Civil Disobedience and the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

by Chandra Mallampalli, Associate Professor of History

I would like to begin by declaring my deepest gratitude for the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I am grateful to Dr. King for holding this great country of ours accountable to its highest ideals — to its very best self. As a son of Indian immigrant parents, I am also grateful to Dr. King, and to generations of African American brothers and sisters who went before him, for enduring a long history of race-based oppression and having the courage to do something about it. It’s because of the trials of African Americans, because of what they represent in the very identity of the American nation, that America became more hospitable to many other ethnic groups who, like my parents, made the journey here to flourish and pursue happiness. In the legacy of Dr. King and the story of African Americans we can observe a great irony: Those whose ancestors came here against their will paved the way for others to come by their free will — and have laws that protect them and public institutions open to them.

Beyond what Dr. King brought to the life of our nation is what he brought to our understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He fleshed it out. His speeches move us beyond a vision for individual salvation to one of collective healing and redemption. This was no social gospel — this was the gospel. As he preached in the tradition of the Biblical prophets, Dr. King gave us a glimpse of the eschaton, the end and culmination of history. It’s very difficult to listen to a speech of Dr. King without having something deep within us tugged and summoned. We’ve been designed to deeply long for the things he preached about: For a glimpse of the promised land; for the dividing wall of hostility between races to be torn down and for a holy and faithful people to come forth to worship our risen Lord. These are powerful Biblical images of salvation.

But how do we get there? What do we do when we are stuck in history and contend, like Dr. King, with an unjust social order? I’ve been asked to reflect on a specific aspect of King’s legacy: his involvement in civil disobedience. I want to focus my reflections upon King’s letter from Birmingham prison. On Good Friday 1963, King led a group of 53 African Americans into downtown Birmingham, Ala., to protest that city’s racial segregation laws. All of them were arrested. In response, a number of southern clergymen appealed to the African Americans of the city to stop the demonstrations. They criticized King for taking things too far and claimed that he had no business as an outsider to launch agitations in Birmingham. It was in response to those critics that King crafted his letter from prison. In it, he outlines the meaning and purpose of civil disobedience. But the letter does so much more than this. It describes the meaning of activism in relation to wider issues — the movement of history, the experience of the oppressed around the world, and the role of the church.

In his letter, King devoted significant attention to the claim made by his critics that change should come gradually; that African Americans needed to wait longer for changes in the law. To this King responded with his oft-quoted phrase, “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” But more importantly, he built his case for change upon a reading of the historical climate. The time was ripe for segregation to be repealed. It was an immoral institution that needed to be abolished. Drawing from the theologian Paul Tillich, King described how segregation uniquely reveals the fallen condition of humankind: “Sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?”1 Changes occurring elsewhere in the world indicated a movement of the times, making segregation something that should no longer be tolerated. “The nations of Asia and Africa,” King noted, “are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.

“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice.”2

That takes us to the issue of tactics: Why did King adopt non-violent civil disobedience as the method for confronting legalized segregation in America?

Perhaps an analogy from interpersonal relationships might help. Have you ever been in a relationship where you felt suppressed, misunderstood or humiliated by someone in authority and felt yourself becoming more and more angry and resentful of the treatment being meted out to you? If that oppressive person is a boss, a parent, a spouse, or someone who controls your fate in some way, a great deal is at stake! Doing nothing would perpetuate the problem; but expressing one’s rage in a destructive manner could end up doing irreparable damage to all parties. For King, non-violent direct action was constructive, creative engagement of the American nation. Its goal was not anarchy (as the term ‘disobedience’ connotes), but justice and peace for people of different races living within one nation. Non-violent direct action offered a middle path between ‘do-nothingism’ and going ballistic, between tolerating abuse and returning it with more. In the end, non-violent action seeks to set people free from a cycle of perpetual unkindness.

Direct action has four components: Information gathering, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action (i.e., public protest or willfully disobeying the law). This form of action had a deeply moral basis. It was not a reckless, scorched-earth form of behavior or one seeking to inflict pain on others. It was grounded in a belief in a moral universe and in the redemptive power of suffering. By breaking an unjust law and being willing to suffer the consequences, the non-violent activist exposes the injustice of the law and stirs the conscience of the society to amend its ways.

In his letter from Birmingham prison and in other speeches, King drew attention to many other contexts where it became imperative to disobey the law. He cited Biblical examples, where servants of the Lord had to choose between obeying God over man. I would like to discuss two other leaders whose stories directly or indirectly make contact with that of Martin Luther King Jr.

