessimist and the extreme optimist agree on at least one point. They both agree that we must sit down and do nothing in the area of race relations. If it’s in the struggle in the United States, the extreme optimist would say, “Do nothing because integration is inevitable.” The extreme pessimist would say, “Do nothing because integration is impossible.”

But there is a third attitude that can be taken; namely, the realistic position. Like the synthesis, in Hegelian philosophy, the realist seeks to combine the truths of two opposites while avoiding the extremes of both. And so, the realism area of race relations would agree with the optimist that we have come a long, long way. But he would seek to balance that by agreeing with the pessimist that we have a long, long way to go. And it is this realistic position that I would like to use as a basis for our thinking together, as we think about the stride towards freedom in our world, as we think about the struggle for racial justice.

Excerpt 2: With the growth of slavery, it became necessary to give some justification for it. It seems to be a fact of life that human beings cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some thin rationalization to clothe an obvious wrong into beautiful garments of righteousness. Psychologist William James used to talk a great deal about the stream of consciousness. He says, “One of the interesting and unique things about human nature is that man is able to temporarily block the stream of consciousness and place anything in it that he wants to.” And so we have the capacity of justifying the rightness of the wrong. This is exactly what happened during the days of slavery.

“The realism area of race relations would agree with the optimist that we have come a long, long way.”

Many of the slaves almost fell victim to the danger that forever confronts religion and a too literalistic interpretation of the Bible. There is a danger that religion and the Bible, not properly interpreted, will be used as instruments to crystallize the status quo. And this happened. And so, from pulpits all over the nation, it was argued that the Negro was inferior by nature because of Noah’s curse upon the children of Ham. The apostle Paul’s word became a watchword, “Servant, be obedient to your master.” And then one of the brethren had probably read the logic of Aristotle and he could put his argument in the framework of an Aristotelian syllogism. “All men are made in the image of God,” this was his major premise. “And God, as everybody knows, is not a Negro.” This was a minor premise. Therefore, “the Negro is not a man.” This was the type of reasoning that so often prevailed. And living under these conditions, many Negroes lost faith in themselves. Many came to feel that perhaps they were inferior or perhaps they were less than human.

But then something happened to the Negro. Emancipation became a reality. Not only that, years later, other things developed, and circumstances made it necessary and possible for him to travel more. The coming of the automobile, and the upheavals of two world wars, and the Great Depression. His rural plantation background gave way to urban industrial life. His cultural life was gradually rising through the steady decline of crippling illiteracy. And his economic life was gradually rising through the growth of industry and the influence of organized labor and other agencies. All these forces conjoined to cause the Negro to take a new look at himself. And Negro masses all over began to reevaluate themselves. The Negro came to feel that he was somebody. His religion revealed to him that God loves all of his children and that all men are made in his image. That the basic thing about a man is not his specificity, but his fundamentum. Not the texture of his hair or the color of his skin, but the texture and quality of his soul.

Excerpt 3: More than anything else, in our generation we have been able to see the walls of segregation gradually crumble. We know the history of segregation came into being, on a legal basis, in 1896. And the Supreme Court of the nation rendered a decision known as the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision. And the Supreme Court, at that time, established a doctrine of “separate but equal” as the law of the land. But since 1896, many things have happened. May 17, 1954, came into being. The Supreme Court of the nation rendered a new decision saying, in substance, that the old Plessy doctrine must go, that separate facilities are inherently unequal, and that to segregate a child on the basis of his race is to deny that child equal protection of the law. And so, if I can put it in Old Testament language, we’ve broken loose from the Egypt of slavery and we’ve moved through the wilderness of “separate but equal” and now we stand on the border of the promised land of integration. And certainly, there is hope that we will be able to enter this new and great land of integration. And so, we’ve come a long, long way since 1896.

“In order to tell the truth, I must go on and say not only have we come a long, long way but we have a long, long way to go.”

