Note: April 4, 2018, marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is good to remember the words of his life. Here are excerpts from one of his speeches.
“The Church on the Frontier of Racial Tension”
April 19, 1961
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Full text and audio are available on the seminary website.
Those of us who live in the twentieth century are privileged to live in one of the most momentous periods of human history. Indeed, we have the privilege of standing between two ages: the dying old and the emerging new. An old order is passing away, and a new order is coming into being. . . .
We all know the long history of the old order in the United States. It had its beginning in 1619, when the first slaves landed on the shores of this nation. And unlike the Pilgrim fathers who landed at Plymouth a year later, they were brought here against their wills, and throughout slavery the Negro was treated as a thing to be used, rather than a person to be respected. With the growth of slavery it became necessary to give some justification for it. It seems to be a fact of life that human beings cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some thin rationalization to clothe an obvious wrong in the beautiful garments of righteousness.
. . . we can end up seeking to make the wrong right, and this is exactly what happened. Even the Bible and religion were used to give slavery moral justification, and so many argued that the Negro was inferior by nature because of Noah’s curse upon the children of Ham. The Apostle Paul’s dictum became a watchword, “Servants, be obedient to your master.” . . .
And so, living with the conditions of slavery and later segregation, many Negroes lost faith in themselves, many came to feel that perhaps they were less than human, perhaps they were inferior. But then something happened to the Negro. Circumstances made it possible and necessary for him to travel more: the coming of the automobile, the upheaval of two world wars, the Great Depression, and so his rural plantation background gave way to urban industrial life, his economic life was gradually rising through the growth of industry and the influence of organized labor and other agencies, and even his cultural life was rising through the steady decline of crippling illiteracy. All of these forces conjoined to cause the Negro to take a new look at himself. Negro masses all over began to reevaluate themselves.
The Negro came to feel that he was somebody. His religion revealed to him that God loves all of his children and that all men are made in his image, and that the basic thing about a man is not his specificity but his fundamentum, not the texture of his hair or the color of his skin but his eternal significance and his worth to God. . . .
Along with this something else happened. In 1954, on May 17, the Supreme Court of the nation rendered a decision. In 1857 the Supreme Court had rendered the Dred Scott decision. It said, in substance, that the Negro was not a citizen of the United States, he was merely property subject to the dictates of his owner. In 1896 the Supreme Court had rendered the Plessy versus Ferguson decision, which established the doctrine of separate but equal as the law of the land. In 1954 the Supreme Court came out with another decision. It said in substance that old Plessy doctrine must go, that separate facilities are inherently unequal, and that to segregate a child on the basis of his race is to deny that child equal protection of the law.
As a result of this decision, we stand on the threshold of one of the most creative and constructive periods in the history of our nation in the area of race relations. To put it figuratively in biblical language, we’ve broken loose from the Egypt of slavery and we’ve moved through the wilderness of segregation, and now we stand on the border of the promised land of integration. The old order of segregation is passing away and the new order of freedom and equality is coming into being. But all people do not welcome this emerging new order.
This emerging new order is not coming into being without opposition. There are some people who are very unhappy about the emerging new order, and they are determined to oppose it with all of the strength and power that they can muster. . . . At times this resistance has risen to ominous proportions. We see it in the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. We see it in the birth of white citizens councils. We hear the legislative halls of some states ringing loud with such words as interposition and nullification. All of these forces have combined to make for massive resistance.
So this is something of the crisis that we face in race relations because of this resistance. . . .
Now whenever the crisis emerges in society, the church has a significant role to play. And certainly the church has a significant role to play in this period because the issue is not merely the political issue; it is a moral issue. Since the church has a moral responsibility of being the moral guardian of society, then it cannot evade its responsibility in this very tense period of transition. And so I would like to suggest some of the things that the church can do in the area of human relations, some of the things that the church can do in this tense period of transition, in order to make it possible for us to move from the old order into the new order.
First, the church must urge its worshippers to develop a world perspective. Whenever men develop a world outlook, they rise above the shackles of racial prejudice and racial hatred, and whenever we find individuals caught in the shackles of racial prejudices, they are the victims of narrow provincialism and sectionalisms So the church must urge its worshippers to rise above the narrow confines of their individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity. So you see, the world in which we live today is a world that is geographically one. And in order to solve the problems in the days ahead, we must make it spiritually one.
. . . the world in which we live is geographically one. Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood, It is urgently true that now we are challenged through our spiritual and moral commitments to make of this world a brotherhood. In a real sense we must all live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We must see this sense of dependence, this sense of interdependence. No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone; we are made to live together.
. . . We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. As long as there is extreme poverty in the world, no man can be totally rich even if he has a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people cannot expect to live more than 30 or 32 years, no man can be totally healthy even if he just got a clean bill of health from the finest clinic in the country. Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality. . . .
And also the church must make it palatably clear that segregation is a moral evil which no Christian can accept. Segregation is still the Negroes’ burden and America’s shame. The church must make it clear that if we are to be true witnesses of Jesus Christ, we can no longer give our allegiance to a system of segregation. Segregation is wrong because it substitutes an I-It relationship for the I-Thou relationship. Segregation is wrong because it relegates persons to the status of things. Segregation is wrong because it does something to the personality – it damages the soul. It often gives the segregator a false sense of superiority, and it gives the segregated a false sense of inferiority.
