Martin Luther King, Jr. at a press conference in June, 1964 World Telegram & Sun photo by Walter Albertin (via Wikimedia Commons)
In July of 1964, fifty years ago this month, Harper & Row published what has often been applauded as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most incisive and eloquent book. Why We Can’t Wait recounts the Birmingham campaign in vivid detail, while underscoring why 1963 was such a crucial year for the civil rights movement. During this time, Birmingham, Alabama, was perhaps the most racially segregated city in the United States, but the campaign launched by Fred Shuttlesworth, King, and others demonstrated to the world the power of nonviolent direct action. King examines the history of the civil rights struggle and the tasks that future generations must accomplish to bring about full equality. The book grew out of ideas in first expressed in King’s extraordinary “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a passionate response to eight white clergymen who argued that racial segregation should be fought in the courts and not by protest in the streets. That famous letter, which is included in the book, was first composed on scraps of paper and in the margins of a smuggled newspaper. It would eventually bring much needed national attention to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s campaign in Birmingham, and become an essential clarion call for the wider civil rights movement.
We are saddened to learn of the death of beloved children’s book author Walter Dean Myers, who wrote so many important and life-changing books for America’s youth, including Bad Boy, Monster, Darius & Twig, Lockdown, and Autobiography of My Dead Brother. He also was a friend to the house, having contributed a wonderful introduction to A Time to Break Silence: The Essential Works of Martin Luther King, Jr. for Students. In that introduction, Myers, who was born in West Virginia but raised in Harlem, wrote about being a young soldier traveling to Louisiana and experiencing segregation there for the first time:
When I arrived in Louisiana, when I saw what institutionalized racism was, I was shocked. Restaurant signs read “Whites Only” or “Colored Served in Rear.” Some stores wouldn’t serve black people, and there were movie houses in which they were made to sit in the balcony or, in some cases, not even permitted to enter.... The signs did more than make me feel uncomfortable; they made me feel sick. I was being told that I wasn’t as good as some people simply because of the color of my skin. And yet I was in the military, ready and willing to sacrifice my life for this country.
Martin Luther King, Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington
Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law. It was a culminating moment in the civil rights movement, a movement that, as author and legal scholar Sheryll Cashin noted in her recent New York Times editorial, far from being isolated to southern black activists, involved an extensive and well-coordinated “grass-roots mobilization [that] was multiracial, from the integrated legion of Freedom Riders, to the young activists in the Freedom Summer in Mississippi, to the more than 250,000 demonstrators in the March on Washington, a quarter of whom were white.” The story of the act’s eventual success is the story of our nation passing through a moral gauntlet. That, fifty years later, we remain uncertain about how best to address the legacy of those racial divisions that first sparked the movement is a testament to how deep the fissures ran. And how brave and dedicated the movement’s heroes were—Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Bob Moses, and others—men and women whose names have entered the lingua franca of American history, synonymous with freedom, righteousness, and moral certitude. As Dr. King says in his classic narrative Why We Can’t Wait, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to work to be co-workers with God.”To celebrate their struggles, and the efforts of all those “co-workers with God” who sacrificed so much to lay the groundwork for the passing of the Civil Rights Act, we’ve put together a list of essential books that we hope will empower the next generation for another fifty years and beyond.
April 4, 1968: Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., just before making his final public appearance to address striking Memphis sanitation workers. King was assassinated later that day outside his motel room. (AP/Wide World Photos)
Note: On March 18, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. first addressed the striking Memphis sanitation workers and their supporters. With no text beyond a few words sketched on paper, King pinpointed the issue in Memphis that affected workers everywhere, particularly those in the service economy and in municipal jobs. In a few words, King added union rights for the working poor to his campaign on behalf of the unemployed in both the cities and the newly mechanized cotton country. Memphis thus became the first real front of struggle in the Poor People’s Campaign. In the piece below, which originally appeared in “All Labor Has Dignity”, a collection of King's speeches on labor, Michael K. Honey places King's final speech on April 3, 1968, delivered the day before his assassination, in the wider historical context of economic justice, revealing King's committment—tragically cut short—to aid the struggles of the working poor everywhere.
“Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.” —Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
After Dr. King’s stunning March 18 speech, strike supporters made hurried efforts to bring him back to lead the united labor-community general strike that he had called for. Instead, supernatural forces shut the city down, in the form of a bizarre snowstorm in the South in the middle of spring. Reverend Lawson joked at the time that Mother Nature had fulfilled King’s demand for a general strike. When King finally did return to lead a mass protest march through downtown Memphis on March 28, angry youths, probably egged on by police agents, disrupted it, smashing windows and providing police with an excuse to go on a rampage. Mayhem and murder ensued. Some seven hundred people went to the hospital, and police killed an unarmed sixteen-year-old named Larry Payne. The national news media and reactionary congresspeople, baited by secret memos from the FBI spinning the events in Memphis, condemned King for “running” from the march (he had pulled out when it turned violent). Memphis had now put King’s Poor People’s Campaign trek to D.C. in jeopardy. King vowed to return to Memphis in his quest to lead a nonviolent march, despite opposition from his staff and a number of warnings that he would be killed if he did. He warned his parents and his wife that someone had put a price on his head. As he left Atlanta for Memphis, airline officials delayed his flight for an hour as they searched for a bomb after someone phoned in a death threat against him. On the evening of April 3, King gave one of his most dramatic and prophetic speeches. In the middle of a violent thunderstorm, with tornadoes and lightning touching down in the surrounding area, King arrived at Bishop Charles Mason Temple without a script, with a sore throat, and slightly ill. Violent weather prevented many people from coming, but nearly all thirteen hundred of Local 1733’s members came, as did some of their strongest strike supporters. To this humble gathering, King poured out his last testament. He looked back through all of human history to this particular moment in time and called on people to appreciate their opportunity to once again change history. King placed the Memphis movement into the context of the long struggle for human freedom, as he had done in his first speech in support of the Montgomery Bus Boycott that had begun in December 1955. And he reviewed his years in the freedom movement since that time with gusto and appreciation.
We close out this year's Black History Month with two prayers from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Collected in “Thou, Dear God”: Prayers That Open Hearts and Spirits, the first and only compilation of its kind, we hear in Dr. King's prayers what editor Lewis V. Baldwin describes as “the soul of a man who realized that the whole of life is lived in a God-centered universe, and that God is able to work wonders and even miracles in nature and in history.”
In the first prayer, “In the Moment of Difficult Decision,” most likely delivered in 1949, we hear Dr. King's early concern for issues of race and equality. In the next, Dr. King, uses Jesus's prayer from the cross as his “sermonic text and point of departure” to draw parallells between forgivness and salvation, suffering and love.
The cumulative effect of the volume is humbling and inspiring at once, as these two prayers reveal. “Undoubtedly,” writes Baldwin, “they show that powerful words can outlive powerful individuals.”
In 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. tackled the difficult work of building multiracial community directly in his conception of the Poor People’s Campaign. Dr. King saw in the Freedom Riders and his increasingly multiracial band of civil rights soldiers an early example of the beloved community he envisioned for the whole of America. One expression of his love for community was seeing the mutuality in all types of human suffering. As Dr. King famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In the end, he did not turn away from the hardest part of community building. In The Trumpet of Conscience, he wrote, “Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation.”
That idea of transcendence was critical to my thinking when writing my new book, Place, Not Race. In it, I attempt to apply the lessons from Dr. King’s theory of mutuality to the debate about affirmative action. I conclude that race-based affirmative action buys some diversity for a relative few, but not serious inclusion. It doesn’t help to build a movement to attack underlying systems of inequality that are eating away at the soul of our nation.
In this year of anniversaries—fifty years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the fifty-year war on poverty—I think it is particularly appropriate to focus on the anti-poverty aspect of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s agenda. Recently President Obama, a black man who has been elected not once but twice, talked during the State of the Union speech about inequality as a signature issue of our time. In this context, I want to reflect on and honor a lesser known March on Washington that Dr. King planned and what it suggests about his mission for how we might build one nation that brings all people along.
