The New Testament concept of agape love informed the civil rights work of Martin Luther King, Jr., as he became the voice of the movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
"Along the way of life," King wrote, "someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives."
King clarified that he was not speaking of "some sentimental or affectionate emotion," but rather as a connection that "means understanding, redemptive goodwill." He went to the Greek language to make his point, explaining the meaning of agape.
Agape . . . is an overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative. It is not set in motion by any quality or function of its object. It is the love of God operating in the human heart. . . . Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. . . . Another basic point about agape is that it springs from the need of the other person.
African American theologian J. Deotis Roberts called love the "key concept" in King's worldview. "King had a passionate commitment to the love ethic in his theology." King's widow, Coretta Scott King, noted that King's "belief in a divine, loving presence that binds all life" provided the "central element" of King's philosophy of nonviolence.
In a 1967 address to an antiwar group, King repeated some of his words about love but added another twist. "When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life."
Roberts questioned the depth of King's doctrine of agape, but said King "overcomes many of our theoretical concerns as his ethical theology bears fruit through action." Mrs. King made this same connection in calling her late husband an "apostle of love" and an "apostle of action." King understood the relationship between love and justice.
In his first speech of the Montgomery bus boycott, King said the following, with responses from the crowd in parentheses:
Let us be Christian in all of our actions. (That's right) But I want to tell you this evening that it is not enough for us to talk about love, love is one of the pivotal points of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation. (All right) Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love. (Well).