Martin Luther King, Jr.:
A Shift of Religious Convictions, Tone and Content
“I listened to him speak, you know, and watch him
just to see how he would sweat and how powerful he sounded.
And, you know, just the impact of what he said,
the words just stayed there in the air, you know, as he talked.”1 When Martin Luther King, Jr. first accepted a call to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, he did not plan on participating in any radical movements in the near future. When the request came for him to serve as president for the Montgomery Improvement Association in late 1955, he refused at first, considering the fact that he was still finishing his doctoral dissertation at Boston University, and preparing for a new fiscal year at Dexter. He only changed his mind to accept the presidency the morning of the first mass meeting and delivered his first speech of the Civil Rights Movement after preparing for only an hour. It is in this speech that King first asserts his views and theologies of the movement and civil rights. Throughout the movement, he continuously reasserts these beliefs until a major shift occurs in the mid-1960s, where he begins to take a more radical stand on current affairs. By the time of his assassination in 1968, King has obviously stepped on a few toes with his deep-seated viewpoint and opposition to the federal government and the war in Vietnam. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s convictions, as well as the content and tone of his speeches, matured and shifted dramatically throughout his leadership period.
Patriotism & Religion
From the very beginning, King told his audiences that he believed deeply in American democracy and the founding documents of our nation. He was patriotic man and that is why he believed so deeply in the cause of civil rights. At the Montgomery Improvement Association meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church he stated, “We are here also because of our love for democracy, because of our deep-seated belief that democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action is the greatest form of government on earth.”2 In Richard Lischer’s book, The Preacher King, he states that “Before [King] could confront white America with its betrayals of its own ideals, he first had to establish that ‘these truths’ are woven into God’s truth and therefore belong to all people.”3 In this first speech, and again in later speeches, King gives a hierarchy of how the movement moves through government and to God himself. He states that:
If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie. Love has no meaning.4
King believes that, because the movement is founded on the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, it cannot be wrong in the eyes of those who believe in American democracy. And if they are wrong, those documents are wrong. And, because those documents were founded by God-fearing men, God Almighty must be wrong as well. And because God is a god of love5 and justice6, then those principles that even white segregationists confess are wrong and “have no meaning.” King used these documents that the white and Negro populations both identified with to unify them in the cause for justice and liberty.
Perhaps the most memorable example of this patriotism is also very likely one of the last examples: King’s “I Have A Dream” speech from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He states, “I have a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. A dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”7 He quotes the patriotic song “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” ending with a long section calling for America to “let freedom ring” from various places across the country, that then all men will truly be “free at last”8 This was something that all Americans could relate to, that made all Americans sympathize with what he was calling for. Whether you believe in segregation or not, if you are an American, based upon its founding and history, you believe in freedom. SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) volunteer Courtland Cox said of King’s speech:
It spoke of the hopes and dreams of most Americans. People were not prepared to listen that America was a place that was segregationist, mistreated its citizens and so forth. But it was prepared to listen to, ‘I have a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.’ So his affirmation of the American dream was something that people were prepared to believe in, and therefore they took that part of it and they ran with it.9
The American dream is something that all Americans identify and wish to pursue. These “self-evident truths” were something that King called for for all Americans, black and white, and the founding bases of our country is something that he knew most Americans would relate to.
The Movement as the Exodus
All throughout history since the beginning of American slavery, the black population has identified with the biblical story of the Exodus. In this story, God raises up an oppressed people and moves through them to overcome oppression and slavery. For obvious reasons, the black population always took this story to heart, but Martin Luther King, Jr. powerfully compared the two situations in his sermon “Death of Evil upon the Seashore.” This sermon “serves as the fullest and most extensive explanation of the biblical basis for the central theme of the civil rights movement—the escape from bondage to freedom.”10 Throughout slavery, the oppressed black population spoke and sang of freedom and overcoming their oppressors. To King, the death of the Egyptians on the shore of the Red Sea symbolizes the “death of evil… of inhuman oppression and ungodly exploitation” that the Negros were facing at the time.11 “It was a joyous daybreak that had come to end the long night of their captivity.”12 King speaks of other countries and oppressed peoples who have fought against the “iron feet of oppression” and won their freedom from “the Egypt of colonialism and are now free to move toward the promised land of economic security and cultural development.”13 This resonates with the black community that believes that God is on their side and will deliver them from evil. Throughout his sermons, King assures the people that God will bring them through their “long night of captivity” by intervening and calling a mass oppressed people to bring about a change.