In 1967, Dr. King was keenly aware of the importance of broadening the focus of the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 desegregated public accommodation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 attempted to reintegrate politics. After those important watershed victories, Dr. King saw poverty as the next key issue for the movement, and he knew that arousing the nation’s conscience about poverty required a new approach encompassing all of America’s poor. A young African-American attorney named Marian Wright (later Edelman) was director of the Mississippi office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF). She urged Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to focus on employment and job training as a means of alleviating poverty. She recommended that SCLC stage a series of demonstrations in Washington, DC, to bring national attention to this new direction of the movement.
The Rev. Ralph Abernathy often told a story of going to Marks, Mississippi—the poorest hamlet of the poorest county in the nation—with Dr. King as they planned what became known as the Poor People’s Campaign. They visited a daycare center at lunchtime. “There was one apple,” Dr. Abernathy said. “And they took this apple and cut it into four pieces for four hungry waiting students. And when Dr. King realized that that was all they had for lunch, he began to cry. The tears came streaming down his cheek. And he had to leave the room.”
“[Students] are in reality standing up for the best in the American dream. . . . One day historians will record this student movement as one of the most significant epics of our heritage.” —from “The Time for Freedom Has Come”
In the fall of 2011, some of our staff at Beacon, Random House, and the literary representative for the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Estate brought together a blue-ribbon panel of educators, including teachers, librarians, and administrators to discuss how to better teach Dr. King in 21st century classrooms. The first question we asked was whether teachers wanted books, and their response surprised and gratified us. One by one, they responded with a unanimous yes. “Students respect books,” remarked one educator. Others lamented about the mass amounts of incorrect information and untrusted resources online. One teacher even brought in a mess of photocopied pages from various websites, frustrated that this was how she was forced to teach Dr. King’s work in her classes.
Members of the King Legacy Teachers Summit discussing ideas for bringing Dr. King to the classroom.
Exactly fifty-eight years ago today, just days after Rosa Park's historic arrest, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife Coretta watched tensely from their living room window as the first moments of the Montomery Bus Boycott unfolded. Dr. King recounts those anxious early minutes in his book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, part of our King Legacy Series:
There is perhaps no modern President whose legacy resonates in the public consciousness as much as John F. Kennedy's. It was, in a sense, the first modern presidency: The first to be televised—from its historic inauguration to those shocking final moments in Dallas fifty years ago today—and the first to truly grapple with the maelstrom of social unrest that would lead eventually to the posthumous passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, just months after his death. In this first of two posts on JFK's legacy, we reach into some of our recent books for look at the Kennedy administration's complex and evolving relationship with race and the Civil Rights Movement, starting with the struggle between the Kennedy's Secretary of the Interior Stewart Lee Udall and Washington Redskins owner George Marshall over the integration of his team, and ending with an on-the-ground accounting of the 1963 March on Washington for Civil Rights, and JFK's meeting with the major civil rights leaders of the time.
With a new school year just around the corner, students are stocking up on supplies and teachers are polishing their curriculum plans. To help the latter, Beacon offers guides to help in teaching many of our most popular titles. Find these and other teachers guides at our Scribd page and at Beacon.org.
Psst: if you're not a teacher, these guides can still be great tools for reading and comprehending some great books!
Teacher Patricia Rigley shares ideas for lesson plans, discussion questions, and sample assignments.
Long before the avalanche of praise for his work—from Oprah Winfrey, from President Bill Clinton, from President Barack Obama—long before he became known for his talk show appearances, Members Project spots, and documentaries like Waiting for "Superman", Geoffrey Canada was a small boy growing up scared on the mean streets of the South Bronx. His childhood world was one where "sidewalk boys" learned the codes of the block and were ranked through the rituals of fist, stick, and knife. Then the streets changed, and the stakes got even higher. In his candid and riveting memoir, Canada relives a childhood in which violence stalked every street corner.
