In 1983, President Ronald Reagan, responding to a proposal from Representative Katie Hall (D-Ind.), signed into law Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, which passed with a 338-90 vote in the House of Representatives and a 78-22 vote in the Senate. The holiday falls on the third Monday of January, which, in 2021, is January 18. The date of its first celebration was January 20, 1986.

Among the first posts on A Patchwork of Perceptions was a two-part biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., the renowned spokesperson and leader of the Civil Rights Movement who began this work in his mid-20s. If alive today, Martin Luther King, Jr., would be 91. In a post two years later, I summarized the philosophies of civil disobedience that motivated the movements of Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King., Jr.

On this 35th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, we will further investigate the underpinnings of his understanding and motivation for civil disobedience, also known as nonviolent protest, via his essays and speeches.

As the son and grandson of preachers, Martin Luther King, Jr., was expected to enter the ministry, which he did after studying sociology at Morehouse College, divinity at Crozer Theological Seminary, and theology at Boston University. He began as a pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church before returning to co-pastor his father’s church, Ebenezer Baptist Church, so that he could devote more energy on civil rights.

An intellectual and religious man, King’s journey to embrace nonviolence began with the framing of his philosophical and Christian worldview. At university, liberalism enamored him, with its emphasis on human goodness and the power of reason, but an analysis of human history and its many incidents of human tragedy and shamefulness disillusioned him about the optimistic tenants of this theology. The insidious nature of sin that marred man’s contributions to society and man’s reason, oft-used as a tool to justify the former, drew King away from unquestioning allegiance to liberalism, though he continued to cherish “its devotion to the search for truth, its insistence on an open and analytical mind, its refusal to abandon the best light of reason” and he did not fall fully back in the arms of neo-orthodoxy, which he believed thought too pessimistically of mankind.6 For King, both liberalism and neo-orthodoxy contained partial truths that, reconciled, provided a more adequate understanding of man.

The works of Kierkegaard, Sartre, Nietzsche, Jaspers, Heidegger, and Tillich introduced King to existentialism, whose common point he understood to be “that man’s existential situation is a state of estrangement from his essential nature.” Danielle Nguyen at The Stanford Freedom Project argues that his appreciation for existentialist ideas is evident in his activity during the civil rights movement. Additional quests into the social gospel and other social and ethical theories during his theological studies brought King in contact with the Gandhian concept of satyagraha, truth-force or love-force.

A police officer takes away protest signs. Moments later firemen hosed demonstrators.
(c) 1963 Ed Jones/The Birmingham News

King, who had previously discarded love as irrelevant for solving social problems, came to recognize the Christian doctrine love as one of the most powerful tools to combat the injustices, from school and transportation segregation to economic exploitation, that he contended with as a black man in mid-20th century America. In a 1956 sermon in Montgomery, Alabama, he called love “the most durable power in the world” and “the highest good.”2

On multiple occasions, King clarified to his audience what he meant by love. “[W]e are not referring to some sentimental emotion,” he explained in a 1957 article. “It would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense.”1 Rather, King’s encouragement that the oppressed act with love in their protest was related to the Greek word agape, one of the three words for love in the Greek New Testament. He defined agape as that which “seeks nothing in return” and that embodies “the love of God working in the lives of men.” The love flows not from a liking for the person, the attitude, or the action, but from the reality of God’s unconditional love for all. Before the interracial Fellowship of the Concerned, King pointed to this ethic of love as “the basis of the student movement” for racial justice.8

With agape love as the foundation, King saw nonviolence as the only legitimate and effective path by which racial justice could be more fully realized. The other two options commonly employed by the oppressed through history were acquiescence, whereby the individuals surrender, and uprising, whereby the individuals lash out in violence, ultimately creating more social ills.8 In neither can love operate: In the former, the oppressed do a disservice not only to themselves but also to the oppressor by allowing them to continue in their soul-degrading work; in the latter, the oppressed have hatred of the other as their guide.