Contrasting the Extremes
In many of King’s speeches he speaks of two extremes: light and darkness, good and evil, old and new, death and resurrection. These contrasts are a major component of his rhetoric. He continuously uses phrases like “long night of captivity,” “daybreak of freedom,” and “long and desolate night of bitterness.” In his speech at the first MIA mass meeting, he says that the Negro population is “tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July and left standing amid the piercing chill of an alpine November.”14 He contrasts good and evil in his speeches on the Exodus and the fact that, if God is on our side, good will eventually overcome evil.
In his sermon “Facing the Challenge of a New Age,” King especially focuses on the contrast between the old and new orders of social life. He says over and over again that “the old order is passing away.” “With the coming of this great decision [Plessy v. Ferguson] we could gradually see the old order of segregation and discrimination passing away, and the new order of freedom and justice coming into being.”15 The Negro population has hope that these federal court orders and laws will bring about the new order that they have been waiting for for centuries. They feel so close to the end of their struggles and the beginning of true freedom.
The most biblical of these contrasts, and one of the most powerful, is when King discusses the death and resurrection of Jesus in relation to the African American struggle for freedom. In a tie with the fact that good will overcome evil, King states that:
Good Friday may occupy the throne for a day, but ultimately it must give way to the triumphant beat of the drums of Easter… Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but 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.16
This is a powerful image of God breaking into society, intervening on behalf of his children to overcome evil and free his people from sin. Charles Marsh states that “The story of the death and resurrection of Jesus injects the Montgomery movement with inner meaning and power.”17 To the religious black population that held up the movement, this story has so much meaning and power, especially when related to their current struggles.
Inclusiveness and Identification in the Beloved Community
Another of King’s major emphases and theological convictions is the creation of the beloved community. “[I]n King’s theology, the beloved community is the new social space of the Church wherein the ‘triumph and beat of the drums of Easter’ invade the highways and byways of the Jim Crow South.”18 King often mentions the beloved community as the end of racism. In an early sermon, “Facing the Challenge of a New Age,” he calls for “a new world in which men will live together as brothers; a world in which men will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks.”19 King always considered white and black people brothers and sisters in Christ. This is part of his inclusive theology and his identification with all members of his audience. King has a way of including members of all races and religions in the struggle for African American liberty, of identifying with the plight of all different sides of his arguments.
Upon visiting King’s church, novelist James Baldwin noted that the “secret [lies] in his intimate knowledge of the people he is addressing, be they black or white, and in the forthrightness with which he speaks of those things which hurt and baffle them.”20 Even though King is addressing different audiences simultaneously, each audience perceives what he says differently. He has a way of conveying these convictions to people that makes them feel connected to each other. He ties in the future and wellbeing of the white man to the future and wellbeing of the black man. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”21 Because the black and white communities are in brotherhood with each other, what affects one affects all, and the fate of all mankind is at question in this movement.
From Nonviolence to Inevitable Violence
King was the major instigator of nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement. In nearly every speech he made, he advocated nonviolence as the only means to reach the end of justice and freedom. Much of this theology of nonviolence was learned from Mahatma Gandhi and his nonviolent satyagraha movement for independence in India. Despite the fact that Gandhi was not a Christian, King wrote that “Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, while Gandhi furnished the method.”22 This strategy showed people in power the ability of the black community to come together to fight for what they believed they were owed and deserved. Their ability to sit by and be beaten with no reaction, while whites reacted violently in return.
However, eventually King began to realize that the tactics of nonviolence were not working unless the provoked violence from the other side. If the white community did not react, the movement did not receive media or national attention, and change did not take place. Richard Lischer states that “King understood his role as crucial, for what he and his followers did enabled the villains to play their part and so expose themselves by means of the mass media to the whole world… [However] media coverage depended on telegenic acts of violence.”23 Therefore, the point of nonviolence moved from creating shame and guilt in the oppressor to provoking violence and media attention in order to insure federal government involvement and enforcement.
The point that King begins to realize this becomes evident in his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” where he begins to recognize the inevitability of violence if something is not done to recognize and fulfill the rights and needs of the black community. He states:
I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss us as ‘rabble-rousers’ and ‘outside agitators’ those of us who are working through the channels of nonviolent direct action and refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes, out of frustration and despair, will seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies, a development that will lead inevitably to a frightening racial nightmare.24
By this point in the movement, black people have been struggling for eight years under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. They are tired and worn out and are beginning to see violence as a justifiable means of reaching the end of their struggle. King recognizes their despair and their disappointment, and conveys that to people. This is the turning point of when King’s whole point of view, his whole tone and content changes.