On August 28, 1963, over 200,000
demonstrators gathered at the National Mall for the March on Washington for
Jobs and Freedom seeking to advocate for social and economic justice. Before
the march, the leaders of the civil rights movement known as the Big Six, alerted
President John F. Kennedy of their intentions, including the advancement of
voter rights, school desegregation, and passage of a comprehensive civil rights
bill. The speakers included such notables as Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins, John
Lewis, and finally Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Toward the end of the event, Dr.
King moved the audience with his now iconic
“I Have a Dream” speech.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Beacon Press is lowering the price of the eBook edition of Why We Can’t Wait to $1.99 on April 16th for one day.
April 16th marks the 50th anniversary of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a passionate response by Dr. King to eight white clergymen who argued that racial segregation should be fought in the courts and not by protest in the streets. The letter is Dr. King’s answer to claims that he was an outside agitator when he was, in reality, a peaceful protester, saying, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” served as the catalyst for the publication of Why We Can’t Wait, which Dr. King began writing in the fall of 1963. The book attempted to explain the “Negro Revolution” by drawing on the history of black oppression in the United States and the growing frustration among African Americans of the neglect of civil rights issues by both political parties. Originally published in 1964 by Harper & Row, Why We Can’t Wait received glowing reviews and further reflects the importance of Dr. King’s letter and his commitment to nonviolent, peaceful protest. It was reissued in 2011 as part of The King Legacy series from Beacon Press.
In 1963, Birmingham was often called the most segregated city in America. After accepting an invitation to engage in a non-violent direct-action program sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s affiliate, Dr. King was forced to choose between helping to raise bail money for hundreds who were already incarcerated for peaceful protest in a massive direct action campaign attacking the city’s segregation system among Birmingham’s merchants, or go to jail himself. According to Dorothy Cotton, who wrote the introduction to the 2010 edition of the book, Dr. King “came face to face with himself as a leader.” He had encouraged others to accept suffering and to accept jail time, and now there was no other alternative.
Ralph Abernathy, left, and Dr. King, are taken by a policeman after they led a line of demonstrators into the business section of Birmingham. (AP/Wide World)
After being jailed on April 12th under the pretense of parading without a permit, Dr. King writes his letter to express disappointment with the “white moderate” community that makes up the white churches, who he believes are more concerned with order than with justice. Dr. King urges for the use of nonviolent direct action, which creates and fosters a tension in a community which has constantly refused to negotiate and is finally forced to confront the issue of segregation. For him, this kind of constructive, nonviolent tension is necessary for growth.
Throughout the letter he outlined the four basic steps to nonviolent campaigns: 1) collection of the facts to determine whether or not injustices exist, 2) negotiation, 3) self-purification, and 4) direct action.
He underlines the definitions of the two kinds of laws: just and unjust. A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God, while an unjust law is one that is out of harmony with the moral code. For Dr. King, segregation is not only politically, socially, and economically unsound, but also morally wrong and sinful—the highest kind of unjust law and for him, “one who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” Underlining the pent up frustrations of the African American community, Dr. King reminds the eight clergymen that to sit around and wait for acceptance and desegregation is impossible. Because freedom must be demanded by the oppressed, Dr. King argues that the best way is to march, and that it is a historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Dr. King was eventually released from jail on April 20th.
The letter began on the margins of scraps of newspaper while Dr. King was isolated in jail. He eventually finished it on a pad his attorneys were permitted to leave with him. Dr. King’s letter circulated and was published in a variety of formats: first as a pamphlet distributed by the American Friends Service Committee, and then as an article in the Christian Century, the New York Post,Ebony, and Christianity and Crisis. The first half of the letter was published in the Congressional Record after being introduced into testimony before Congress by Representative William Fitts Ryan (D-NY). In July of 1963, Dr. King published an excerpt from the letter in the Financial Post, retitled “Why the Negro Won’t Wait.” It appeared in its entirety in Why We Can’t Wait. On the 50th anniversary of its publication, Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” reminds the world why we can’t wait, and why we must continue to struggle toward a nation of peace and social justice.
