Martin Luther King

In the Name of Love?

In Birmingham, Alabama 1963

by Ros



"If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love. And the beautiful thing is that we are moving against wrong when we do it, because John was right. God is love. He who hates does not know God, but he who has love has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality." Martin Luther King 1929 - 1968



In the twentieth century, even throughout the course of history, few men have had their leadership described as spiritual, ethical, genuine, moral or exemplary. Many leaders and political figures, even those who start out with the most honest and best of intentions, are eventually overcome by ego, self-absorption and narcissistic motives.

It is human nature that even in extending oneself for the good of others that the ego usually derives some benefit for the individual to want to carry on. How would Martin Luther King have been remembered had he not died prematurely? Did the dramatic and violent deaths of King, Jesus Christ and Gandhi elevate these men to hero status? Had they lived to a ripe old age and died of natural causes, would their works have been forgotten more easily? Would an unexciting finale or more time have tarnished their images and have history record them as corrupt manipulators acting purely upon their own interests of self-gain and self-glorification?

Even now, in spite of King's premature and untimely death, he has also been remembered by some as a communist, womaniser, troublemaker, outside- agitator and egotist. He has been accused of privately ridiculing and mimicking opposing officials during the Civil Rights movement and pushing the cause for Black Rights for his own egotism.

Some of what has been said about King has factual credence. King's closest confidantes acknowledge his womanising. J Edgar Hoover kept an FBI dossier on King that his closest friends have since said worried King endlessly about the damage that could be done to his credibility and the movement in general.1 (Video Martin Luther King)

The time has come

The Civil Rights movement was still in its infancy when King was reluctantly thrusted into its leadership during the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored (NAACP), founded in 1909, had worked for many years amassing data on the unfairness and discrimination of the school system and fighting segregation in the courts. Negro people were frustrated, but lacking direction into how to effect positive change. Then, a few months prior to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, tensions came to a head as the acquittal of the murderers of fifteen year old Emmet Till evoked outrage from both black and white communities. Myrlie Evers recalls her husband Medgar's frustration and anger of wanting to physically strike out and hurt as he investigated Till's murder on behalf of the NAACP.2 Prior to Till's murder, people were afraid of speaking out, fearing economic and physical retaliation. But the circumstances of the case were so extreme and emotive, that the quiet fear was beginning to convert to open anger. Mass rallies were staged with barely contained restrained as outrage simmered close to the surface.3

African Americans knew something had to change, but lacked the leadership and guidance in how best to positively direct that change. Whether King became involved or not, the Civil Rights movement was a fait accompli. However, the movement's success depended on strong, unwavering leadership to keep the group cohesive.

In hindsight, it is difficult to tell if any other leader would have been able to remain as strong and loyal to nonviolent philosophies as King did during the movement's most trying times.

The Man and his Philosophies

Burrows describes King as a Principled reformist. He explains that the practitioners of reformist nonviolence aim to identify particular elite policies as the cause of social problems and to used short to medium term campaigns to change the policies within the existing social framework. 4

King's commitment to non-violent reform was based on the principle that "All men are equal". He believed that a united movement could change the existing situation by showing their plight to all people in a nonviolent manner and gaining their understanding.

The primary philosophy was on nonviolent resistance, noncooperation and passive resistance. This had evolved from Christian love with the Sermon on the Mount words of "Turn the other cheek" and "love your neighbour/ oppressor"5 but gradually expanded to include the successful practices of Mohandas Gandhi's philosophy of satyagraha.6

This doctrine operated on the concept of agape love, the concept of the love of God working in the minds of men. It is the fundamental underlying premise in not working against the individual, loving the person and not the deed. King knew that retaliatory hate would only intensify the existence of evil. He states "We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love; we must meet physical force with soul free"7

For nonviolent resistance and the capacity to love, not for the expectation of self-gain but because it is the right way to operate to create a peaceful harmony within the world, one requires a separation from ego and an extension of self. It is a discipline can only be achieved by adapting it as a way of life and having the belief written on the heart. Genuine agape love, King states, is best assured when one can have love for the enemy-neighbour from whom no good can be expected in return, but only hostility and persecution.8

King parallels agape love to Jesus' command to "love your enemies". He explained that loving your enemies did not necessarily mean liking them, or liking what they did.9 I believe that it means understanding that underneath the veneer of the imperfect human beings lies the Spirit of God in every man, even your enemy. By showing love to another, the cosmic nature of goodness can be revealed and reciprocated by your enemy.

