This week our nation paused to reflect upon the remarkable life of Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement toward “beloved community” that he helped lead. King’s life and legacy are never far from our minds here at New City Commons. Rather than point you to the many worthy pieces of scholarship and journalism about King that vie for your attention, this week we bring you four pieces by King himself. These pieces, which come from various stages of his life and ministry, provide helpful resources for our own struggle toward what King called the “simple art of living together as brothers.”
The first piece is “The Negro and the Constitution,” an address King gave as a 14-year-old junior at Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School. Here, in his first recorded public address, King puts pressure on the basic tension at the heart of the American experiment, claiming that for all the public acclaim black artists, civic leaders, or athletes may accrue, “black America still wears chains.”
The second piece, “Some Things We Must Do,” is an address to the Montgomery Improvement Association from December of 1957. Marking the two years since its beginning, King describes the Montgomery bus boycott as a “movement that would stagger and astound the imagination of the oppressor, while leaving a glittering star of hope etched in the midnight skies of the oppressed.” King’s profile had been raised significantly by this point, and his confusion over how to navigate his role representing the movement while also leading it is apparent on nearly every page. However, King’s conviction was always that the civil rights movement was an assertion of the basic dignity of each and every human being. This is why he points out the equal value of Ph.D.’s and “No D’s” within the movement, saying that the key to the movement will be avoiding “the extremes of hotheadedness and Uncle Tom-ism.” It is in this way, King argues that the civil rights movement can be nonviolent without becoming bitter or acquiescing.
The third piece is King’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. Just recently, the Nobel Committee released audio of the address, allowing us to hear the points of emphasis in a remarkable speech. For King, the chief problem facing humanity at this juncture in history is what he calls the “spiritual and moral lag” endemic to modern life. That lag is the gap between the increased power of humanity over the external material world and the diminishment of soul that King sees all around. “Enlarged material powers,” as he puts it, “spell enlarged peril if there is not proportionate growth of the soul.” For King, this lag shows itself in our inability to address ongoing racial injustice, material poverty, and war.
The final piece for your consideration is King’s 1967 address on the Vietnam War, given in New York City’s famous Riverside Church. Titled “Beyond Vietnam,” King begins by agreeing with the claim that “a time comes when silence is betrayal.” In recounting the path from “Montgomery to here,” King argues that the “vocation of sonship and brotherhood” places a burden upon all people to speak beyond the claims of nationalism in favor of the oppressed, for the weak and voiceless. And this he does, arguing that the “world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve,” precisely because this maturity will require an admission of wrongdoing and a recognition of a “deeper malady within the American spirit.” “We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate,” King says, “or bow before the altar of retaliation.” Rather, we should initiate what King calls a “true revolution of values” that culminates not in bitterness, strife, and violence but a “creative psalm of peace.”
In our age, many of the struggles King encountered endure. And yet it seems that so few of us engage those struggles with the vision of brother- and sisterhood that animated King’s ministry. We offer these pieces in hopes that as we labor toward peace and flourishing in our own time, we might do so with the resources found in King’s uniquely powerful moral vision.