Today is also the Interfaith Youth Core's Better Together day, a time to wear blue to raise awareness of interfaith cooperation. Read more about it here.
One hundred years ago, the great African-American scholar W.E.B. DuBois famously wrote, "The problem of the 20th century will be the problem of the color line."
History proved DuBois correct. His century saw the struggles against, and ultimately the victory over, systems that separated and subjugated people based on race—from colonialism in India to Jim Crow in the U.S. to apartheid in South Africa.
No American did more than Martin Luther King, Jr., to address the problem of the color line. He spearheaded the marches that revealed the brutality of segregation, made speeches that reminded Americans that the promise of their nation applied to all citizens and expertly pressured the nation's leaders in Washington to pass landmark civil rights legislation.
But to confine King's role in history only to the color line—as giant as that challenge is, and as dramatic as King's contribution was—is to reduce his greatness. In one of his final books, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, King showed that race was one part of his broader concern with human relations at large: "This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited ... a great 'world house' in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu ... Because we can never again live apart, we must learn somehow to live with each other in peace."
This ethos, as King's examples make clear, applies not only to the question of race, but to faith as well. In the same way as the headlines of the 20th century read of conflict between races, headlines in our times are full of violence between people of different religions. Indeed, what the color line was to the 20th century, the faith line might be to the 21st.
Faith as a bridge
King's life has as much to say to us on the question of interfaith cooperation as it did on the matter of interracial harmony. A prince of the black church, deeply rooted in his own Baptist tradition, King viewed his faith as a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division.
When, as a seminary student, King was introduced to the satyagraha ("love-force") philosophy of the Indian Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi, King did not reject it because it came from a different religion. Instead, he sought to find resonances between Gandhi's Hinduism and his own interpretation of Christianity. Indeed, it was Gandhi's movement in India that provided King with a 20th century version of what Jesus would do. King patterned nearly all the strategy and tactics of the civil rights movement—from boycotts to marches to readily accepting jail time—after Gandhi's leadership in India. King called Gandhi "the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force."
Following Gandhi was King's first step on a long journey of learning about the shared social justice values across the world's religions, and partnering with faith leaders of all backgrounds in the struggle for civil rights. In 1959, more than a decade after the Mahatma's death, King traveled to India to meet with people continuing the work Gandhi had started. He was surprised and inspired to meet Indians of all faith backgrounds working for equality and harmony, discovering in their own traditions the same inspiration for love and peace that King found in Christianity.
King's experience with religious diversity in India shaped the rest of his life. He readily formed a friendship with the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, finding a common bond in their love of the Hebrew prophets. The two walked arm-in-arm in the famous civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery.
Later, Heschel wrote, "Our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying."
King's friendship with the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh inspired one of his most controversial moves, the decision to publicly oppose the Vietnam War. In his letter nominating Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize, King wrote, "He is a holy man... His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to a world brotherhood, to humanity."
In his famous sermon "A Time to Break Silence," King was unequivocal about his Christian commitment and at the same time summarized his view of the powerful commonality across all faiths: "This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality" is that the force of love is "the supreme unifying principle of life."
We live at a time of religious conflict abroad and religious tension at home. This would no doubt have dismayed King, who viewed faith as an inspiration to serve and connect, not to destroy and divide. During King's time, groups ranging from white supremacists to black militants believed that the races were better apart. Today, the same is said of division along the lines of faith.
King insisted that we are always better together. Indeed, that pluralism is part of divine plan. To paraphrase one of his most enduring statements: The world is not divided between black and white or Christian and Muslim, but between those who would live together as brothers and those who would perish together as fools.
In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King,
Jr., isolated himself from the demands of the civil rights movement, rented a
house in Jamaica with no telephone, and labored over his final manuscript. In
this prophetic work, which has been unavailable for more than ten years, he
lays out his thoughts, plans, and dreams for America's future, including the
need for better jobs, higher wages, decent housing, and quality education. With
a universal message of hope that continues to resonate, King demanded an end to
global suffering, asserting that humankind-for the first time-has the resources
and technology to eradicate poverty.
by Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Lewis V. Baldwin
An unprecedented and timely
collection that captures the global vision of Dr. King—in his own words
Too many people continue to think
of Dr. King only as "a southern civil rights leader" or "an
American Gandhi," thus ignoring his impact on poor and oppressed people
around the world. "In a Single Garment of Destiny"is the
first book to treat King's positions on global liberation struggles through the
prism of his own words and activities.