And so the underlying philosophy of Christianity, and democracy, and all of the dialectics of the logician cannot make them lie down together. The church must make this very clear.
The church also has the responsibility of getting to the ideational roots of racial prejudice. Racial prejudice is always derived from or based on fears, and suspicions, and misunderstanding that are usually groundless. The church can do a great deal to direct the popular mind at this point and to clear up these misunderstandings and these false ideas.
Many of these ideas are disseminated by politicians who merely use the issue to arouse the fears and to perpetuate themselves in office. The church can make it clear that these things are not true.
The church can rise up and through its channels of religious education tell the truth on this issue.
The church can say to men everywhere that the idea of an inferior or a superior race is a false idea that has been refuted by the best evidence of the anthropological scientists. They tell us that there are no superior races or no inferior races. There may be superior individuals academically and inferior individuals academically in all races.
The church can make it clear that the Negro is not inherently criminal.
The church can say that poverty and ignorance breed crime, whatever the racial group may be; that these things are environmental and not racial.
The church can make it clear that if there are lagging standards within the Negro community they lag because of segregation and discrimination, and that it is a tortuous logic to use the tragic results of segregation as an argument for the continuation of it.
Then the church can reveal to the nation the true intentions of the Negro.
The church can make it clear that the Negro is not seeking to dominate the nation politically; he is not seeking to overthrow anything; he is not seeking to upset the social structure of the nation; but he is merely seeking to create a moral balance within society so that all men can live together as brothers.
The church can make it clear that all of the talk about intermarriage and all of the fears that come into being on the subject are groundless fears. Properly speaking, individuals marry, and not races. And people, in the final analysis, in a democracy must have the freedom to marry anybody they want to marry. And so no state should have laws prohibiting this.
But even in spite of guaranteeing this freedom, the church can make it clear that the basic aim of the Negro is to be the white man’s brother and not his brother-in-law. This can be made clear. So there are many false ideas that are constantly disseminated that the church can do a great deal to refute.
And then the church can do a great deal to open channels of communication between the races. I’m absolutely convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other. They don’t know each other because they are separated from each other. No greater tragedy can befall society than the attempt to live in monologue rather than dialogue. The church has the responsibility to open the channels of communication.
Then also, the church must not only clarify the ideas, but it must move out into the realm of social reform. The church must develop an action program. Wherever there is injustice in society, the church must take a stand. . . .
There is another thing, a final thing that the church must do. The church must urge all men to enter the new age with understanding, creative good will in the hearts. This is true for everybody. This is true for those who have been on the oppressor end of the old order and those who have been on the oppressed end. . . .
Somebody must have sense in this world, somebody must have religion in this world—sense enough to meet physical force with soul force, sense enough to meet hate with love. This is why I believe so firmly in non-violence as the out. . . .
Now many people ask me over and over again, “What do you mean when you say, ‘love these people who are oppressing you, these people who will bomb your home and threaten your children and seek to block your desires and aspirations for freedom?’ What do you mean when you say ‘Love them!’” I always have to stop and try to define the meaning of love in this context. Fortunately the Greek language comes to our aid at this point.
. . . Agape is more than aesthetic or romantic love. Agape is more than friendship. Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive good will for all men. It is an overflowing love that seeks nothing in return. Theologians would say that it is the love of God operating in the human heart. And so when one rises to love at this point, he loves men not because he likes them, not because their ways appeal to him; but he loves every man because God loves him. He rises to the point that he is able to love the person who does evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does.
I think that this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Love your enemies,” and I am so happy that he didn’t say, “Like your enemies,” because it is difficult to like some people. It is difficult to like what some people are doing to us. It is difficult to like somebody who bombs your home or somebody who is threatening your children. It is difficult to like them, but Jesus says, “Love them,” and love greater than like. Like is sentimental and affectionate, but love is understanding, creative, redemptive good will for all men. And I believe that this is the type of love that must guide us through this period of transition. And with this we will be able to enter the new age with the proper attitude.
. . . God is not interested merely in the freedom of black men and brown men and yellow men, but God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race. The creation of a society where every man will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.
So I believe that this is what we can learn from the church, and this is what the church has been teaching in an amazing way, and it must continue to get this over in this very important period of our history. And if we will but do these things, we will be able to move in the great days ahead. Let us realize that the problem will not just work itself out, we have the responsibility of helping to work it out. It will not be solved until men and women all over this nation are willing to stand up with a sort of divine discontent.
. . . in conclusion, let me say that we must have faith in the future, the faith to believe that we can solve this problem, the faith to believe that as we struggle to solve this problem we do not struggle alone, but we have cosmic companionship. . . .
There is something at the center of our faith which reminds us of this — we celebrated the event a few Sundays ago — something that reminds us that Good Friday may occupy the throne for a day, but ultimately it must give way to the triumph and beat of the drums of Easter. Yes, there is something in our faith to remind us that even though evil, at times, will so shape events — Caesar will occupy the palace and Christ the cross — one day that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name.
There is something in this universe which justifies Carlisle in saying, “No lie can live forever.”
There is something in this universe which justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” . . .
And so with this faith we move out into the vast possibilities of the future, and if we will go on with this faith and this determination to struggle; we will be able to bring into being this society of brotherhood, transforming the gangling discords of our southland into a beautiful symphony of peaceful relationships, and this will be the day, figuratively speaking, “the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy.”