The effort in the nonviolent resister was to not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding. It is the system being attacked not the individuals who are caught up in it.10 Like Gandhi, King had a good understanding of the complexity of human motives and the reality of sin on every level of man's existence.11 He realised that man is a complex make up of the capacity for both good and evil. He explains that there is a "strange dichotomy of disturbing dualism within human nature."12

King discusses his appreciation for the philosophy of existentialism.13 Existentialism14, as I understand it is that the individual must assume responsibility for his acts without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad. I feel that this is the foundation for Gandhi's philosophy that there are many truths.15

King describes that, in the beginning, nonviolence didn't make sense to most of the people. He made it clear that nonviolent resistance is not a method of cowardice. It does resist. That the nonviolent resister is just as opposed to the evil that he is standing against as the violent resister but he resists without violence. To be nonaggressive physically but strongly aggressive spiritually.16

King knew that the Negroes had to break down the walls of racial hatred. They had to learn forgiveness of their oppressors and seek peaceful means to resolution or they would be devoid of the power to love.

Burrowes explains that to gain success in a nonviolent campaign, effective leadership is a vital factor "The willingness of leadership figures to act openly and fearlessly in the face of repression is vitally important in giving others the confidence to act".17 While King expressed his fears occasionally in his writings,18 he was willing to subject himself time and again to incarceration for civil disobedience to enhance the cause.

King's willingness to commit Civil Disobedience was based on the belief that one has as much of a moral obligation to refuse to cooperate with evil as they had an obligation to cooperate with good. A law that degraded the human personality was unjust, a law that uplifted the human personality squared with a moral law and was a just law. If the majority inflicts a law on the minority that it does not make binding upon itself, then the law is unjust.19

King believed that there were some laws that may be just on the face and unjust in their application. In Birmingham, he was arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. He felt that laws enacted to maintain segregation and deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest were unjust.20

There was criticism by some that King was a rabble-rouser who was too vocal and too much of a rush to secure changes that were already in the process of being effected. Many accused him of being an outside agitator who would arrive at a town and stir up the local community and then often leave the people with more disruption and less peace than before he came. In Birmingham, King seemed more intent on direct action that created an immediate barrier with the newly elected City Administration and appeared to thwart dialogue and successful, albeit slow-moving negotiation.

King counters this by explaining that the Negro people had waited two hundred years for change. They had, through fear and low self-esteem accepted the oppression at the cost of their spirit and that any segregation was demeaning to the human soul no matter how it was cloaked. Responding to the local clergy he explains that it was an historical fact that any privileged group seldom gives up their privileges voluntarily. While individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.21

He believed that in any nonviolent campaign the following is needed: (1) collection of the facts, (2) negotiation, (3) self-purification, and (4) direct action.22 The gathering of factual data is required to present the case to the majority so that they may understand the grievances of the movement. King's failure to express specific and concrete grievances in Albany was one of the contributing factors to its failure. Negotiation: required to effect changes and reach a mutually satisfactory conclusion. Self-purification: love for the opposer, non-violence and forgiveness is needed for the soul to be able to grow closer to and with God. Finally direct action is needed.

Sharp explains that this type of nonviolent activism; sit-ins/marches/non-violent obstruction with fearlessness and disobedience will eventually paralyse the social and political system until change is necessary.23

His constant leadership, public profile, oratory ability and practice of respectful challenge aimed to convert the opponent. One of the main aims of conversion is to offer a new point of view either by reason or argument. The goal of nonviolent action is to convert by emotional and moral persuasion or by suffering. King was active in his involvement through his direct participation in rallies and marches, demonstrating his willingness to accept the consequences of illegal marches - incarceration. He held prayer meetings, nonviolent workshops, and vigils to encourage the support of the Negro community.

