Philosopher of the Week. January 20th, 2003.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

Atlanta, Georgia, United States

"Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather that to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love." These words are the basis for the philosophy of one of the most famous of modern American philosophers, Martin Luther King, Jr.

King was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. He was a very gifted student who skipped ninth, tenth, and twelfth grades. He attended college at the age of 15. He became a Christian minister after graduation from college. He would later earn a Ph.D. and earn the title of "Doctor." During his studies, King was introduced to Mohandas Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolent protest, which he later incorporated into his own thinking.

King began to gain attention as a civil rights leader while he was a pastor in Montgomery, Alabama. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was ordered to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus. She refused and was arrested and put in jail. King was chosen to lead the organization that directed the bus boycott to protest the segregation of city buses. It was a year before the Supreme Court ordered that the buses be desegregated. King's book, Stride Toward Freedom, was written about the bus boycott. "In our struggle against racial segregation in Montgomery, Alabama, I came to see at a very early stage that a synthesis of Gandhi's method of nonviolence and the Christian ethic of love is the best weapon available to Negroes for this struggle for freedom and human dignity."

In 1957, King helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization that worked to end segregation by nonviolent means, such as marches, demonstrations, and boycotts. As a leader of the SCLC, he was put in jail during a protest in Birmingham, Alabama. While in jail, he wrote "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" to argue that individuals had the moral right and responsibility to disobey unjust laws. "The question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be."

King delivered his most famous speech at the 1963 March on Washington, a protest for jobs and civil rights held in Washington, DC. "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.'" This speech and the march, based on the nonviolent philosophy of King, helped create the political momentum that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It made it illegal to segregate public accommodations, such as buses, restaurants, and hotels, as well as using race to discriminate in education and employment.

His success as a leader of the American civil rights movement resulted in King being awarded the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. In his speech he explains his philosophy, "I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant."

In 1965, King also led the SCLC in organizing a voting-rights protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. It was met with severe violence from the police, but was later continued with 20,000 people ending in the march in front of the Alabama capitol building. This march led to the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which suspended the use of literacy tests and other voter qualifications tests that were used to prevent blacks from registering to vote.

Although his life was threatened many times, King refused to give up his fight for freedom: "A man who won't die for something is not fit to live."

King's efforts began to change focus to include the economic difficulties of blacks throughout the country. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." In 1968, this new focus led King to Memphis, Tennessee, to support striking black garbage workers. While there, a sniper, James Earl Ray, assassinated him.

King predicted that his memory would live on, because, as he stated, "If you will protest courageously, and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written in future generations, the historians will have to pause and say, 'There lived a great people - a black people - who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.'"

Classroom Discussion Questions

How would Martin Luther King, Jr., have answered the question, what is the meaning of life?

If King were still alive, what injustices would he be protesting today? Support your answer.

If the United States was going to follow the example of King, what options would they have in the current situations in Iraq and North Korea? Or their reaction to September 11th?

The civil rights movement had more leaders and philosophies than those of King. Who were some of the other leaders and what were their philosophies? How did they compare to King? Overall, who accomplished the most? Why?

If you could ask Martin Luther King, Jr., one question, what would you ask and why?

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