Martin Luther King Day — Beware False Prophets.
Posted by Ed Folsom, January 16, 2023.
It’s Martin Luther King Day, honoring the foremost spokesperson for nonviolent action during America’s Civil Rights Movement. As part of Martin Luther King Day celebrations, certain people tend to recite snippets of King’s words to support the propositions they wish to advance. King’s August 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail is one ripe source for these efforts. King wrote the letter while he was locked up for participating, without a permit, in a nonviolent protest of Birmingham’s racial segregation policies. He wrote it to respond to criticism he received from eight white southern clergymen for involving himself in Alabama issues as an outsider.
King was a Baptist minister and the son of a Baptist minister. He had a Ph.D. from Boston University in Systematic Theology, which accounts for his often being referred to as “Doctor King.” King was not an agnostic or an atheist or a secular humanist. His Christian religion and Christian religious philosophy informed his entire approach to the civil rights movement.
Here is an excerpt from King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail in which he describes the effects of segregation on black people and why he took action to protest this then-current reality in Alabama and the south:
“I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say ‘wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’; when your first name becomes ‘nigger’ and your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) and your last name becomes ‘John,’ and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodyness’ — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
Note that, even while he experienced the stings of this racial caste system, King bore the distinctly Christian concern that segregation distorted his six-year-old daughter’s “little personality by unconsciously developing [in her] a bitterness toward white people.” In an excerpt below, we see more of why this particular effect on his children concerned him. But first, in the following excerpt, King answered a critic, first setting forth the criticism and then addressing it:
“‘Is it possible that you are in too great of a religious hurry? It has taken Christianity almost 2000 years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.’ All that is said here grows out of a tragic misconception of time. It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God.”
In this, we see that King was not a believer in historical inevitability. Instead, he believed that negative change is as possible as positive change. He also believed that positive change needs to be brought about through “tireless work” — and not just any tireless work. Many people work or have worked tirelessly in pursuit of their views of justice, including progressives of an atheist, agnostic and/or secular humanist stripe; Marxists; anarchists; anarcho communists; Maoists; Italian Fascists and Nazis (and many, if not most of them have believed in, or still believe in, the historical inevitability of their cause of justice). But Martin Luther King, Jr., believed that positive change must be brought about by the tireless “persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God.” Whoa, that’s radical stuff for 2023! Yet this is the man whose beliefs we ostensibly celebrate on Martin Luther King Day.
And as we saw in the excerpt above, King was not only concerned with the crushing, direct effects of segregation on black people. He was deeply concerned that it distorted the personalities of children by causing them to become bitter toward white people – the antithesis of Christian forgiveness. In the excerpt below, King fleshes out the underlying reason for this concern and for what he viewed as his role as a Christian leader in the Civil Rights Movement.
“At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I started thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency made up of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, have been so completely drained of self-respect and a sense of ‘somebodyness’ that they have adjusted to segregation, and, on the other hand, of a few Negroes in the middle class who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because at points they profit by segregation, have unconsciously become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred and comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up over the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. This movement is nourished by the contemporary frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination. It is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incurable devil. I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need not follow the do-nothingism of the complacent or the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. There is a more excellent way, of love and nonviolent protest. I’m grateful to God that, through the Negro church, the dimension of nonviolence entered our struggle.” (emphasis added).
From this, you can see that many of the people who use Martin Luther King, Jr., to advance their social agendas these days are people Martin Luther King, Jr., would not have followed. In fact, many of them are people whose agendas King specifically warned against. Just so you know…