The following is a complete chapter (on Martin Luther King Jr.) from my 2017 book The Bible and Racism, which is available on Amazon. I’d love for you to read it! (Click here to purchase the Bible and Racism from Amazon)
I have lived all of my life in and around Birmingham, the site of many of the great feats and victories of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Struggle. I grew up in this city, born just four years after Dr. King died, and I am grateful for him, for his stance, for his leadership, and for the way he fought a terrible, evil enemy….racism…with grace and humility.
Like many great pastors and preachers of the past, (I’m thinking of Martin Luther and his views on the Jews, John Calvin and his somewhat overblown participation in the Servetus Affair, C.S. Lewis’ apparent advocacy for some type of Universalism in The Last Battle, etc.), Dr. King had some theological failings. There are allegations of infidelity, and his theology can be less than biblical in several places. All of our heroes have sinful flaws – some more than others. Sometimes those flaws move somebody from the realm of Romans 7 (simultaneously sinful, yet justified), to the realm of base hypocrisy, and sometimes they don’t. Honestly, I’m not always sure where that line is. At times, it is quite clear: ‘Bishop’ Eddie Long, who passed last year, was apparently a predatory sex offender and a certain teacher of false doctrine; that he crossed the line many times is abundantly clear. At other times, it is much less so.
Thus we are aware of the flaws of many of our heroes in this day and age. I do not believe the flaws make them more endearing. Sin is sin. My sin is ugly and disgraceful, and not the least bit charming, and so is the sin of all who have come before us. Dr. King had his flaws, but his strengths were even brighter. He was a magnificent preacher and writer. He was patient, humble and long-suffering. In the face of multiplied cruel injustices and hatreds, he managed to keep his composure and dignity and urge a whole generation of people to do the same. There was a certain explosive power in his non-violent advocacy for justice. It was not the power of a squeaky, complaining wheel demanding attention (as so many so called social-justice warriors exhibit today), but the power of a passionate, uncompromising stance for righteousness that rarely, if ever, descended into unnecessary accusation, name-calling, nor antagonism.
Yes, Dr. King accorded himself with dignity, and yet HE FOUGHT. He was the furthest thing from a coward, and when he saw an America that exhibited deep symptoms of racial injustice, prejudice and pride, he rose up and fought with his words, his passion, his suffering and his life. In the face of injustice, sometimes nice people (who are not brave people,) just sit back and do very little – consoling themselves with the idea that their ‘niceness’ demands of them to not overly complain. This approach may well be appropriate when our own individual toes are being stepped on…the world could use much less complaining. However, this approach becomes cowardly in the face of systemic, ingrained brutality and justice that is harming those who cannot defend themselves. As that great English statesmen Edmund Burke wrote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Dr. King did the very opposite of nothing, and for that, he has my deep admiration.
Here are a baker’s dozen exceptional and lesser known quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – most of them taken from his sermons. Enjoy and be edified!
The first quote is VERY long, but so sublime that I don’t believe that justice will be served by cutting it: “So American Christians, you may master the intricacies of the English language. You may possess all of the eloquence of articulate speech. But even if you “speak with the tongues of man and angels, and have not love, you are become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.“You may have the gift of prophecy and understanding all mysteries. (1 Corinthians 13) You may be able to break into the storehouse of nature and bring out many insights that men never dreamed were there. You may ascend to the heights of academic achievement, so that you will have all knowledge. You may boast of your great institutions of learning and the boundless extent of your degrees. But all of this amounts to absolutely nothing devoid of love. But even more Americans, you may give your goods to feed the poor. You may give great gifts to charity. You may tower high in philanthropy. But if you have not love it means nothing. You may even give your body to be burned, and die the death of a martyr. Your spilt blood may be a symbol of honor for generations yet unborn, and thousands may praise you as history’s supreme hero. But even so, if you have not love your blood was spilt in vain. You must come to see that it is possible for a man to be self-centered in his self-denial and self-righteous in his self-sacrifice. He may be generous in order to feed his ego and pious in order to feed his pride. Man has the tragic capacity to relegate a heightening virtue to a tragic vice. Without love benevolence becomes egotism, and martyrdom becomes spiritual pride. So the greatest of all virtues is love. It is here that we find the true meaning of the Christian faith. This is at bottom the meaning of the cross. The great event on Calvary signifies more than a meaningless drama that took place on the stage of history. It is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking forth into time.” Paul’s Letter to American Christians, From a sermon preached in Montgomery, Alabama on November 11, 1956. This quote quite clearly portrays King in all his giftedness as an exceptional writer and orator. Few preachers of the last 500 years have been able to communicate with this level of eloquence. While eloquence is not the most important thing for one speaking the truth of God – “the Kingdom of God is not talk, but power” – I still admire it when I see it in a state like this.
