MLK 50 years on: They killed the dreamer but they could not kill the dream

MLK 18 Sept 2018

Trevor L Jordan, PhD.

To this day, it remains a mystery to me how the words and actions of an African American Baptist preacher from the Southern states of the USA could influence a young, white teenager from suburban Brisbane. The streets of Graceville in the 60s

were not exactly seething with radicalism and dissent. As to Martin Luther King’s possible sources of influence on me, I was not brought up in a religious family. I doubt my family had either the energy or inclination even to be atheists or agnostic. They did, however, send me to the local Methodist Sunday School. But even that was predictably ‘white bread’. There were Aboriginal children at our school; they were mostly residents in what was at the time euphemistically called a ‘home’. I did see them mistreated by teachers. One teacher humiliated a boy in front of us all by giving him an obscure instruction to ‘count the nails’ (in the floor), then whacking him with the metal edged ruler. More distressingly to my young sensibilities, these kids were routinely picked on by their white school mates, in and out of school. Perhaps these, and my own three unjust canings for minor issues, and being sent home early in Grade 2, attuned me to an unfair and wobbly universe. But, really, when it comes down to it, perhaps the two most significant influences on me were that Methodist Sunday School upbringing and, believe it or not, television.

In the 1960s, ‘reality’ was still strongly signified in the media by black and white images. Some of you might recall the iconic photojournalism of Life magazine. Occasional snippets of the American Civil Rights struggle came into our living rooms, newspapers or magazines in graphic black and white. That struggle itself was a struggle between black and white, dominated by images of white police and their dogs attacking black demonstrators, or angry white students verbally abusing and spitting on black students enrolling in colleges, or black churches being bombed, hooded Klansmen and burning crosses. There was some irony, then, that, for a time, at the centre stage stood the figure of Martin Luther King, Jnr, (MLK) proclaiming that injustice can only be overcome through a nonviolent struggle that in the end brought oppressors and oppressors together in a ‘beloved community’.* Inspiring excerpts from his ‘I have a dream’ speech circulated around the globe and became iconic.

Those who think that MLK achieved prominence because he was a voice of moderation entirely acceptable to the bourgeois mainstream white community, have little understanding of how nonviolent direct action involves determined and repeated confrontation with deeply embedded injustices and it often provokes furious and violent reactions from opponents. While all nonviolent struggles can have their kumbaya moments, and they do envisage and hope for and end state where the oppressed and their former oppressor can be so transformed and no longer in enmity, the nonviolent road to that ‘beloved community’, as MLK called it, was via direct and sustained confrontation with unjust systems and structures.

To be sure, the sufferings of the oppressed, whether minorities or the majority, mean little to those in power; such suffering is, in fact, the routine outcome of structures of exploitation. The systematic devaluation of others stands at the heart of structural violence. Physically inscribing power and inequality on the bodies of others through direct acts of violence (or the mere threat of doing so) is fundamental to maintaining those structural inequalities. Such overt violence must be justified, or as the sociologists would say, legitimated, by ‘othering’ the victims, separating them either symbolically or actually from the rest of the community. The psychologist Erik Erikson referred to this social precondition for committing acts of violence as ‘pseudo-speciation.’ Where there are no fundamental biological differences between homo sapiens, we create them symbolically and divide our social world into ‘us’ and ‘them’.

If the suffering of others, then, is a routine feature of oppressive structures, what these systems cannot cope with, either practically or symbolically, is self-suffering; that is, suffering that is willingly taken on by one segment of the community in opposing injustices. Even more so, it cannot cope with actions which seek to counter the ‘us versus them’ constructions that justify inequality by challenging oppression without at the same time physically or psychologically annihilating the oppressor. Oppressive systems cannot cope with what MLK called a universal, excessive and dangerous altruism.

So much for the metanarrative of violence versus nonviolence. What of its embodiment in the life of MLK? No saint but an ordinary man who was inspired to use his gifts and talents to encourage others to take the path least travelled – that of nonviolent direct action against the evils of racism, poverty and war.

MLK had a dream, as he observed, ‘deeply rooted in the American dream’. The dream was not, and is not, the creed the ‘all men [humanity] is created equal’. The dream was that as nations we ‘will rise up and live out’ that dream. The dream is to have the hope, the faith and the courage ‘to work together, pray together and struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.’ It was a dream fully conscious of ‘the jangling discords of our nation’. A dream not to escape reality but to transform it. And because we are all ‘caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny’, MLK believed, our methods of social change must ‘dignify the humanity of the social change advocate as well as his or her adversary’.

