After more than 30 years, it’s a bit hard to appreciate the extent of the changes brought about by the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. Public services and accommodations were desegregated, employment and housing discrimination were outlawed, and blacks gained equal voting rights and protection at polling places.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s role in these gains was pivotal. His movement took the civil rights protest out of the courts, up until then its main venue, into the arena of direct action: boycotts, marches, sit-ins. After decades of snail-like gains, the barriers came tumbling down.
After more than 30 years, it is even harder, perhaps, to appreciate the impact of King’s vision and its importance to the success of his efforts. It was King’s philosophy of love and nonviolence that gave power and credibility to his movement. Today, when images of violence are everywhere—media, movies— King’s vision may seem “quaint” to some. But his message was universal, and no less relevant today than 30 years ago.
A vision of unity
Drawing from the teachings of Jesus, Thoreau, and Gandhi, King preached non-violent rebellion against unjust laws and love for one’s enemies. For King, non-violence was an expression of love. And love—far from being a tepid sentiment—was an expression of the superior power of the soul. In King’s own words:
Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.
Central to King’s vision was the importance of consciousness or attitude—the spirit of an undertaking. King taught that nonviolence must be grounded in the desire for harmony and cooperation with the “oppressor,” and justice for all, not just blacks. He cautioned against the use of non-violence without the spirit of nonviolence and spoke repeatedly against meeting anger with anger, hate with hate.
King was as much concerned with the effect of the battle on the hearts and minds of the protesters and their white opponents as with the ultimate outcome. His was a vision of unity, one that saw people of different races, religions and social backgrounds working and living together in a spirit of harmony and cooperation. Without love and compassion, unity was impossible.
A leader of courage and commitment
A vision’s capacity to inspire is only as great as a leader’s commitment to it, and King’s commitment never wavered. His response to the bombing of his home during the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott is merely one case in point.
After the bombing, an angry black crowd, armed with guns, sticks, and other weapons, gathered outside his damaged home, threatening the boycott’s commitment to non-violence. King urged his followers to put down their weapons and to love their “white brothers,” no matter what they did. Confronted with such clear proof of the depth of King’s belief in love and nonviolence, the angry crowd settled down, grew peaceful, and went home.
Those who initially saw nonviolence as cowardice soon learned otherwise. King underwent public humiliation, beatings, death threats and imprisonment because of the ideals and principles he believed in. Those who followed King knew that he asked nothing of them that he would not first do himself.
A moral and spiritual army
King’s message and mission did more than change a society – it changed the individuals who practiced it. King made people conscious not only of love but also of other untapped potentialities, and gave them a way to express them. In Montgomery, for example, protesters organized a car pool system that worked with “military precision.” For months, the black community covered all the expenses of the car pool, including $5000 a month for gas.
Like King, protesters were targeted for harassment and personal threats. Many lived under the ever-present specter of violent resistance to their efforts. Whether a boycott, freedom march, or sit-in, participation in King’s “moral and spiritual army for change ” required not only love and personal dignity, but also courage, self-restraint, and self-discipline. He writes:
We did not hesitate to call our movement an army. But it was a special army, with no supplies but its sincerity, no uniform but its determination, no arsenal but its faith, no currency but its conscience.
A common destiny
At the 1963 March on Washington D.C., King reiterated a major theme—that the freedom and destiny of white Americans were inextricably linked to the freedom and destiny of their black brothers and sisters. We are not strangers to one another, King taught, but members of the same human family, fellow travelers on a common journey.
King emphasized that personal fulfillment came from expressing love and compassion, while negative attitudes—hatred, anger, fear—in time, made one hateful, fearful, and angry. Segregation and the attitudes it instilled was thus as harmful to whites as to blacks. Throughout his life, King always made it clear that his aim was never to humiliate or even to defeat whites, but to win their friendship and understanding.
A deep faith in God
King was a moral and spiritual leader who had a major impact on the history of his times. Yet despite the fame and recognition he attracted, his quiet humility remained unchanged. King’s focus was on the job to be done, not on his own role. Had King gloried in the importance of his position, he would never have been able to inspire people with the dedication needed to bring the protest movement to success.
In accepting the Nobel Peace prize in 1964, King highlighted the contribution of the nameless thousands whose commitment to the ideals he preached had made the civil rights victories possible. Without such followers, no civil rights revolution could have occurred, however grand King’s vision might have been.
Ultimately King was sustained by deep faith in God, and a belief in the potential for goodness in all people. In his own words:
I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose, and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship. Behind the harsh appearance of the world there is a benign power.