“I don’t believe meekness means that you are dried up in a very cowardly sense. But I believe it is something that gets in your soul so that you can stand and look at any man with a deep sense of humility, knowing that one day you shall inherit the earth. That’s the meaning of meekness. That’s what Jesus meant by it. So let us be meek and let us be humble and not go back with arrogance. Our struggle will be lost all over the South if the Negro becomes a victim of undue arrogance.” Address at Holt Street Baptist Church to supporters, while celebrating the Supreme Court Ruling in Browder vs. Gayle. November, 1956
“Let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance… We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade… It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. “If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.” – From “The Drum Major Instinct,” Dr. King’s final sermon, April 4, 1967.
“If physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children from a life of permanent psychological death, then nothing could be more honorable. We must somehow confront physical force with soul force and stand up courageously for justice and freedom. And this dynamic unity, this amazing self-respect, this willingness to suffer, and this refusal to hit back will cause the oppressors to become ashamed of their own methods and we will be able to transform enemies into friends.” “Desegregation and the Future” Speech delivered in New York City, December 15, 1956.
“You are deeply in my prayers and thoughts as you confront arrests, threats, bombings and all types of humiliating experiences. Your wise restraint, calm dignity and unflinching courage will be an inspiration to generations yet unborn. History records nothing more majestic and sublime than the determined courage of a people willing to suffer and sacrifice for the cause of freedom. The days ahead may be difficult, but do not despair. Those of use who stand amid the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man must gain consolation from the fact that there is emerging a bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice…Remember. God lives! They that stand against him stand in a tragic and an already declared minority. They that stand with him stand in the glow of the world’s bright tomorrows.” December 26, 1956 letter to Birmingham Civil Rights Activist Fred Shuttlesworth.
[Our nonviolent approach] “does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often voice his protest through non-cooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that non-cooperation and boycotts are not ends within themselves, they are merely means to awaken the sense of moral shame within the opponent. But the end is redemption. The end is reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.“The Christian Way of Life in Human Relations” Address delivered to the United Nations in December of 1957.
“This is what Jesus means, I think, in this very passage when he says, “Love your enemy.” And it’s significant that he does not say, “Like your enemy.” Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. I don’t like what they say about me and other people. I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like some of the things they’re doing. I don’t like them. But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape in your soul. And here you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does. This is what Jesus means when he says, “Love your enemy.” This is the way to do it. When the opportunity presents itself when you can defeat your enemy, you must not do it.” Loving Your Enemies Sermon, preached at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama 1957. Generally speaking, I reject the “like” vs “love” dichotomy often discussed in our culture, but I do appreciate what Dr. King says here that even when we do not like a person’s stance or behavior, that we still love the person and do not seek their ‘defeating.’ Many internet commentors could learn from this example!
“May I say just a word to those of you who are struggling against this evil. Always be sure that you struggle with Christian methods and Christian weapons. Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him” From a sermon preached in Montgomery, Alabama on November 11, 1956.
“One of the amazing things about the protest that will long be remembered is the orderly way it has been conducted. On every hand you have evinced wise restraint and calm dignity. You have carefully avoided animosity, making sure that your methods were rooted in the deep soils of the Christian faith. Because of this, violence has almost been a non-existent factor in our struggle. For such “discipline, generations yet unborn will commend you.” December 3, 1956 address to the MIA – Montgomery Improvement Association.
“When the man in the parable knocked on his friend’s door and asked for the three loaves of bread, he received the impatient retort, “Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” How often have men experienced a similar disappointment when at midnight they knock on the door of the church. Millions of Africans, patiently knocking on the door of the Christian church where they seek the bread of social justice, have either been altogether ignored or told to wait until later, which almost always means never. Millions of American Negroes, starving for the want of the bread of freedom, have knocked again and again on the door of so-called white churches, but they have usually been greeted by a cold indifference or a blatant hypocrisy. Even the white religious leaders, who have a heartfelt desire to open the door and provide the bread, are often more cautious than courageous and more prone to follow the expedient than the ethical path. One of the shameful tragedies of history is that the very institution which should remove man from the midnight of racial segregation participates in creating and perpetuating the midnight.” From a 1967 sermon entitled, “A Knock at Midnight.” I agree with this charge, sadly. When the white church in the South should have stood loudly and bravely with the least of these, far too often, they turned their back.