King was appointed by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and dealt with private tensions between the SCLC, the NAACP and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The SNCC represented the Negro youth, and though publicly the senior leaders of SCLC and NAACP praised the students, "some of the older black leaders were lukewarm to the wildcat sit-in movement". King eventually managed to unite these groups and offering them a collective and concrete goal. So moved was he by the students' dedication to nonviolence that he decided to join them for a one-day sit-in in Atlanta where he was arrested for sitting in the Magnolia Room restaurant of Rich's Department Store.24

Of course, some of this is clever politicking in leadership. To unite groups and factions will ensure your own objectives are reached. However, if those objectives are for the advancement of those that you are leading and that is priority over needs for the self, then the efforts are extended in love and for the good of all.

Another measure of King's sincerity and genuineness was his willingness to risk injury to himself, even death to make gains for the benefit of the Negro community. King faced bombings of his home and hotel headquarters. He and his family were continually threatened. He was jailed and locked and at times locked in solitary confinement. Stabbed in 1958, facing physical violence frequently at demonstrations, he was assassinated on 4th April 1968.

King admonished the local clergy and expressed his disappointment in their lack of active support for the movement. He felt that their do-nothingness and beliefs that the gospel had no real concern for social issues lacked the true ecclesia and spirituality that Christianity should possess.25 In the basic Christian ethic, every man should be respected because God loves him and is a son and brother not determined by the colour of his skin.

Whilst King was accused of being an outside agitator, he maintained that whilst negative peace may be the absence of tension, hidden tension was still alive and positive peace could not be obtained without creative constructive nonviolent tension. This is what was necessary for growth. As he explained to the ministers, his aim was to "Create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation"26

Another of Kings reasons for adopting nonviolence and love in the struggle for Civil Rights was that nonviolence allowed the Negro to develop a new image of himself. He felt that nonviolence helped to diminish long-repressed feelings of anger and frustration. By hating segregation but loving the segregationists, the Negro was able to forgive the transgressor and thwart his own growth of bitterness.27

If one is able to assert dignity and worth in their mind they are able to stand up and regain self-esteem. For the Negro, this also required a transformation of the ghetto and easing the mindset that the Negro had lived with of being a second class citizen. In the latter years King realised that strength also had be organised in terms of economic and political power. It was that strength that would bring about social, political and economic change.28 I believe that most forms of powers, however the means or the intention by which they are attained, brings about its own problems. As a part of human nature, the gaining of power creates an arrogance that inevitably tramples on some smaller group. This is also seen in the "mob mentality"29 or on a larger scale the emergence of the United States as an economic and military superpower that I feel has brought with it an arrogance and attitude of being beyond reproach. King understood this and recognised the possibility that it could occur in any group, even the Negro. He stated:

"Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love."30

King also spoke out on a number of causes outside Civil Rights. As a believer in nonviolence he was appalled at the action the United States was taking in Vietnam. Perhaps is it best summed up when he writes "The western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just......this business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love." 31

King realised that nonviolent philosophy requires a planning and intense commitment of a sustained direct-action movement. He recalls many men of violent tendencies who took up the nonviolent discipline. The challenge he faced after the Civil Rights movement was for the Negro people to maintain their nonviolent methods.32


It is somewhat difficult to imagine how the civil rights movement might have gone and how bloody it could have been without his steady unwavering leadership and dedication. King had an innate sense of perception on human nature and could usually judge his opponents and their weaknesses with amazing accuracy. I feel that one who uses the primary motive of love has this ability given by God, and in most cases, God willing, it is the best chance of a successful outcome. Perhaps James Washington describes it best in Testament of Hope when he states:

"Many of us came to believe that Dr King's leadership embodied the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, a powerful moment in the career of the struggle for freedom. We wanted to believe that God was on our side, and we believed that King's life, and the movement he led, constituted a powerful testament of hope."33

James Baldwin said that King "has succeeded, in a way no Negro before has managed to do, to carry the battle into the individual heart and make its resolution the province of the individual will. He has made it a matter, on both sides of the racial fence, or self-examination"34

"If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love. And the beautiful thing is that we are moving against wrong when we do it, because John was right. God is love. He who hates does not know God, but he who has love has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality."

