Anger, Love, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. needs little introduction. His name is associated with freedom, equality, and civil rights. His leadership was instrumental in forcing the United States to confront and change its own prejudices.
What can we learn today from looking at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life?
The Jim Crow laws are a thing of the past. Though prejudice exists, we have come a long way since the Civil Rights Movement. How is Martin Luther King, Jr. relevant today? If we look at Dr. King’s life, we can see how his approach to advocacy is as significant now as it was then.
In his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King wrote, “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.” This is exactly what he did in Birmingham. Merchants of the city refused service to African Americans. The Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights attempted to negotiate, offering to halt their ongoing protests on the promise that stores allow African Americans to shop. According to Dr. King’s letter, shops took their “Whites Only” and similar signs down for a little while, but put them back up later—if they took them down at all. So, Dr. King and his fellow activists conducted workshops, training people in nonviolent protesting. Dr. King wrote, “[W]e repeatedly asked ourselves: ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ ‘Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?’” This was Dr. King’s process of self purification. Following these workshops, they conducted their nonviolent protests: sit-ins at lunch counters, kneel-ins of African Americans at white churches, and other forms of protest. His approach was direct, but also careful, introspective, and of course, nonviolent.
Dr. King’s message was consistently a balance between righteous indignation and a calling to greater love. He did not shy away from the ugliness of injustice, he illuminated it in strength. “[W]hen you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society,” he wrote, continuing in a powerful use of repetitious language to describe still more injustices done to African Americans. But at the end of both the Birmingham letter and his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King brought the focus back to love. He dreamt of a day when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
If we look at today’s culture—particularly in the United States—we see a rise in awareness of social justice movements. With this increased awareness, we see this combination of love and anger.
Don’t get me wrong, righteous indignation is, well, righteous. More than that, it fuels good and necessary work. But if we allow that anger to make us bitter, cynical, or hateful, we are forgetting the reason we want justice so badly, the reason we are angry in the first place: our love of justice for all people. We are angry because of our love.
At the end of his protests, Dr. King wanted to eliminate disharmony, not reside in anger or a feeling of superiority. While he was angry, and rightly so, he didn’t let that anger turn to bitterness or hatred. Unlike other activists of his day, he used his anger to fuel nonviolent protests rather than violent ones. He sought reconciliation, rather than revenge.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, there were riots in more than one hundred cities across the United States. It’s safe to say Dr. King would have found this upsetting. But there were no riots in Indianapolis. This is partially credited to Robert F. Kennedy’s improvised speech at a rally there, hours after the assassination. In it, he said they could choose to respond in anger and bitterness, “Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.”
Let us remember Martin Luther King, Jr.’s commitment to love in the midst of his outspoken opposition to injustice. While we are angry, let us direct that anger into work that fights injustice, not hatred toward other people. Let us hope, as Dr. King did, that “in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”
About the Author
Lucas Moore is a writer in Los Angeles. He likes Neo-noir films, running and cycling, classic American novels, small venue music shows, and burritos