On this holiday honoring his birth, it is worth reminding ourselves why Martin Luther King Jr. deserves the place he holds in the American imagination.
Dr. King was — with Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln — our nation’s most effective advocate for the American ideal. How he became so is itself a fascinating story.
King graduated from Morehouse College in 1948 with a degree in sociology. He was unhappy with his major, however, complaining about the “apathetic fallacy of statistics.” While at Morehouse, King decided to change his field of study. He entered Crozer Theological Seminary, where he absorbed the writings of political philosophers “from Plato and Aristotle,” King wrote, “down to Rousseau, Hobbes, Bentham, Mill and Locke.”
In a beautiful tribute to King, delivered at Spellman College in 1986, then secretary of education William Bennett explained why King turned to the liberal arts. In Bennett’s words:
Martin Luther King turned to the greatest philosophers because he needed to know the answers to certain questions. What is justice? What should be loved? What deserves to be defended? What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope for? What is man? These questions are not simply intellectual diversions, but have engaged thoughtful human beings in all places and in all ages. As a result of the ways in which these questions have been answered, civilizations have emerged, nations have developed, wars have been fought, and people have lived contentedly or miserably. And as a result of the way in which Martin Luther King eventually answered these questions, Jim Crow was destroyed and American history was transformed.
In combating segregation, King could easily have gone in a different direction than he did (nonviolent civil disobedience). There were, after all, many competing philosophies within the black community about which way to go: Booker T. Washington’s gradualism, Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement, Malcolm X’s appeal to black nationalism, A. Philip Randolph’s direct-action campaigns, the NAACP’s legal strategy, and W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Talented Tenth” approach among them.
Dr. King’s liberal-arts education helps explain why he chose the path he did. And so, too, did his Christian faith.
While Malcolm X declared that nonviolence was the “philosophy of the fool,” in a sermon in 1956, King argued the opposite:
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. Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos. Read More