There are many definitions of the word ‘hero’ in the world, and it is regularly applied to courageous individuals in many areas of life, such as soldiers in a war, athletes who set new records, scientists who make great discoveries that benefit humanity, or astronauts traveling to the moon. Marin Luther King was certainly a person of exceptional courage who risked death many times before he was finally assassinated in 1968. He was also beaten, imprisoned and attacked by the Ku Klux Klan as well as the state and federal authorities in the cause of civil rights for blacks. On one occasion, his house in Montgomery, Alabama was blown up when his family was still inside, and in another the KKK blew up the hotel where he was staying in Birmingham. In spite of all this, he adhered to the pacifist and nonviolent principles of Jesus Christ and Mahatma Gandhi, and refused to use violence even against those who threatened his life and that of his followers. His movement for black civil rights was the most successful in U.S. history and a model for many others that followed it, and led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act.
There can be no question of Martin Luther King’s heroism in the sense that he often displayed tremendous physical and moral courage in the face of overwhelming odds that would probably have caused most people to give up in despair. King was a PhD in theology, after all, and could have had a pleasant, middle-class life as a professor or pastor of a church, without ever having to be concerned about the poor and the oppressed. There are many people who live like that, but no one would ever classify them as heroes of the same stature as Martin Luther King. Instead of living comfortably and quietly, though, he chose to become a leader of the civil rights movement, starting with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-56, which led to the desegregation of busses in that city. Later, the protests he led in Birmingham in 1963 and Selma, Alabama in 1965 brought about the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, which effectively ended legal segregation and disenfranchisement of blacks in the United States. In the last three years of his life, King continued to give speeches and organize demonstration demanding greater educational, employment and economic opportunities for the poor and minorities, and in opposition to the Vietnam War. He did see the connections between imperialism and aggression overseas and the oppression of minorities at home, and this earned him the hostility of President Lyndon Johnson. At the time of his assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968, he was leading a campaign in support of striking sanitation workers, while organizing a Poor People’s March on Washington.
Throughout his many struggles, King held firmly to very high ethical and moral principles that derived from the teachings of Gandhi and Jesus Christ, in that he insisted that all of his followers remain nonviolent no matter what violence was done to them by their enemies. As a young graduate student in theology in the 1940s, he realized that Gandhi’s movement of nonviolent protest that had brought about the independence of India in 1947 could be applied to the system of Jim Crow segregation in the South. Sit-ns, boycotts and mass demonstrations had already been used in the U.S. on behalf of civil rights, including in the proposed March on Washington in 1941, which actually occurred only 22 years later under King’s leadership. At the same time, he also stated that the realist Reinhold Niebuhr was one of his most influential teachers, whose advice he sought when writing his dissertation (Patton 1977). Like Niebuhr, he believed in original sin and the fallen condition of humanity, which was evidenced by the world wars, genocide and weapons of mass destruction in the 20th Century. Given the sinful nature of humanity and human institutions, there would never be any utopia or paradise on earth, although he disagreed with Niebuhr that the values of love, humility and charity in Christ’s teachings were “not practical in human society” (Paulishek, 2007, p. 55).
King believed that peace, love and nonviolence were the only hope for the world to escape another global war in which all life would be destroyed by nuclear weapons. He agreed with Niebuhr that modern humanity had also made idols out of the state, as well as money and material possessions and the new scientific and technological marvels. Modern idolatry had created a thing-centered society instead of a person-centered one, and that the American empire risked being judged like those in the past for its love of wealth and power rather than humanity. Like Niebuhr, King was skeptical of the “false optimism characteristic of a great segment of Protestant liberalism”, and was quite critical of liberal and moderate white clergy in the South in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (Niebuhr Stanford.edu). They preferred a life of peace and quiet while leaving a system in place that was horrendously just to blacks, and offered only the pious hope that it might gradually change for the better sometime in the future.