Martin Luther King, Jr., leads a sanitation workers’ protest that dissolved into vandalism.
(c) 1968 Associated Press

Machiavelli contended that ends justified the means, but King argued that “immoral and destructive means cannot bring about moral and constructive ends.”8 The clash of hate with retaliatory hate would only “intensify the existence of evil in the universe.”4 By King’s estimation, then, achieving the moral end of racial justice required the adoption of moral means of protest by black Americans and their white allies. To do otherwise would turn the skeptical majority against the civil rights cause, for although violence would come against the black man no matter what course of action he took, any violence inflicted by him would inevitably turn all blame for the consequences toward him.5

The skeptical majority would not accept the ends-justify-the-means narrative, nor would the civil rights activists last long in the struggle, as small armed groups are more easily overcome by their opponents than an unarmed, resolute mass. King warned in a Look article, written as the continued inaction and halfhearted measures of Congress fueled frustration and violence and published posthumously, that “riots tend to intensify the fears of the white majority while relieving its guilt.”10

Through nonviolent protest, King sought redemption and reconciliation over defeat or humiliation. (To take us back for a second to the modern-day, this may be a distinction missing in the Black Lives Matter movement.) While violence ended in bitterness, nonviolence ended in community, for King’s nonviolence attacked the system rather than the individuals caught up in the system. The fight was against injustice, not white people who happened to be unjust. He framed the struggle in the South not as tension between races, but between “justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness” wherein a victory would be one “not…merely for fifty thousand Negroes” but also “for justice…for goodwill..for democracy.”3 The Civil Rights Movement would therefore achieve full peace.

In speaking of peace, King differentiated between negative peace and positive peace. He recalled a white citizen in Montgomery approaching him complaining that, before King and his allies came with their movement and boycotts, the community had been so peaceful and the race relations so harmonious.8 King gently responded that, contrary to the citizen’s belief, Montgomery had never had peace. What Montgomery had was negative peace, the absence of tension. King aspired toward positive peace, the presence of positive forces of justice and brotherhood. There existed confidence that humans possessed the capacity for great good and for great evil, and that nonviolent protest, by forcing people to examine their consciences and truthfully confront the system into which they had been born, could make “even the worst segregationist…an integrationist” by ushering in positive peace.8

Department Store in Mobile, Alabama
(c) 1956 Gordon Parks

In addition to love, central to King’s nonviolent approach was a belief in the redemptive power of suffering and a belief in a cosmic companion in justice. To the first belief: In a short piece published by Christian Century, King echoed the Apostle Paul’s remarks that he bore “the marks of the Lord Jesus” in enduring unjust suffering for the cause of justice. “Unearned suffering is redemptive,” he recognized, building spiritual strength.7 In addition, by bearing suffering without bitterness, the nonviolent protester forced the abuser to wrestle with their own conscience. A sense of shame is awakened without uncharitable and wholesale social shaming.

To the second belief: King, grounded in the Christian belief of a personal God, a living God that both evoked and answered prayer, asserted in several of his essays and speeches that there existed some cosmic force that stood on the side of justice.6 This force engaged with nonviolent protest rooted in love to push the universe toward greater justice. This ties with the conviction about the necessity and renewing power of unmerited suffering, for “the nonviolent resister can accept suffering without retaliation…[f]or he knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship”, viewed as a personal God by some and an unconscious process or impersonal Brahman by others.4 This belief was reflected in the cry of Freedom Riders, “We shall overcome.”

“The students had faith in the future,” King said to the Fellowship of the Concerned. “That the movement was based on hope, that this movement had something within it that says somehow even though the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice.”8 He admitted in an essay published by Ebony, “There is no easy way to create a world where men and women can live together.”9 If such a world was to be realized in his lifetime, though, King believed, “[I]t will be done in the United States by Negroes and white people of good will. It will be accomplished by persons who have the courage to put an end to suffering by willingly suffering themselves rather than inflict suffering upon others” in movements based on agape love, community, and justice.9

Martin Luther King, Jr., with other members of the American civil rights movement at the March on Washington, D.C., in August 1963.
(c) 1963 Associated Press

  1. “Nonviolence and Racial Justice.” Published in Christian Century 74 (6 February 1957): 165-167.
  2. “The Most Durable Power.” Published in Christian Century 74 (5 June 1957).
  3. “The Power of Nonviolence.” Address at University of California Berkeley (4 June 1957). Transcript published in Intercollegian (May 1958).
  4. “An Experiment in Love.” Excerpt from Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Circle (New York: Harper & Row, 1958): 66-71. Published in Jubilee (September 1958): 13-16.
  5. “The Social Organization of Nonviolence.” Liberation (October 1959): 5-6.
  6. “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence.” Christian Century 77 (13 April 1960): 439-441.
  7. “Suffering and Faith.” Christian Century 77 (27 April 1960): 510.
  8. “Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience.” Address to the Fellowship of the Concerned (16 November 1961). Transcript published in New South (December 1961).
  9. “Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom.” Ebony 21 (October 1966): 27-30.
  10. “Showdown for Nonviolence.” Look 32 (16 April 1968): 23-25.