Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a respected civil rights leader who espoused non-violence as a means to overcome oppression and create a just society. On the third Monday of every January, Americans honor Kingâ€™s life and work. In 2017, â€œMLK Dayâ€ occurs on January 16th.
If you havenâ€™t read any of the King speeches or sermons since you were in grade school, now would be a great time to revisit the words of this stunningly educated, profoundly ethical and deeply wise man. His ideas are as useful and relevant to our present moment as they were in the 1960s.
For example, these passages on rampant un- and under-employment from Kingâ€™s 1968 â€œThe Other Americaâ€ speech seem almost ripped from todayâ€™s news:
But these statistics only take under consideration individuals who were once in the labor market, or individuals who go to employment offices to seek employment. But they do not take under consideration the thousands of people who have given up, who have lost motivation, the thousands of people who have had so many doors closed in their faces that they feel defeated and they no longer go out and look for jobs, the thousands who’ve come to feel that life is a long and desolate corridor with no exit signsâ€¦Most of the poverty stricken people of America are persons who are working every day and they end up getting part-time wages for full-time work.
King’s expansive vision of a just society â€“ where people of every color and culture and from every walk of life would get an even break and a fair chance at success â€“ was informed by his Christian beliefs and advanced theological and philosophical education. It was also undergirded by his study of the work and teachings of the great Indian lawyer, politician and social activist Mohandas Gandhi, who led the resistance movement that achieved Indian independence from Britain.
Satyagraha and MLK Jr.â€™s Soul Force
In the early 20th century, Gandhi developed a powerful new tool for change that he called Satyagraha, a Sanskrit word which means something akin to â€˜holding on to truthâ€™. Based on the Hindu doctrine of ahimsa or â€˜non-injury to living thingsâ€™, Satyagraha is, put simply, peaceful but persistent resistance against evil and injustice.
Gandhiâ€™s Satyagraha begins in the awakened and self-aware mind and extends to all aspects of oneâ€™s life and actions. The practitioner of Satyagraha is filled with and motivated by a deep compassion, love and empathy â€“ and therefore incapable of violence or hate. Satyagraha is sometimes translated from the Indian Gujarati language as â€œlove forceâ€ or â€œtruth forceâ€. In what is perhaps a bit of a nod to the African-American pop-culture of the 60s, Rev. King called it â€œsoul forceâ€.
King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963 contains these lines that summarize with great economy the â€œsoul forceâ€ path that all may pursue to create peaceful change in the world:
In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
Kingâ€™s â€œsoul forceâ€ isnâ€™t just non-violent and peacefulâ€“ it is also truthful, respectful and kind, in both words and deeds. King believed that difficult and divisive social issues regarding race, class and structural injustice must by necessity be discussed in words of reason and sympathy with opponents. Such â€œsoul forceâ€ is not passive or weak. It is active, dramatic, engaged and above all, persistently non-violent.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Non-Violence
In his 1966 Ware LectureÂ â€œDonâ€™t Sleep Through the Revolutionâ€ delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly, King exhibits the firmness of his belief in the exclusive use of non-violence and “just methods” for bringing about positive change:
Non-violence would say that the morality of the ends is implicit in the means, and that in the long-run of history destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends. So, since we are working toward a just society in this movement, we should use just methods to get there. Since we are working for the end of a non-violent society in this movement, we must use non-violent means and methods to get there.
Even after fifty years, Kingâ€™s words inspire and inform while his ideas are amazingly relevant, fresh and bracing. Remembering the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. challenges us to be our best selves. To recognize that we are more alike than we are different. To meet hate with love and kindness. To defuse violence through peace and non-violence. And to work for justice and equality for all by using only truthful and just methods.
In his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, King prophetically reminds us that, â€œunarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphantâ€ â€“ so in honoring Dr. King this year, let us not only reacquaint ourselves with his ideas and achievements but also reaffirm our commitment to the ethical values that informed and motivated his lifeâ€™s work. Letâ€™s â€œUse the Force!â€ â€“ the soul force.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University