Such a passive, do-nothing philosophy was the opposite of King’s, though, and he recognized from the start that his role of prophet and leader of the civil rights movement would very likely mean martyrdom in the end. He was well-aware that Christ, Gandhi and many other prophets had died violently, but he was ready for death at any time. In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington, he insisted that the U.S. would have “neither rest nor tranquility” until it actually lived up to its founding principles (King 1963). Even 100 years after the end of slavery, blacks were still in poverty and denied equal citizenship and voting rights, and this was simply unacceptable. At the same time, he cautioned that “the marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people” (King 1963). He rejected the Black Nationalism and separatism of leaders like Malcolm X, and even the use of violence for self-defense. This was a very difficult principle for most people to follow, since it essentially meant accepting martyrdom with retaliation, and in fact feeling love for even for enemies. By this King did not wish his followers to confuse the term ‘love’ with ‘like’, since obviously he did not like those who blew up his house or threatened to kill his wife and children. Rather, he used the term agape, which defined love in divine sense of respect and understanding for all life, and the belief that showing peace and goodwill would effectively disarm even the worst enemies.
King’s nonviolent strategy was successful in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, and even though a number of people died in these protests, the outcome would have been far bloodier on both sides had violent methods been used. As King pointed out, the violent urban riots in 1965-68, although born out of poverty, oppression and despair, were also a great setback for the civil rights movement, and the overwhelming majority of the casualties were blacks killed by the police and military. In contrast, the Civil Rights Act also benefitted women and other minorities, in that it outlawed discrimination in employment and education, as well as segregation in all public facilities and accommodations (Gold, 2010, p. 114). Under the Voting Rights Act, federal registrars and election monitors were sent into the South for the first time since the 1870s, and ensured that blacks would be permitted to vote even in areas where this had never been allowed before in U.S. history. In accomplishing this, King had forced the hand of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who feared that the Democrats would lose the white vote in the South forever, and as Johnson told a close associate after signing the 1965 Voting Rights Act “I think we just delivered the South to the Republicans for a long time to come” (Gold, p. 115). This was true, of course, and in many respects it opened the door to the conservative backlash of the next three decades, but nevertheless it was still morally right.
King could have retired in comfort after 1965 and gone down in history as a great and heroic leader, enjoying praise, honors and his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, but he did not choose a life of relaxation and ease. In fact, the last three years were often the loneliest of his life and are still generally forgotten in the ‘official’ history of King, yet they were also his most heroic. He pointed out in his 1967 speech “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” that 80% of blacks still had very limited educational and economic opportunities, yet they were dying in Vietnam at double the rate of whites (King 1967). All throughout the North, the urban ghettos were exploding because of the people in them were “confined to a life of voicelessness and powerlessness” (King 1967). He called for an end to the Vietnam War and a new federal anti-poverty program that would raise incomes and living standards for the poor and minorities, which is also why he supported Senator Robert Kennedy in his campaign to unseat Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 elections. King fully expected to be assassinated as a result of this type of criticism of the U.S. economic system and foreign policy, and to lose public support among many whites, but he kept on with his Poor People’s Campaign until his death in April 1968. Very little changed because of his efforts during the final three years of his life, either at that time or in the decades ahead, and many of the statements he made in 1965-68 have seemingly been blotted out of the public discourse and memory. Even so, the true heroism of King was that he courageously persisted in a cause that he thought was morally right, even if it had no immediate prospect of success and indeed led directly to his death.
Gold, S.D. (2010). The Civil Rights Act of 1964. Marshall Cavendish.
Grofman, B. (2000). Legacies of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. University of Virginia Press.
King, M.L. (1963). “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, April 16, 1963.
King, M. L. (1963). “I Have a Dream” in Sylvan Barnet and Hugo Bedau (eds). Critical Thinking, Reading, and Writing: A Brief Guide to Argument. Bedford/St. Martin’s 2010: 541-44.
King, M. L. (1967). “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”
Niebuhr, Reinhold (1892-1971). Martin Luther King and the Global Freedom Struggle.
Reinhold Niebuhr: Sin & Power.
Paulishek, K. (2007). “Reinhold Niebuhr, Christian Realism, and Just War Theory”, 2007: 53-72.
Patton, H. G. (1977). Reinhold Niebuhr. Religion Online.