From the pages of this extraordinary collection, King emerges not only as an
advocate for global human rights but also as a towering figure who collaborated
with Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert J. Luthuli, Thich Nhat Hanh, and other national
and international figures in addressing a multitude of issues we still struggle
with today-from racism, poverty, and war to religious bigotry and intolerance.
Introduced and edited by distinguished King scholar Lewis Baldwin, this volume
breaks new ground in our understanding of King.
Featuring the essay: "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence."
An inspiring call for Americans to defend the values of
inclusiveness and pluralism by one of our best-known American Muslim leaders
There is no better time to stand up for your values than when they are under
In the decade following the attacks of 9/11, suspicion and animosity toward
American Muslims has increased rather than subsided. Alarmist, hateful rhetoric
once relegated to the fringes of political discourse has now become
frighteningly mainstream, with pundits and politicians routinely invoking the
specter of Islam as a menacing, deeply anti-American force.
In Sacred Ground, author and renowned interfaith leader Eboo
Patel says this prejudice is not just a problem for Muslims but a challenge to
the very idea of America. Patel shows us that Americans from George Washington
to Martin Luther King Jr. have been "interfaith leaders,"
illustrating how the forces of pluralism in America have time and again
defeated the forces of prejudice. And now a new generation needs to rise up and
confront the anti-Muslim prejudice of our era. To this end, Patel offers a
primer in the art and science of interfaith work, bringing to life the growing
body of research on how faith can be a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier
of division and sharing stories from the frontlines of interfaith activism.
Patel asks us to share in his vision of a better America—a robustly pluralistic
country in which our commonalities are more important than our differences, and
in which difference enriches, rather than threatens, our religious traditions.
Pluralism, Patel boldly argues, is at the heart of the American project, and
this visionary book will inspire Americans of all faiths to make this country a
place where diverse traditions can thrive side by side.
A renowned Muslim activist's personal story of building a global interfaith youth movement that might just change the world. Includes a new afterword by the author.
Acts of Faith is a remarkable account of growing up Muslim in America and coming to believe in religious pluralism, from one of the most prominent faith leaders in the United States. Eboo Patel's story is a hopeful and moving testament to the power and passion of young people-and of the world-changing potential of an interfaith youth movement.
by Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt. Foreword by Walter Earl Fluker
The first biographical exploration of one of the most important African American religious thinkers of the twentieth century—Howard Thurman—and of the pivotal trip he took to India that ultimately shaped the course of the civil rights movement.
In 1935, at the height of his powers, Howard Thurman, one of the most influential African American religious thinkers of the twentieth century, took a pivotal trip to India that would forever change him-and that would ultimately shape the course of the civil rights movement in the United States.
After the journey to India, Thurman's distinctly American translation of satyagraha into a Black Christian context became one of the key inspirations for the civil rights movement, fulfilling Gandhi's prescient words that "it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world." Thurman went on to found one of the first explicitly interracial congregations in the United States and to deeply influence an entire generation of black ministers-among them Martin Luther King Jr.
The global Martin Luther King, Jr. has occupied my thinking for some two decades. I have often wondered how the man who, in his book The Trumpet of Conscience(1968), described himself as “a citizen of the world,” could be so ignored in terms of his international significance. Even King scholars have largely neglected King’s vision of what he variously termed “the world house,” “the new world order,” and “a new humanity.” Knowing that King’s birthday is recognized and/or celebrated in some one hundred countries, I set out to produce a volume of his writings and speeches on racism as a world problem, European colonialism, global poverty, war, the Middle East crisis, and religious bigotry and intolerance.
