Everlasting King

A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington.

When I started studying the history of the American civil rights movement during the early ‘80s, I was struck by the paucity of serious books about the movement’s preeminent figure, Martin Luther King, Jr. Only a few years later, the void is filled near to overflowing, not only with treatments chronicling King and his times, but also with books probing his psyche and personal life and seeking to stamp his imprimatur on ideologies ranging the political spectrum. Through these writings, we can encounter King the larger-than-life hero, King the womanizer and plagiarist, and King with virtually every other gloss imaginable.

But not until now could we discover King and his philosophy in unvarnished form. James M. Washington’s A Testament of Hope brings the man alive through an extensive collection of speeches, sermons, interviews, and books, spanning King’s public life from his emergence as a national figure in 1956 until his death at age 39, only 12 years later. With only light contextual annotations preceding each entry, Washington allows King’s writings to speak for themselves.

Reading this work as a whole, one can readily understand how King shook his nation to its foundations, succeeding, where so many before and after failed, in fostering systemic societal change and in forcing America finally to make good on its promise of equality under the law for all. His passion, his eloquence, his clarity of mission, and the power of his vision resound from his words.

Yet it’s also understandable that King is represented in so many different ways by those who have studied him. King did not embrace a specific ideology but assembled his philosophy from sources as divergent as Gandhi and Jefferson. The resulting synthesis happened, for a while at least, to resonate with the demands of the times. But because of its disparate strands, King’s philosophy is susceptible to a broad range of characterizations, almost all of them oversimplified.

Moreover, King’s rhetoric changed over time. He labored strenuously throughout his dozen years on the national scene to maintain philosophical consistency and integrity. But he shifted gradually away from his earlv emphasis on individualism and equal rights toward a more class-based, outcomes-oriented focus.

Though King’s writings are not chronologically organized, this metamorphosis is apparent throughout the book. King’s early writings, from 1956 until about 1963 (when he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” address from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial), rest heavily upon classical-liberal ideals. Starting around 1963 and increasingly thereafter, King turned toward a more radical political agenda, reflecting what he described as a movement that had “elevated jobs and other economic issues to the summit, where earlier it had placed discrimination and suffrage.”

The earlier phase of King’s activities corresponded with his greatest achievements, most notably the development of a broad-based civil rights movement and enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. During this period, King’s writings sounded a number of themes that were crucial to his success. He drew upon these themes repeatedly, regardless of his audience. The first and perhaps most important located the goals of the modern civil rights movement in the American Revolution.

As King proclaimed in 1963: “In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was the promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” For King, the movement was the “resumption of th[e] noble journey” started in 1776. “The Negro students, their parents, and their allies,” he declared, “are acting today in that imperishable tradition.”

King relentlessly invoked the natural law principles embodied in the nation’s constitutional doctrine. Justifying his willingness to break laws, King embraced Aquinas’s distinction between just laws and unjust laws: “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”

What distinguishes “our form of government from all of the totalitarian regimes that emerge in history,” declared King, is the principle that “each individual has certain basic rights that are neither conferred by nor derived from the state.” But from the beginning, King observed, “America has been something of a schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against herself. On the one hand we have proudly professed the principles of democracy, and on the other hand we have sadly practiced the very antithesis of those principles.”

King forced America to confront its shameful abdication of these basic ideals. “We feel that we are the conscience of America—we are its troubled soul—we will continue to insist that right be done because both God’s will and the heritage of our nation speak through our echoing demands,” he proclaimed. “Our goal is freedom. I believe we will win it because the goal of the nation is freedom.”

In this early period, King emphasized the movement’s long-held goal of equality under law. He distinguished in this regard between “enforceable demands” (such as desegregation) and “unenforceable demands” (such as integration). “A vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws will bring an end to segregated public facilities which are barriers to a truly desegregated society,” King observed, “but it cannot bring an end to fears, prejudice, pride, and irrationality, which are the barriers to a truly integrated society.”

King was confident that once barriers to opportunity were eliminated, blacks would prosper. “With the growth of industry the folkways of white supremacy will gradually pass away,” he predicted. Such growth would “increase the purchasing power of the Negro,” which in turn “will result in improved medical care, greater educational opportunities, and more adequate housing. Each of these developments will result in a further weakening of segregation.”

But for King, “Probably the most powerful force that is breaking down the barriers of segregation is the new determination of the Negro himself.” Already, he declared, there had occurred a “revolutionary change in the Negro’s evaluation of himself and of his destiny and by his determination to struggle for justice. We Negroes have replaced self-pity with self-respect and self-depreciation with dignity” [King’s emphasis]. King challenged blacks to take initiative and achieve excellence. “In the new age we will be forced to compete with people of all races and nationalities,” he observed. “We must set out to do a good job, irrespective of race, and do it so well that nobody could do it better.”

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