MLK’s dream was a dream rooted in, and watered by, an existing tradition of active nonviolence in the USA which took its inspiration from the Gandhian method of nonviolence resistance.

It was a dream that required organising and the working together to further its aims. ’When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men [people] must build and bind.’

It was a dream deeply rooted in the culture and language of his faith tradition.

It was a dream that saw love as ‘the most durable power in the world’. ‘Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method.’

It was a dream that derived its leverage from deeply moral commitments to fairness, accountability, integrity, honesty, promise-keeping, loyalty, responsible citizenship and above all caring for others. This was love in action. Not some sentimental or weak response, but ‘that force which all the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life.’

It was a dream that saw the deep connections between racial injustice and economic injustice. Boycotts and sit-ins directly affected the bottom line of discriminatory businesses and communities.

It was a dream that saw that war as a way of settling differences was not just and ‘cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.’

It was a dream that the evils of racism, poverty and war could be overcome through positive, constructive action.

It was a dream–and never at any time an illusion–fully aware that ‘Few, if any of us, live to see our fondest hopes fulfilled.’

It was a dream founded upon ‘the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.’

It was a dream rooted in hope and faith that ‘what self-centred people have torn down, other-centred people can build up.’

Yes, these things were all part of MLK’s dream and, perhaps, they are part of our dreams as well. We all dream. But beware the dreamers of the day!

All dreams have to start somewhere.

While MLK became a global figure and the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize, we should remember that it all started out at a local level, only a year into his first ministry as the 20th pastor of the Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

The son of a fundamentalist pastor, he was educated at a black college, earning a social science degree. He then studied divinity. Seeking to combine his sociological and theological studies, he first explored the Social Gospel movement, but found it too optimistic about the human condition and blind to the ‘glaring reality of collective evil’. He became a rationalist and realist, but he remained an accomplished rhetorician. His gift was inspired preaching, and he ministered in a faith community that expected power and purpose from the pulpit. Though a progressive compared to his father, he was profoundly shaped by the call and response rhythms his culture and tradition. He offered a thoroughly Christian message of hope amidst suffering, but also well-attuned to the justice and liberation themes of the prophetic tradition and the liberation of God’s people from bondage in Egypt. His understanding of the Christian message was to love God, yourself and your neighbour, even to the extent of the self-sacrificial action, as exemplified by Jesus life and death. While in theological college, like many other African-Americans of his generation, he was inspired by the example of Gandhi and came to believe that ‘Jesus provided the message and Gandhi provided the method.’

For MLK, in 1953 Montgomery, Alabama, the concrete structural and situational evil to be confronted was segregation — the brutal, but legal, unequal distribution of resources through the separation of communities based solely on race. While institutions of slavery had been formerly abolished, economic exploitation of racial differences continued to shape life in the southern states.

The story is well-known that Mrs Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old Montgomery seamstress refused to give up her bus seat to a white man and she was arrested. Perhaps not so well-known in the many retellings was the fact that Mrs Parks had been the secretary to E. D. Nixon, a divisional head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, an organisation which had already been thinking of using Gandhian methods to confront employment discrimination. Nixon bailed Mrs Parks out of jail and called a meeting to organise a response, a one-day boycott of the Montgomery bus line. MLK offered the basement of his Church for the meeting. The boycott on the day of Mrs Park’s trial was a well-organised success and resulted in the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). MLK, then only 26, was elected as its first President. As a relative unknown, he was the ideal compromise candidate. The MIA continued the boycott with limited aims of filling the seats on a first come, first served basis but still along colour lines. The refusal of the bus company and city to countenance even this led the boycott continuing for 55 weeks. 42,000 African-American citizens refused to ride buses. The economic impact was significant. The boycott was well, organised and disciplined, the majority of participants willingly putting up with the sacrifices involved rather than suffer the indignities of racial segregation.

Perhaps, the most pivotal moment in that very local struggle occurred two months into the boycott when the King’s house was bombed while Mrs King, her daughter and a friend were inside. About a thousand African-American citizens arrived on the street outside the house ‘armed with knives, guns, sticks, rocks and bottles.’ MLK persuaded them to go home.

