Values into action: Martin Luther King Jr

We arrive here today from all our different activities and obligations
Involved in lives that distract and pull at us
Inside, each of us carries great hopes and desires
We bear values that shape our vision of who and what we long to be
By the light of this flame, may our deepest commitments come into sight and be forever in our view
May they guide us toward the actions that will fulfill our dreams


Speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. (Excerpt)

Delivered 28 August 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition… 

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism… 

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. *We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: "For Whites Only."* We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream..." 

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day… 

Message, by Andy Pakula

On this day, eighty-seven years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. was born.

He died in 1968, at the age of thirty-nine, killed by an assassin’s bullet.

For the last thirteen years of his life - from his mid-twenties until his death - he was engaged in American civil rights struggle. In that short time, he became a central figure in that struggle, talked with and met US presidents and foreign leaders, spoke before more than a quarter million people at the 1963 March on Washington, inspired many millions more, helped to eliminate racist laws and practices, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Some years after his death, a national holiday was created to honour his legacy.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a leader. He was a strategist. He was a visionary. Martin Luther King, Jr. took action. 

Today - as part of our three-month exploration of ‘values into action’ we will look at his life and his work. We will look for inspiration. We will look for understandings about strategy. We will look at the very human side of how any person can overcome the enormous challenges that can easily keep us from putting our own values into action.

Last week, we explored the life and work of Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the most successful and best known British campaigners for women’s voting rights.

We had a number of questions in mind as we did that and as we will do today.

Does anyone live in a way that their actions perfectly match their values?

What accounts for the gap between our values and our action? 

How do we take effective action? 

Can anyone take effective action or is it something that only some can do? Can it be learned?
How do the strategies we choose relate to our values?

What makes one person act while another turns away from oppression or is paralysed by it?
How do our values and actions depend on our level of privilege?  

Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, Martin Luther King was not born with that name. He was Michael King and his father was also Michael King. Michael King Sr. was a Baptist pastor. He had a chance to travel to Germany for an international Baptist conference when his elder son was five years old. Inspired by the history of Martin Luther, the great protestant reformer, he changed his name and the name of his elder son to Martin Luther King.

Martin Luther King, Jr. came from a family of Baptist preachers. His father, of course. And on his mother’s side, both his grandfather and great-grandfather were Baptist preachers. Martin would say that he became a preacher himself more because of the family tradition than because of any intense sense of divine calling.

Martin Luther King, Sr., who came to be called ‘Daddy King’, had grown up in a desperately poor family in rural Georgia. Racism, for him, was a brutal and constant reality. In just one of many ways that racism showed up in his life, his own father had to hide in the woods for months to avoid being lynched.

Daddy King left his rural home and moved to Atlanta, where he became pastor at the important Ebenezer Baptist church where he would stay for four decades, wielding great influence over Atlanta’s black community and even some respect from the city’s white community.

The elder King was also an early and prominent member of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. was thus born into an environment with a personal knowledge and experience of oppression, a commitment to the values of freedom and equality, a family history of leadership in the African-American community, and an established tradition of activism.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s childhood was very different from that of his father. Atlanta was a place where racism - although pervasive - was not the constant terrifying and life-threatening reality it had been for his father. 

Martin did not grow up in poverty. The household was relatively prosperous. He was able to get a good education, attending the high school is maternal grandfather had helped to found and to the college that his father attended. 

Lest we think that Martin was from childhood an obvious leader destined for his future role, it is important to see that the indications were far from clear. Martin was not particularly good in school. His father, Martin Sr., was very demanding and strict. He beat Martin until he reached the age of 15. And it seems that Martin suffered from depression for most of his life - probably beginning in his early years.

When Martin was 19, it was arranged for him to attend Crozer Theological Seminary in the north in Pennsylvania. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. may have come to be thought of as some kind of saint. He was most certainly not - at least in the sense of having perfect morals and a deep sense of selflessness. At Crozer, he developed a very strong pride in his appearance - a pride that approached vanity. He also began, as biographer Godfrey Hodgson put it, a ‘habit of sexual adventure’ with women. It was a habit that would continue into his marriage and through the rest of his short life.

In 1951, at the age of 22, Martin entered a PhD programme at Boston University’s theological school. 

In his first term in Boston, we can see aspects of his personality that would help to propel his future leadership. King attracted admiration and respect. As Hodgson described it, King ‘...became a figure of some distinction among the many African-American students in the city.’ And Hodgson quotes one friend’s recollection: ‘He was like a prince.’ King did not lack for presence, for charm, or for charisma.

It was also in Boston that King met his future wife, Coretta Scott. They were married in 1953 and had four children over a period of eight years. Their gender roles were very traditional. Martin was what we would now call sexist. Coretta was not permitted to be part of his life and work. He would limit her role to mother, wife, and homemaker. It was only after his death that she became an activist and leader in her own right.

In 1954, at the age of 24, Martin Luther King, Jr. became the pastor of Montgomery, Alabama’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Dexter - while not the largest - was the most prestigious Baptist church in Montgomery. The young King was now Montgomery’s highest paid African-American minister and one of its most visible.

It would not be long before Martin was propelled into the civil rights struggle. It was the year after Martin took up his pastorate at Dexter that Rosa Parks - an African-American woman - famously refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger and was arrested. Contrary to some tellings, this action was not spontaneous. Parks was deeply involved in the civil rights movement and her action was an intentional challenge to the system of segregation on the Montgomery bus system.

Although King had not been the planner of this campaign, when the Montgomery bus boycott began, King - with his eloquence, intelligence, visibility, and charisma - was chosen to be the leader.