In a Single Garment of Destiny reclaims the global Martin Luther King, Jr. through the prism of his own words and activities on behalf of world peace and community. I have come to see that we cannot understand King if we limit him to a southern black preacher or an “American Gandhi.” We must view him as a leader who moved beyond the particularities of the African American and the American experiences to speak and act on behalf of a world fragmented by bigotry, injustice, intolerance, and war.
“The dreamer” is the title by which Martin Luther King, Jr. is known around the world. While he spoke optimistically of the coming realization of the “American dream,” we must never forget his larger vision of “a world made new.” This is why King, in his last two books, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?(1967) and The Trumpet of Conscience, focused so much on world problems, on racism, poverty, and war, and on the need for humans across the globe to move beyond a mere intellectual analysis of nonviolence to an experimentation with that method in every sphere of human conflict.
As a world figure, King transcends the past in terms of his meaning, authority, and inspiration. He still has meaning for the contemporary world, especially as we deal with environmental protection concerns, post-Cold War ethnic cleansings, global terrorism, genocide, religiously-based violence, political assassinations, and the mounting cycles of violence, repression, and reprisal in the Middle East. We need a new appreciation of King’s thought and legacy in the contemporary world.
At today's Inauguration, President Obama will be using the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's bible. The symbolism of the president's choice is striking. King was of course profoundly religious, although this is sometimes lost in our thinking of him as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. In reality, however, these two aspects of King's character--the religious man and the secular leader--were intertwined, as is illustrated in the story behind the collection of his best-known homilies.
As Dr. King prepared for the Birmingham campaign in early 1963, he drafted the final sermons for Strength to Love. King had begun working on the sermons during a fortnight in jail in July 1962. Having been arrested for holding a prayer vigil outside Albany City Hall, King and Ralph Abernathy shared a jail cell for fifteen days that was, according to King, ‘‘dirty, filthy, and ill-equipped’’ and “the worse I have ever seen.” While behind bars, he spent uninterrupted time preparing the drafts for classic sermons such as “Loving Your Enemies,” “Love in Action,” and “Shattered Dreams,” and continued to work on the volume after his release.
Beacon Press recently brought out, as part of the King Legacy Series, a new version of this book. A Gift of Loveincludes these classic sermons, along with two new preachings. Collectively they present King’s fusion of Christian teachings and social consciousness, and promote his prescient vision of love as a social and political force for change.
The following passage, "Loving Your Enemies," is an apt meditation for today. The inauguration puts to rest a combative campaign season even as we watch our leaders, having narrowly avoided the fiscal cliff, square off for battles over the debt ceiling and gun control on Capitol Hill. Perhaps if they could take to heart King's exhortation to "discover the meaning of this command and seek passionately to live it out in our daily lives," we might enter an era of more civil, productive discourse in Washington.
From "Loving Your Enemies"
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be children of your Father which is in heaven. matthew 5:43–45
Probably no admonition of Jesus has been more difficult to follow than the command to “love your enemies.” Some men have sincerely felt that its actual practice is not possible. It is easy, they say, to love those who love you, but how can one love those who openly and insidiously seek to defeat you? Others, like the philosopher Nietzsche, contend that Jesus’ exhortation to love one’s enemies is testimony to the fact that the Christian ethic is designed for the weak and cowardly, and not for the strong and courageous. Jesus, they say, was an impractical idealist.
In spite of these insistent questions and persistent objections, this command of Jesus challenges us with new urgency.
Upheaval after upheaval has reminded us that modern man is traveling along a road called hate, in a journey that will bring us to destruction and damnation. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love even for enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world. Jesus is not an impractical idealist: he is the practical realist.
I am certain that Jesus understood the difficulty inherent in the act of loving one’s enemy. He never joined the ranks of those who talk glibly about the easiness of the moral life. He realized that every genuine expression of love grows out of a consistent and total surrender to God. So when Jesus said “Love your enemy,” he was not unmindful of its stringent qualities. Yet he meant every word of it. Our responsibility as Christians is to discover the meaning of this command and seek passionately to live it out in our daily lives.
