Martin Luther King Jr. is, without doubt, the greatest American figure in the 20th century. A Baptist priest of vast intellectual depth and complexity, King was also a systematic political thinker. His thoughts on non-violence and his struggle against segregation and inequalities in the US influenced several generations of non-violent thinkers and activists.
Upon his assassination on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was hailed by The New York Times as “the leader of millions in non-violent drive for social justice.” Many around the world continue to consider King as the American Gandhi who through his method of non-violent direct action succeeded in arousing the American nation to the evils of racism and poverty and preparing the enactment of historic civil rights legislation. Was it not for King’s creative strategy of non-violent action, Barack Obama would not have been the first black president of the United States. King’s dream of total interrelatedness and his vision of the beloved community have fueled the concept of the American Dream in the past 50 years.
This historical breakthrough was the outcome of a long period of philosophical incubation that constituted King’s intellectual evolution. King was influenced by writers such as Walter Rauschenbusch, George Davis, L. Harold DeWolf, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, but he also adopted the Gandhian principle of non-violence. In other words, King had not only a sound understanding of Christian thought, but also an acute awareness of Western philosophy.
King was deeply influenced by his upbringing in African-American religious life, but his training years at the Morehouse College followed by his graduate studies at Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University had a deep impact on his radical way of thinking. King traced his intellectual incubation in the following terms: “Not until I entered Crozer Theological Seminary in 1948, however, did I begin a serious intellectual quest for a method to eliminate social evil.” After reading Nietzsche, Rousseau and Hegel, King studied the thought of Gandhi and observed: “The intellectual and moral satisfaction that I failed to gain from the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, the revolutionary methods of Marx and Lenin, the social contract theory of Hobbes, the ‘back to nature’ optimism of Rousseau, and the superman philosophy of Nietzsche, I found in the non-violent resistance philosophy of Gandhi.”
Of course, King did not strictly deduce his doctrine of non-violence from reading Gandhi, but also from his own metaphysical and theological explorations and from his intellectual confrontations with philosophical ideas. King came to regard non-violence as an intrinsic deduction from the principle of “personality.” One has to look at King’s innumerable references to the idea of “personal God” and to “the sacredness of human personality” to understand the theoretical and practical connections between non-violence and personalism in King’s thoughts and actions. He explains this influence in these words: “More than ever before I am convinced of the reality of a personal God. True, I have always believed in the personality of God. But in the past the idea of a personal God was little more than a metaphysical category that I found theologically and philosophically satisfying. Now it is a living reality that has been validated in the experiences of everyday life.”
Confronting the racial dilemma in America, King read intensively into the Gandhian philosophy as a new and powerful weapon against injustice. He recognised Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy of non-violence for the effectiveness of his own campaigns in areas such as integration and voting rights. He became Gandhi’s greatest disciple, by embracing Gandhi’s Satyagraha as a method of struggle for the emancipation of blacks in America.
King’s anthropological optimism provided him with a solid trust in the place of justice in history. In a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in April 1967, he asserted: “I have not lost faith, I am not in despair because I know that there is a moral order. I have not lost faith because the arch of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” King’s insistence on God’s justice is the important connection between striving for Christian love and establishing the Gandhian strategy of non-violence. Accordingly, King’s wedding of agape love and Gandhian non-violence is virtually an original point of view in the development of American political thought.
In King’s view, to restore the broken community in America we need to replace the love of power by the power of love. This is founded upon the conviction that agape love is: “understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill toward all men. Agape is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. Theologians would say that it is the love of God operating in the human heart.” By relating agape to community interrelatedness, King tries to draw a critical argument against the degrading and inhuman conditions of African Americans in the American society. Here King’s prophetic role plays its part, because he turns Gandhi and the Gospel into social tools for a better social, political and economic order. Therefore, King considers the beloved community as the logical and inevitable outcome of the synthesis of the Gospel of Jesus and the Gandhian strategy of non-violence. King proclaimed: “All men are interdependent. Every nation is an heir of a vast treasure of ideas and labour to which both the living and the dead of all nations have contributed.”
Today, nearly 50 years after his assassination, King’s vision of the beloved community is more relevant than ever in American society and beyond. More than ever, we need to put a spotlight on King’s moral leadership in a world where no politician can be called a moral leader.