The boycott lasted more than a year and led to a court ruling that desegregated Montgomery’s public buses. King spent time in jail, his house was bombed, he received constant threats, and he gained enemies not only among the white population but among African-Americans as well.
This was to set the pattern for most of the future actions King would undertake. There was always danger - both to the leadership and to the many unsung heroes who risked their lives for the cause. 

There was always division among the civil-rights advocates with their own leaders, their own strategies, their fears and their jealousies. 

There was always a delicate and impossible to resolve conflict about strategy and tactics.

There was the need to keep the many civil-rights factions happy but also the importance of applying enough pressure to get results but not so much as to alienate white allies.

King would go on to co-found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It was through this organisation that he led actions that defined and shaped an era in American civil rights, including those in Birmingham and Selma Alabama where the non-violent tactics of African Americans and their white allies were met with brutal treatment from authorities. 

King’s strategy was non-violent resistance. To some extent, these could be successful because the white establishment needed the African Americans for their labour and their business. This was the case in the bus boycott, where 90% of bus riders were black and the bus companies were dependent on them.

The strategy also worked because the stories and images of suffering that emerged from the clashes between white authorities and black and white protestors shocked the nation. It had been easy to ignore racism in the abstract. It was much harder to do so morally and politically when barbaric action by authorities was splashed across newspaper front pages.

Non-violent resistance was a strategy that made King and his colleagues too radical for some prospective allies and too tentative for others. He was invariable pulled by civil rights forces demanding both less and more aggressive action.

King was not a pacifist and was not a complete adherent to non-violence. His appreciation of Gandhi’s example apparently came later and seemed to grow on him over the course of his life and work. Was his choice of non-violence a matter of faith and of morality or was it a matter of necessity. 

All the power and most of the weaponry was in the hands of the enemy - the white establishment. To take a more aggressive approach to civil rights would have been futile and likely suicidal.

In 1964, the US congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legally putting an end to segregation. In 1965, it would pass the Voting Rights Act to make illegal the pervasive suppression of black voting in the south.

In 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work against racism.
Although the civil rights struggle was not over - it continues to this day in many forms - the actions of congress changed the struggle and its focus.

In the mid 1960s, King’s focus began to broaden. From the brutal and overt racism of the south, he began to focus on the more civilised and yet pervasive racism of the north. He began, too, to move his efforts beyond the African-American community. He spoke out strongly against the US war in Vietnam. 

He began to focus on role that poverty played in destroying the lives of people of all kinds. In 1968, he and his colleagues began the Poor People’s Campaign. The intention was to create "a multiracial army of the poor" that would engage in activism and protests until congress passed an equivalent of the Civil Rights Act - an "economic bill of rights" for poor Americans.
It was during this new work that King was killed.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was an imperfect man who gave much to the American people and the people of the world. His work arguably accelerated the advent of civil rights for African Americans. He also brought focus to the struggles of economic inequality and lent his weight to the opposition of the war in Vietnam.

And King made a large and lasting contribution to non-violent activism, demonstrating that this approach could bring victory to the oppressed over oppressors who seemed to have all the power and tools of the state at their disposal.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a human being. He did what he did not alone, but with many allies and many many more unsung followers willing to risk their security, safety, and their very lives for the cause.

Why was King able to put his values into action in such a powerful way?

He was a relatively privileged member of an oppressed people. He was born into relative comfort. He gained a good education. He grew up with the influence gained from the position of religious leaders in the African-American community. All of these advantages helped him.
King was also deeply committed. He was driven by his values and by his ambition. As the eldest son and the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Baptist preachers, he knew he could have influence and he knew that the expectations upon him would be high.

And King was courageous, which is perhaps simply of way of saying that he could tolerate pain in himself and in others. The many many times he was imprisoned, the constant risk of injury and death, the many times he was attacked, the very real danger to his family and the imprisonment, assault, and death of his followers - these were a constant in his life - a constant that he managed to accept to move toward his vision.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was imperfect, which is to say again that he was a human being. He was vain and he was ambitious. He was unfaithful time and again to his wife and spent only minimal time with her and their children.

In his academic work, he is accurately accused of plagiarism, although - given the scope of his life and work - this seems to pale in significance.

None of us will be like Martin Luther King, Jr. The way we put our values into action will be very different from his, and yet there is much we can learn from his life.

There are skills and strategies to be learned. Even King failed often and the challenging, uncertain work of activism is not something to be entered into without careful planning and thought.

Sacrifice is an inevitable part of confronting power. Each of us must know this as we think about putting values into action in the world. We must be clear about the relative weight we ascribe to our values and to the well-being of ourselves and others. We must consider what we are willing to risk for justice, for equality, for peace.

Activism can be done without compromising our values. We do not need to return hate with hate or violence with violence. 

And there are many roles to play in the work of making a more just world - roles large and small - visible and recorded by history, but mostly the smaller and often unnoticed roles that are as essential to change as are its known leaders.

As we contemplate the ways we put values into action on the larger stage of the community, the city, the nation, or the world, we must consider the skills and talents we bring. We must explore our values and the ways in which those values are crushed by the powerful. We must analyse how we can be effective. We must consider what we can and are willing to bear.

And then, we must act. Values mean nothing without putting them into action. 

May we be among those who put values into action - helping to create the just world of which we dream.

In a world where oppression continues
In a world where injustice is a constant reality
Let us know and stand by our values
Let us, each according to our nature and talents, take action
Let us do our part to realise the dream of a world of justic