On April 4, 1968, a “Shot rang out in the Memphis sky,” and Dr. King fell mortally wounded. The day before, he had preached a sermon entitled, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” In that message, he addressed how Bull Connor and his racist Birmingham cronies had been overcome:
We aren’t going to let any mace stop us. We are masters in our nonviolent movement in disarming police forces. They don’t know what to do. I’ve seen them so often. I remember in Birmingham, Alabama, when we were in that majestic struggle there, we would move out of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church day after day. By the hundreds we would move out, and Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth, and they did come. But we just went before the dogs singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.” Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the trans-physics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses. We had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist or some others, we had been sprinkled. But we knew water. That couldn’t stop us. And we just went on before the dogs and we would look at them, and we’d go on before the water hoses and we would look at it. And we’d just go on singing, “Over my head, I see freedom in the air.” (Yeah) [Applause] And then we would be thrown into paddy wagons, and sometimes we were stacked in there like sardines in a can. (All right) And they would throw us in, and old Bull would say, “Take ’em off.” And they did, and we would just go on in the paddy wagon singing, “We Shall Overcome.” (Yeah) And every now and then we’d get in jail, and we’d see the jailers looking through the windows being moved by our prayers (Yes) and being moved by our words and our songs. (Yes) And there was a power there which Bull Connor couldn’t adjust to (All right), and so we ended up transforming Bull into a steer, and we won our struggle in Birmingham…Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somewhere the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones (Yes), and whenever injustice is around he must tell it. (Yes) Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, who said, “When God Speaks, who can but prophesy?” (Yes) Again with Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” April 3, 1968 sermon, the day before Dr. King was assassinated.
We know more about mathematics, about science, about social science, and philosophy, than we’ve ever known in any period of the world’s history…For our scientific progress over the past years has been amazing. Man through his scientific genius has been able to warp distance and place time in chains, so that today it’s possible to eat breakfast in New York City and supper in London, England. Back in about 1753 it took a letter three days to go from New York City to Washington, and today you can go from here to China in less time than that. It can’t be because man is stagnant in his scientific progress. Man’s scientific genius has been amazing. I think we have to look much deeper than that if we are to find the real cause of man’s problems and the real cause of the world’s ills today. If we are to really find it I think we will have to look in the hearts and souls of men. The trouble isn’t so much that we don’t know enough, but it’s that we aren’t good enough. The trouble isn’t so much that our scientific genius lags behind, but our moral genius lags behind. The great problem facing modern man is that, that the means by which we live, have outdistanced the spiritual ends for which we live. So we find ourselves caught in a messed-up world. The problem is with man himself and man’s soul. We haven’t learned how to be just and honest and kind and true and loving. And that is the basis of our problem. The real problem is that through our scientific genius we’ve made of the world a neighborhood, but through our moral and spiritual genius we’ve failed to make of it a brotherhood. And the great danger facing us today is not so much the atomic bomb that was created by physical science. Not so much that atomic bomb that you can put in an airplane and drop on the heads of hundreds and thousands of people—as dangerous as that is. But the real danger confronting civilization today is that atomic bomb which lies in the hearts and souls of men, capable of exploding into the vilest of hate and into the most damaging selfishness. That’s the atomic bomb that we’ve got to fear today. The problem is with the men. Within the heart and the souls of men. That is the real basis of our problem. My friends, all I’m trying to say is that if we are to go forward today, we’ve got to go back and rediscover some mighty precious values that we’ve left behind. That’s the only way that we would be able to make of our world a better world, and to make of this world what God wants it to be and the real purpose and meaning of it. The only way we can do it is to go back, and rediscover some mighty precious values that we’ve left behind. – Martin Luther King Jr. Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, 1954.
“And I wonder why it is that the forces of evil seem to reign supreme and the forces of goodness seem to be trampled over. Every now and then I feel like asking God, Why is it that over so many centuries the forces of injustice have triumphed over the Negro and he has been forced to live under oppression and slavery and exploitation? Why is it, God? Why is it simply because some of your children ask to be treated as first-class human beings they are trampled over, their homes are bombed, their children are pushed from their classrooms, and sometimes little children [referencing Emmett Till] are thrown in the deep waters of Mississippi? Why is it, oh God, that that has to happen? I begin to despair sometimes, it seems that Good Friday has the throne. It seems that the forces of injustice reign supreme. But then in the midst of that something else comes to me.” – Martin Luther King Jr. 1957 Easter Sermon in Montgomery, Alabama, “Questions that Easter Answers.”