Now this would be a wonderful place to stop. It would be marvelous to be able to stop here. First, it would mean making a relatively short speech, and we all like short speeches. And I’d really like to stop at this point but if I stop here, I would merely be stating a fact and not telling the truth. Now, it is a fact that we’ve come a long, long way but it isn’t the truth. You see, a fact is merely the absence of contradiction, but truth is the presence of coherence. Truth is the relatedness of facts. Not only have we come a long, long way, but we have a long, long way to go. And if I stopped at this point, I would leave you the victims of a dangerous optimism. If I stop here, I would leave you the victims of an illusion wrapped in superficiality. And so, in order to tell the truth, I must go on and say not only have we come a long, long way but we have a long, long way to go.

If we look over in Africa today, and Asia, we can see that we have a long, long way to go. This is particularly true of Africa. In spite of the marvelous progress, there’s still strong resistance, there’s still recalcitrance in East Africa and Central Africa. If we will turn our eyes to South Africa, we will see that millions of black men and black women segregated on 2 percent of their own land and having to have passes to walk the streets. And this reveals that we have a long, long way to go before colonialism is finally removed.

In our nation, we have a long, long way to go. I mentioned the fact that lynchings have about ceased, but other things are happening just as bad. We can turn to one section of our country and we find there that the legislative halls ring loud with such words as interposition and nullification. Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizen’s Council are on the march and they are saying that they will never comply with the Supreme Court’s decision.

We have a long, long way to go in the area of voter registration. I said we have come a long, long way but we have a long, long way to go, for conniving methods are still being used to keep Negroes from voting. And there are 5 million eligible Negro voters in the South and yet, there are only 1,300,000 registered. This reveals that we have a long, long way to go. Not only that, violence is a reality in many instances. Even though, there are not as many lynchings, we find that individuals who are merely concerned and merely determined to have equal rights face physical violence, court injustices stand supreme in so many Southern situations. And both Negro and white persons who dare take a stand for justice and freedom constantly face violence and abuse and persecution and arrest and bombings. Not only are individual homes bombed, but churches and synagogues and schools are being bombed. This reveals that we have a long, long way to go.

Excerpt 4: If we do not learn to live together as brothers in the world, we will all perish together as fools. For we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. And whatever affects one nation or one individual directly, affects all nations or individuals indirectly. John Donne caught this years ago and put it in graphic terms, “No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main.” And then he goes on to the end to say, “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

There are many specific things that we must do in the United States if the problem is to be solved, and certainly there is a great role to be played by the federal government. And I say to you this evening that the leadership that we should have from the federal government has come mainly from the judicial branch. The legislative and executive branches of the government have been all too apathetic, and sometimes hypocritical in this area. And if the problem is to be solved, all branches of the government must work with bold and grim determination to implement the law of the land.

“We have the capacity of justifying the rightness of the wrong. This is exactly what happened during the days of slavery.”

This means that Congress must produce a strong civil rights bill this year, realizing that the civil rights issue is not just some evanescent domestic issue that can be kicked about by vociferous politicians, but it is an eternal moral issue which may well determine the destiny of our nation. The hour is late, and the clock of destiny is ticking out and we must act now before it is too late. And if America misses this opportunity, she will be relegated to a second-rate power in the world. And all of her achievements will be null and void and all of her words will be a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. And so the government must take a strong stand.

And legislation has a powerful role. Many people will say this isn’t important, that you can’t legislate morals, it must be done by education. And I would rather say that we need both education and legislation. It’s not either/or but it’s both/and. Certainly, you can’t change attitudes and you can’t change the hearts of men through legislation, I recognize that, but this really isn’t the purpose of legislation. We have legislation to control behavior. Now, it is true that religion and education will have to change a man’s heart but it’s an immoral act to ask people to wait generations and sometimes centuries until people’s hearts have changed and they still go on accepting the same injustices. And so, through religion and education we seek to change internal attitudes that may be bad and misguided, but through legislation, we seek to control the external effects of those internal attitudes.

So it may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me. It is quite true that the law cannot make an employer have compassion for the employee, but it can keep the employer from refusing to hire persons on the basis of their color or on the basis of their religion. This is what we seek to do through the law. We seek to regulate behavior. And through religion and education, we seek to change attitudes. And we must never underestimate the power of legislation in regulating behavior.