The Wisdom and Philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

For a man who never reached the age of 40, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., left a powerful and important body of thought. He was a preacher and orator, so rather than writing in the form of books or treatises, Dr. King spoke to the world in sermons and speeches and a few articles.

His impact and image as a social activist is so prominent that I think his contributions as a philosopher are underestimated. Here is a very brief tour of a few things he said worth noting. (I have also compiled 58 quotes well worth reading in this blog post.)

In one of his earliest writings in 1958 he said, “Government action is not the whole answer to the present crisis, but it is an important partial answer.  Morals cannot be legislated but behavior can be regulated.  The law cannot make an employer love me but it can keep him from refusing to hire me because of the color of my skin.” 

Four years later he added, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”

Among Dr. King’s historically significant contributions was his advocacy of and adherence to nonviolence, while at the same time engaging in aggressive confrontation of and resistance to injustice.  He often combined the powerful reasoning of a philosopher with the charismatic leadership and a stirring oratorical skills of a preacher to educate the nation about the nature of moral civil disobedience and the fallacy of “the end justifies the means” arguments.

“We will never have peace in the world,” he said in The Trumpet of Conscience (1967), “until men everywhere recognize that ends are not cut off from the means, because the means represent the idea in the making, and the end in process, and ultimately you cannot reach good ends through evil means, because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree.”

His 1963 Letter from the Birmingham Jail lays out the case for civil disobedience: “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in realty expressing the very highest respect for law.”  What’s so important here is his recognition that morally justified civil disobedience requires the acceptance of consequences. He believed that if he was to make the point he wanted to make, he had to go to jail and he was willing to do so.

In Stride Toward Freedom (1958) he said: “Human progress is neither automatic or inevitable.  Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.  Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle, the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

“And when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of that old negro spiritual, “Free at last!  Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!”

“I have a dream,” he added, “That one day, on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.  I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

Comments 3

  1. I liken him to a politician rather than a philosopher. When you live where it gets down and dirty and the reality of a movement rears its ugly head, you come away wondering how this can be. I grew up in New Jersey during his activism and I can tell you my life was changed over those years. Black friends (we called them colored people) I went to school with since Kindergarten began to slowly change in their character. Friends – whom I grew up with and played with suddenly addressed me as white boy. I watched a peaceful neighborhood plunge into terror in almost one night. I watched as stores were burned , people beat up, our lives threatened and friendships transformed into enemies. Looking at those events, I would say His philosophies were not followed. Nonviolence? Peaceful integration? I would say that it divided America racially rather than bring it together.

  2. I liken Dr. King to a prophet. I, too, am a child of the 60’s. they weren’t the easiest times to live in. Dr. King’s messages did not cause the riots of 64-68. That was the anger born of injustice, inequity, inequality, police brutality, and segregation. It wasn’t right and it wasn’t smart, tearing up the neighborhoods where you live. It hurts when one must confront the ugly history and ugly reality of our country. It’s not the kind of thing that one should be expected to handle well. Dr. King handled that pain and anger very well. But his and the other civil rights workers managed the all but impossible. No matter what, they did not retaliate. It was a strategy they trained to master. I know I can’t do it.
    Ultimately, it was the brutality of those who opposed King that forced the embarrassed government to enact the various Civil Rights and Voting Rights bills and sign them into law. Personally, I think the man was a saint. He offered his life for the Movement. And so did many others.

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