The New View of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Towards the end of his life, Martin Luther King, Jr. took on a completely different view of the United States, a new tone of preaching, and a new risk to his life. With the realization that the federal government would not intervene without provoked violence and media attention, King began to feel a sense of shame in the democracy he once held high hopes in. In 1961, he stated that “We must face the tragic fact that the federal government is the nation’s highest investor in segregation.”25 He recognizes the influence of militarists like Malcolm X and warns the government that if something is not done, they will experience more riots like those in Las Angeles in 1965.
Because of his views of justice and equality, King began to step outside of the civil rights movement and speak on issues such as poverty, unemployment, welfare, and, most controversial, the war in Vietnam. In his sermon, “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam,” King takes on a very judgmental tone, calling America the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”26 and declaring:
And don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, ‘You’re too arrogant! And if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name. Be still and know that I am God!27
This is a very condemning and convicting message. He begins to identify with the rage of black people and Lischer points out that “his sermons of this period do not dispense with metaphoric language, but the soaring images of hope have disappeared.”28 He begins to criticize the system that incites rioting, rather than those who riot themselves. And what frustrates King even more is that the federal government spends thousands and thousands of dollars fighting a war in Vietnam for liberties that they do not even grant their own citizens of color. An article published the day of King’s assassination prophetically states that “the flash point of Negro rage is close at hand.”29 King takes on a more militant viewpoint. He does not hide his anger, sadness, or shame in the American government and way of life. He does not hide that he has lost his hope in democracy and the goodness of most people. He is frustrated and shows this in the way that he conveys to the American people the ways in which they are wrong. He knows the ways that American society needs to change, and the only way he can convey that is through speech and nonviolent direct action. Until the end of his life he continues to follow this path, even while taking on a different tone and approach.
By the end of King’s life he has been struggling for nearly thirteen years for the same cause of racial freedom in every area of American life. He is tired and weary, he works long hours travelling away from his wife and children, and he is ready for some of the decisions of the federal government to be enforced throughout the nation. He is ready for the nation to step up and take responsibility for the state that the country is in, and begin to rebuild it into a more equal society that recognizes the rights of all citizens. King, like many of his followers, is frustrated with the system and on the verge of giving up. The only way to end the crisis is to make change. If not, there will be violence, there will be an outbreak of black rage, and it will be even harder to fix what was already broken.
In King’s last speech, on the eve of his assassination, he prophetically gives his followers one last ounce of hope to continue the struggle:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountaintop. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.30
“Citizen King, Part I,” PBS Video Collection.
King, Jr., Dr. Martin Luther. “Equality Now: The President Has the Power,” In A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington, 152-159. New York, New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
King, Jr., Dr. Martin Luther. “Facing the Challenge of a New Age.” 3 December 1956. Class handout.
King, Jr., Dr. Martin Luther. “I Have A Dream.” 28 August 1963. Class handout.
King, Jr., Dr. Martin Luther. “I See the Promised Land,” In A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington, 279-286. New York, New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
King, Jr., Dr. Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” In A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington, 289-302. New York, New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
King, Jr., Dr. Martin Luther. MIA Mass Meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church. 5 December 1955. Class handout.
King, Jr., Dr. Martin Luther. “Showdown for Nonviolence,” In A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington, 64-72. New York, New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
King, Jr., Dr. Martin Luther. “The Death of Evil upon the Seashore.” 17 May 1956. Class handout.
King, Jr., Dr. Martin Luther. “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam.” 30 April 1967. Class handout.
Lischer, Richard. The Preacher King. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Marsh, Charles. “The Civil Rights Movement as Theological Drama—Interpretation and Application.” April 2002.
Miller, Keith D. “Alabama as Egypt: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Religion of Slaves,” In Martin Luther King Jr. and the Sermonic Power of Public Discourse, edited by Carolyn Calloway-Thomas and John Louis Lucaites, 18-32. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1993.
1 “Citizen King, Part I,” PBS Video Collection.
2 “MIA Mass Meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church,” 71
3The Preacher King, 151
4 “MIA Mass Meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church,” 73
5 1 John 4:8
6 Isaiah 61:8, Psalm 145:9-10, etc.
7 “Have A Dream,” 4
8 Ibid. p 5-6
9 “Citizen King, Part I”
10Martin Luther King Jr. and the Sermonic Power of Public Discourse, 26-27
11 “Death of Evil Upon the Seashore,” 260
13 Ibid., 261
14 “MIA Mass Meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church,” p 72
15 “Facing the Challenge of a New Age,” 456
16 “Death of Evil Upon the Seashore,” 259
17The Civil Rights Movement as Theological Drama—Interpretation and Application, 241