Let us be practical and ask the question, How do we love our enemies?
First, we must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. It is impossible even to begin the act of loving one’s enemies without the prior acceptance of the necessity, over and over again, of forgiving those who inflict evil and injury upon us. It is also necessary to realize that the forgiving act must always be initiated by the person who has been wronged, the victim of some great hurt, the recipient of some tortuous injustice, the absorber of some terrible act of oppression. The wrongdoer may request forgiveness. He may come to himself, and, like the prodigal son, move up some dusty road, his heart palpitating with the desire for forgiveness. But only the injured neighbor, the loving father back home, can really pour out the warm waters of forgiveness.
Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning. It is the lifting of a burden or the cancelling of a debt. The words “I will forgive you, but I’ll never forget what you’ve done” never explain the real nature of forgiveness. Certainly one can never forget, if that means erasing it totally from his mind. But when we forgive, we forget in the sense that the evil deed is no longer a mental block impeding a new relationship. Likewise, we can never say, “I will forgive you, but I won’t have anything further to do with you.” Forgiveness means reconciliation, a coming together again. Without this, no man can love his enemies. The degree to which we are able to forgive determines the degree to which we are able to love our enemies.
An unprecedented and timely collection that captures the global vision of Dr. King—in his own words
Too many people continue to think of Dr. King only as "a southern civil rights leader" or "an American Gandhi," thus ignoring his impact on poor and oppressed people around the world. "In a Single Garment of Destiny" is the first book to treat King's positions on global liberation struggles through the prism of his own words and activities.
From the pages of this extraordinary collection, King emerges not only as an advocate for global human rights but also as a towering figure who collaborated with Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert J. Luthuli, Thich Nhat Hanh, and other national and international figures in addressing a multitude of issues we still struggle with today-from racism, poverty, and war to religious bigotry and intolerance. Introduced and edited by distinguished King scholar Lewis Baldwin, this volume breaks new ground in our understanding of King.
"Baldwin's readable, thoughtful, and fresh compilation gives full voice to King's belief that "[a]ll inhabitants of the globe are now neighbors."—Publishers Weekly
In the early evening of April 4th, 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. His lifelong philosophy of nonviolence and dedication to economic and social justice moved the nation.
The King Legacy Series website has many resources available, including teachers guides and biographies of King and the scholars involved with the series. In addition, we include here some links to excerpts from the books as well as audio and video that celebrates the man and his writing.
May we pray. Eternal God, our Father, help us to love Thee with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and our neighbors as ourselves. And help us to realize that we have a moral responsibility to be good and conscientious but also to be intelligent. And grant that we will always reach out for that which is high, realizing that we are made for the stars, created for the everlasting, born for eternity. In the name and spirit of Jesus we pray. Amen.
Martin Luther King, Jr. From "Thou, Dear God": Prayers That Open Hearts and Spirits.
Lewis V. Baldwin is professor of religious studies at Vanderbilt University and an ordained Baptist minister. An expert on black-church traditions, he is author of The Voice of Conscience: The Church in the Mind of Martin Luther King, Jr.; There Is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr.; and Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. He is the editor of "Thou, Dear God": Prayers That Open Hearts and Spirits, the first and only collection of prayers by Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Thou, Dear God": Prayers that Open Hearts and Spirits represent the culmination of years of research and scholarship on the life, vision, and activities of Martin Luther King, Jr. I have authored five books on King, served as a co-author of two, and, recently, as the editor of the collection of King's prayers. All of these books take seriously the issue of King's cultural identity and legacy. My aim over the last two or more decades has been to capture as much as possible what constituted the essence of this phenomenal and often controversial figure. "Thou, Dear God" tell me that the answer ultimately lies in the core of King's spirituality, which includes, among other things, his prayers and his prayer life. These are a vital part of that cultural and spiritual bond which connects King to generations of his forebears and to that larger and broader history of Christian spirituality. They are also a part of that spiritual bond that links King to people of different faith claims and ideologies. Any perspective to the contrary misses the point of "Thou, Dear God."