Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Law of Love Meets Character Assassination

While Gandhi was yet alive, a group of American Negroes led by Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929 – 1968)came to him to see what he might have to say to them in their own struggle for equality and social dignity.  Gandhi responded,

Let us realize that the future is with those who would be truthful, pure and loving.  For, as the old wise men have said, truth ever is, untruth never was.  Love alone binds and truth and love accrue only to the truly humble.

The struggle of the American Negro did not cease with the Fifteenth Amendment’s promise of political freedom and civil rights: it did not guarantee the Negros’ inclusion and participation in the fabric of society.  Fredric Douglass, a leading Negro leader of his time, who died in 1895, drew from the Hegelian doctrine of progress-through-struggle to draw his people on in that struggle.  He encouraged his people,

The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. . . . If there is no struggle, there is no progress. . . . Power concedes nothing without a demand.  It never did and it never will . . . If we are to get free from the oppression and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal.  We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if need be, by our lives and the lives of others.

It was its Hegelian philosophy of right and its theological teachings of personalism that drew Martin Luther King to Boston University.  The theology of personalism held that the key to the meaning of the universe and of life is in the fact that not only man, but also God, is “supremely personal.”  God cares.

It was these philosophies of personalism, of struggle, and of right that led Martin Luther King into the midst of the American Negro’s struggle for full participation in society.  King was also profoundly effected by the life and example of Gandhi.

Whereas the British resisted Gandhi’s struggle with physical force and imprisonment, the powers of the United States added to that arsenal character assassination.  The early boycotts in the Civil Rights Movement of the Fifties and Sixties had some remarkable success in drawing the attention of the country to the exclusionary fact of segregation.  That resistance was primarily peaceful.  It was the absolute innocence of the marchers and boycotters which commanded the attention of the nation.  If that was the power of resistance, reasoned the white establishment, then its own defensive power lay in attacking the innocence and integrity of the resistance leaders.  Martin Luther King became the primary target.

The State of Alabama concocted two charges against King for perjury in filing state income tax returns.  It had a calculated effect upon King, upon the American Negro who looked to him for moral leadership, and upon the country whose conscience was raised by the example of his and the Negro’s oppressed innocence.  King said later that he was overwhelmed by shame of his arrest on the charges.  They were not true, but how could he effectively counter their devastating effect?  Upon his arrest, he canceled a speaking engagement in Chicago and retreated, believing he had been robbed of the appearance of any moral authority.  The weight of this loss, effective by the mere charge and  resultant innuendo, was overwhelming.  How could he go on without an effective means of defense?  It was then that King realized that in the struggle for life and freedom each has his or her cross to bear.  He discovered that it required more courage to face disgrace than to face death.  King rescheduled his plane and appeared at Chicago.

King was later acquitted by a jury of twelve white men, but he said afterward that the case hit him the hardest because “I was being attacked on honesty.”  One writer noted in King’s addresses a “new note of anguish.”  He believed King had come to understand that the Biblical command to “overcome evil with good” did not promise that good would necessarily triumph immediately.

Oppression is often the crucible of progress where the call to justice confronts old ideas with obstinate fact.  While in Birmingham jail, confronted with the isolation which it was intended to accomplish, King came to a fresh understanding of old truths, dynamically poised in the immediacy of the moment.  He wrote,

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.  It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

For Gandhi some of the new ingredients that elucidated the old expressions of truth were Tolstoy and Rushkin; for King it was Hegel.  Here, King was referring to the creative tension to which Hegel’s dialectical method referred.

King continued in his letter:

. . . [T]here are two types of laws: There are just laws and there are unjust laws.  I would agree with St. Augustine that “An unjust law is not law at all. ”

He cited St. Thomas Aquinas in defense of his position:

An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law: any law that uplifts human personality is just.  Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

It appears that King’s view of Natural Law would agree with Blackstone.  But King made a distinction, at least in practice, between the moral authority of an unjust law and its political authority.  Whereas an unjust law has no legal authority for the conduct of a just person, nonetheless, a just person recognizes its political authority and accepts the consequences for disobedience to that law.  It is in this way that moral action confronts unjust authority: when the morally innocent accept punishment for right action.  It was that contradiction which set up the creative tension through which the “is” of the unjust law was confronted by the moral “ought.”

In Birmingham jail King answered the criticism by Billy Graham and some black leaders that he had become an extremist.  “Was not Jesus an extremist in love? . . . ; was not Amos an extremist for justice? . . . So, after all, maybe the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”

The political climate changed, which enabled President Kennedy to bring to bear federal force to ensure black rights in the South.  When Kennedy was assassinated, King viewed it as a direct result of a “morally inclement climate.”  He noted that violence and hatred had become popular pastimes – and displayed as such on television.  Through creative tension, product of the incarnation of extreme love and truth in action, Civil Rights legislation finally was passed to concretely apply those great principles of our Founders.

I intend in the near future to return to this, to develop the ideas and the actions of Dr. Martin Luther king junior and to explore the life and ideas of the converted Muslim, Malcolm X, as, through that religion, he also came to the law of love.


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