[This essay appeared in the Ttampa News (FL). It is adapted from a talk that retired professor Tom Rose gave at Temple Beth-El in St. Petersburg, FL, on January 13, 2017.]
What were the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s deepest values and thoughts that allowed him to overcome evil and search for good among all peoples? They are based on interconnected and intersecting themes, including universalism, war and peace, violence and nonviolence, passivism, justice and love, and the struggle for jobs and freedom.
UNIVERSALISM. Just before he was murdered, King was making plans with his family to share Passover Seder with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and his family at their apartment in New York City, and in those weeks before he was shot King was planning a retreat with Trappist Monk Thomas Merton at the Gethsemani Abbey near Louisville. King was very attracted to Merton, who wrote more than 70 books. Merton had a great understanding of Buddhism and other Eastern religions that he translated into English. They shared an admiration for Gandhi and his commitment to nonviolence and justice. King and Merton embraced other religions for their common related human ethics and values.
King had a close relationship with Rabbi Heschel, who joined the front line of the 1965 Voting Rights March in Selma. Heschel worked not only with King but with his close friend and aide, Andrew Young, who later become ambassador to the United Nations. Later, Heschel defended King against those who attacked his 1967 speech about Vietnam. According to his daughter, Susannah Heschel, her father linked his relationship with King to his own childhood in Warsaw and escaping Nazi Germany. There was a connection for Heschel of how Jews were treated in Germany and how blacks were treated in America, both like animals. Professor Heschel wrote that her father saw the march as prophetic Judaism in the traditions of Hasidism in which walking could be a spiritual experience.
King’s father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., born in 1899 and known as Daddy King, was the prophetic voice in the black church, which was the center of the community and family. After completing his education, the younger King returned to the pulpit of the black church, first in Montgomery, Ala., and then in 1960 to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where his father has preached since 1931. Most of his colleagues in the civil rights movement were black ministers schooled in the same biblical tradition.
In addition to his family, King had many other mentors including Stanley Levison, “his closest white friend and the most reliable colleague of his life,” as King biographer Taylor Branch put it; A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Bayard Rustin, his assistant who organized the 1963 March on Washington; and the Rev. Howard Thurman, who was dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University when King began his doctoral studies there in 1951.
Thurman, born in Florida in 1899, had been a student in the 1920s at Morehouse College with his fellow classmate and friend, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. Thurman led an African-American delegation to South Asia in 1935 where he met with Mahatma Gandhi, and this relationship is one of the connections to King’s love of Gandhi, nonviolence and the appreciation of all religions. Thurman wrote more than 20 books and his popularity remains steadfast today. King carried a copy of his book Jesus and the Disinherited in his pocket.
WAR AND PEACE, VIOLENCE AND NONVIOLENCE. Thurman was the spiritual adviser to King, James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality, and A.J. Muste, a founder of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Merton, Thurman, Farmer and Muste all touched and influenced King’s life. They all understood the connection between the struggle for civil rights and the independence of colonial peoples, including the atrocity of the Vietnam War.
While a student at the liberal Crozer Theological Seminary outside Philadelphia beginning in 1948, King began reading theologian and activist Reinhold Niebuhr. Throughout his life, he was influenced by Niebuhr’s books, especially Moral Man and Immoral Society, which he read in the fall of 1950. Taylor Branch in his three-volume history of King writes, “the Niebuhr influence went to the heart of the public and private King and affected him more deeply than did any other modern figure, including Gandhi …”
Niebuhr and Rabbi Heschel were close friends and neighbors, and Niebuhr was on the board of Tennessee Highlander Folk School where Rosa Parks and King studied before the Montgomery bus boycott. The director of Highlander, Myles Horton, was a student of Niebuhr in the 1930s.
King’s “Letter From the Birmingham Jail” is well known, but most Americans are not familiar with the speech he gave at Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” He preached that the U.S. government is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” and he connected the war with economic injustice and racism.
King opposed the war because it took money and resources that could have been spent on social welfare at home. King believed in a redistribution of resources, and he was a democratic socialist like Bernie Sanders. He argued we should spend more on ending poverty, and that a nation that spends more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching “spiritual death.” King loved and supported the United Nations and everything for which it stood. He believed in a universal message that all religions and peoples are one. In 1967 at the United Nations, King argued:
“It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the U.N. and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.”
NONVIOLENCE. From the early days of the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott, King believed that inequality and racism should be confronted with nonviolence, and he referred to Gandhi as “the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent change.” Following the successful bus boycott, King and his wife, Coretta, began a five-week tour of India in 1959. The trip was arranged by the American Friends Service Committee. The AFSC believed in nonviolence and conscientious objection to war. AFSC nominated King for the Nobel Peace Prize, an honor they had received in 1947. King himself won the 1964 prize.
King said, “To other countries I may go as a tourist, but to India I came as a pilgrim.” Upon his return, he praised nonviolent resistance and compared the discrimination of India’s untouchables with America’s race problems. His trip to India profoundly affected his life and many others who were influenced by him.
JUSTICE, LOVE, JOBS AND FREEDOM. Under King’s leadership, a large group of southern Baptist pastors established the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957. The catalyst for this was Rustin, who wrote a number of background papers and argued “treatment of Negroes is a basic spiritual problem … to seek justice and reject all injustice.” Ella Baker was the executive secretary and link to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was the lead organization in the 1960s sit-ins embraced by King, who worked with the Rev. James Lawson, organizer of nonviolence workshops in Nashville and throughout the South, supported by the SCLC.
The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was organized by Randolph and his assistant Rustin, both longtime associates of King. Although King was not intimate friends with Bob Dylan, who sang When the Ship Comes In and Only a Pawn in Their Game at the march, they shared a love of Old Testament prophets. King was close friends with folk singer Joan Baez, who helped launch Dylan’s career. Baez had a long, close relationship with King, and he visited her when she was imprisoned for blocking the entrance in 1967 to the Armed Forces Induction Center in Oakland, Calif., and spent time with Baez’s family. She sang at many King events, and they shared many values including opposition to nuclear weapons, nonviolent passive resistance, the civil rights movement and peace.
Rustin’s role in the march and in the overall civil rights movement is significant. “Rustin’s biography is particularly important for lesbian and gay Americans, highlighting the major contributions of a gay man to ending official segregation in America. Rustin stands at the confluence of the great struggles for civil, legal, and human rights,” King biographer Branch wrote.
They were part of the labor movement and were able to bring the support of unions to the march. King addressed the failures of justice and encouraged others not to be silent in the face of injustice. The theme was jobs and freedom, and his personal theme was “I have a dream,” but as you can see this is only one part of his life. “I have a dream” was pushing back the darkness of our times and replacing it with hope, compassion, love and goodness of all peoples. King believed “that any nation failing to provide jobs ultimately cannot govern.” Working with others inside and outside the government, he believed we could change the world.
Tom Rose, a retired social psychologist and college professor living in Palm Harbor, became a participant in the civil rights movement in 1959. He has written a book called “Black Leaders: Then and Now” and edited another book called “Violence in America: A Historical and edited another book called “Violence in America.”