Martin Luther King 1929 - 1968


  1. Video - Martin Luther King Jr Biography - The Man and the Dream, A&E and BBC from the "Men of Distinction" series.
  2. Williams, Juan. 1987, Eyes on the Prize - America's Civil Rights Years 1954 - 1965, "The NAACP in Mississippi: An Interview with Myrlie Evers" p 46.
  3. Ibid "Standing for Justice" p 52
  4. Burrowes, Robert J. 1996. The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense - A Gandhian Approach, State University of New York Press, pp 99-100
  5. King, Martin Luther Jr, 1991 "An Experiment in Love" from A Testament of Hope, Harper Collins pp16-17
  6. Satyagraha was the philosophy adopted by Mohandas K Gandhi. (satya, truth which equals love, and graha is force: satyagraha thus means truth-force or love-force)
  7. King, Martin Luther Jr, 1991 "An Experiment in Love" from A Testament of Hope, Harper Collins pp16-17
  8. Ibid p 19
  9. Ibid p 19
  10. King, Martin Luther Jr, 1991 "The Power of Nonviolence" from A Testament of Hope, Harper Collins pp 12-13
  11. King, Martin Luther Jr, 1991 "Pilgrimage to Nonviolence" from A Testament of Hope, Harper Collins p36
  12. King, Martin Luther Jr, 1991 "Love, Law and Civil Disobedience" from A Testament of Hope, Harper Collins p47
  13. King, Martin Luther Jr, 1991 "Pilgrimage to Nonviolence" from A Testament of Hope, Harper Collins p37
  15. Mohandas K Gandhi 1869 - 1948 discussed that one person's truth may not be that of another. It is based on the views and influences by which they lived.
  16. King, Martin Luther Jr, 1991 " The Power of Nonviolence" from A Testament of Hope, Harper Collins p12
  17. Burrowes, Robert J. 1996. The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense - A Gandhian Approach, State University of New York Press, p 191
  18. King expresses this in "A Strength to Love". He realised that his fears needed to be overcome or the movement would falter. He credits God for giving him strength to go on.
  19. Disobedience" from A Testament of Hope, Harper Collins p49
  20. King, Martin Luther Jr, 1991 "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" from A Testament of Hope, Harper Collins pp 293 - 294
  21. Ibid p 292
  22. Ibid p 290
  23. Sharp, Gene. 1973, The Politics of Nonviolent Action Part Three, "The Dynamics of Nonviolent Action" Porter Sargent Publishers, pp523 - 524
  24. Williams, Juan. 1987, Eyes on the Prize - America's Civil Rights Years 1954 - 1965, "Down Freedom's Mainline" pp 140-142
  25. King, Martin Luther Jr, 1991 "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" from A Testament of Hope, Harper Collins pp 298 - 301
  26. Ibid pp 290 - 292
  27. King, Martin Luther Jr, 1991 "The Ethical Demands for Integration" from A Testament of Hope, Harper Collins p 125
  28. King, Martin Luther Jr, 1991 "Where do we go from here?" from A Testament of Hope, Harper Collins pp 246 - 247
  29. Angier, Natalie "Ideas & Trends; In the Crowd's Frenzy, Echoes of the Wild Kingdom" New York Times, The Week in Review, Sunday, July 9, 2000
  30. King, Martin Luther Jr, 1991 "Where do we go from here?" from A Testament of Hope, Harper Collins p 247
  31. King, Martin Luther Jr, 1991 "The Trumpet of Conscience?" from A Testament of Hope, Harper Collins p 640
  32. King, Martin Luther Jr, 1991 "Showdown for Nonviolence" from A Testament of Hope, Harper Collins p 69
  33. King, Martin Luther Jr, 1991 "Editor's Introduction" from A Testament of Hope, Harper Collins p xiv
  34. Ibid p xiv