We cannot solve the problems through retaliatory violence …. We must love our white brothers no matter what they do to us. … We must meet hate with love … What we are doing is just, and God is with us.

Further bombing and threats to other local leaders followed. As MLK observed, they only ‘further cemented’ the cause and ‘brought further sympathy for our cause from men of goodwill all over the world.’

The Montgomery Bus Boycott had successfully combined legal action in the courts and disciplined nonviolent direct action. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed to apply the lessons in Montgomery throughout the South. The SCLC organised Prayer Pilgrimage marches and rallies in Washington. Addressing 25,000 participants in Washington on March 1957, MLK ‘drew the loudest applause when he charged that both the Democratic and Republican parties had “betrayed the cause of justice.”’

MLK worked with the already existing Congress of Racial Equality, a biracial, Gandhian inspired organisation committed to confronting racial injustice ‘without fear, without compromise and without hatred’. CORE organised nonviolent action workshops and local sit-ins in segregated businesses. CORE provided training in NV resistance to many future civil rights participants.

Freedom rides were another important nonviolent action aimed at overcoming segregation in interstate transport, waiting rooms and lunch rooms. While they sometimes succeeded peacefully, on many occasions they met with direct and often extreme violence. MLK also encouraged the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which became a key organisation training an emerging generation of leaders and activists in techniques of nonviolent resistance.

Voter registration was an important part of the civil rights struggle. It’s importance even today is underlined by the extent to which conservative political activists will go to disenfranchise communities along racial and ethnic lines. Voter registration was a key focus of marches in Selma, Alabama led by MLK. Once again, the levels of violent reaction and the murder of activists (both black and white) brought further sympathy for and support to the cause.

In seeking to give the civil rights movement its widest application MLK began to move beyond narrow issues of segregation and address the underlying issues of economic discrimination which kept African-Americans from enjoying the benefits of their civil rights victories. He argued that restitution had to be made for the past exploitation that left African-Americans impoverished from generation to generation. ‘Justice so long deferred has accumulated interest.’ People must be able to afford the freedoms they have won. Already, violence was flaring up in the larger cities. As MLK expanded the civil rights struggle to action on economic injustice, which would demand radical changes in the structure of society, he met with increasing resistance. He was assassinated in Memphis on 4 April 1968 while supporting striking sanitation workers.

MLK made the connection between the NV struggle for civil rights and opposition to war, in this case the war in Vietnam. ‘The physical casualties of the war in Vietnam are not alone the catastrophes. The casualties of principles and values are equally disastrous.’ ‘Many men cry Peace! Peace! But they refuse to do the things that make for peace.’ In a speech the night before he was killed, observing the extent of the then current nuclear arsenals, MLK observed, ‘It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world, it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.’ The next day he was assassinated by a sniper’s bullet.

Did the dream of a beloved community founded on peace with justice die with him?

If we want the Dream to continue … we must we do? We can:

Explore our faith to the roots. That is what it means to be radical. Recapture the vision of our founders.

Find sources of hope in our faith traditions and our own faith explorations that will give us the strength to love. ‘Love in dreams is a fine thing, but love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing.’ (F. Dostoevsky)

We must be prepared to risk failure rather than worshipping success. ‘We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.’

We must work together with others to achieve that dream. Respect and understand our differences; celebrate and act on our shared values.

We must encourage young people, even 14 and 15-year olds from the suburbs, to share the dream …

As in so many struggles for justice, we do not need yet another description of the problem, we need a message of hope and a method of change.

The dream is not to hold a set of cherished beliefs but to live them out.

Become dreamers of the day!

To keep the dream of a better world alive …

  • Don’t give your opponents what they expect
  • Go to the roots of your tradition for sources of hope
  • Have limited aims, but unlimited commitment
  • Reject violence as a method of change
  • Connect and build
  • Work together – cooperate, don’t take over
  • Draw on the energy of young people; it’s their future
  • Claim and exercise all your legal and civil rights. Vote!
  • Find the economic bedrock of social injustices. Confront the greedy and help the needy.
  • Link justice and peace

*All quotations are from

The Words of Martin Luther King, selected by Coretta Scott King, London, Collins, 1984.

Martin Luther King, Strength to Love, Glasgow, Fount Books, 1977.

For an understanding of the tradition of nonviolent action in the USA, see The Power of the People, ed. By Robert Cooney & Helen Michalowski, 1977.


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