The first is Mohandas K. Gandhi. In 1959, King and his wife visited India where they met with members of the Nehru family and visited the Gandhi memorial in New Delhi. King delivered a radio address there in which he expressed his indebtedness to Gandhi’s ideas of nonviolent protest. Gandhi first developed these ideas in South Africa after being kicked out of the first-class cabin of a train. He was trained as a lawyer in London and used his knowledge of the law to expose the contradictions of imperial rule in South Africa and India. The Age of European Imperialism marked the beginnings of racism as we now know it. In the name of advancing the causes of free trade, the rule of law and Christianity, Europeans of many nationalities left their places of origin and migrated to the New World and eventually to Asia and Africa. They went to these places not to embrace the customs of those lands, but as bearers of “civilization,” who enjoyed positions of privilege. What eventually emerged from this “Caucasian Tsunami,” as historian Alfred Crosby terms it, was a great contradiction, a great crisis of liberal imperialism.3 A language of universal morality, liberty and rule of law promoted by European powers rested on top of societies that were marked by profound racial inequality and injustice. Gandhi used his knowledge of the law and non-violent tactics to expose this crisis of liberal imperialism. He exposed the fact that the same laws were not being extended to whites and non-whites equally in South Africa. And when he returned to India, he led a movement for independence that deployed non-violent, direct action on a very large scale. Gandhi’s knowledge of British laws, masterful use of the press, and ability to draw Indians from many walks of life into his campaign (including my great-grandmother, who went to prison for non-cooperation in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh — Go Grandma!) all contributed to the effectiveness of his campaigns in challenging British imperialism.

In King’s letter from Birmingham prison, he also made reference to the events of Nazi Germany. Here was an instance where obeying an evil, fascist regime clearly resulted in more crimes perpetrated against innocent Jews. Like King, the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed that it was a crime to stand and watch while the government perpetrated its crimes against the Jews. Bonhoeffer became intimately involved in a conspiracy to kill Adolph Hitler. He came to believe in direct action, but not necessarily non-violent direct action. Allow me to note a few points of contact between Bonhoeffer’s struggle and King’s: Both men wanted to learn from Gandhi and apply his tactics to their contexts. Bonhoeffer had made arrangements to visit India to study under Gandhi before the severity of the German situation prevented him from doing so. But perhaps even more significant for Bonhoeffer was the huge influence that his visit to America had on him. During his years at Union Theological Seminary, Bonhoeffer attended Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, where he encountered African American theology and preaching. Bonhoeffer observed the contrast between the reserved, didactic style of German pastors and Abyssinian Baptist, “Here one can truly speak and hear about sin and grace and the love of God . . . the Black Christ is preached with rapturous passion and vision.” Bonhoeffer drew from Black preaching the ability to integrate the social and the spiritual and the ability to look at history from the standpoint of the outcast and the oppressed. Inspired by the courage of African American Christians, he returned to Germany emboldened to fight on behalf of defenseless Jews.

Gandhi, King and Bonhoeffer share important experiences and perspectives in common. All three confronted injustices intimately tied to notions of race. All three paid a huge price for engaging in direct action. Their actions drew a line in the sand between those willing to act and those who remained bystanders.

The reluctance of their closest friends to act deeply disappointed them. All three produced their most profound thoughts during times of imprisonment. All three expressed disappointment with the church for not translating its message of love into concrete action on behalf of the oppressed. All three died martyrs’ deaths.

King’s message draws from the past, but it also orients us to the future. To truly honor Dr. King’s legacy, we need to reflect on what his message means for our day. Where does his dream stand in today’s America?

With the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the end to official segregation, important legal constraints have been lifted that once prevented African Americans from fully partaking of the American dream. African Americans have fought in our wars, tilled our soil, and shaped our society and culture in important ways. Increasingly they are bringing their intelligence and leadership to bear on every facet of life in America, including our news media, academia, business and government. The election of our first African American president and the role of women such as Dr. Condoleezza Rice at the highest levels of government are evidence of lasting fruits of the civil rights movement. But of course, there remains a long way to go.

Too many disadvantaged African American youth wake up to a society where they feel they do not belong. Instead of hearing an invitation to serve and lead, they hear messages of exclusion and estrangement. This leads to anger, rebellion, and choices that take a startling percentage of young Black men to prison. Here we need to pose the tough questions: What can be done to stand in the gap for these youth, and how can these patterns be reversed?

More broadly, how is it that decades after the end of legal segregation, American society is still divided into enclaves of race and ethnicity? We still carry symptoms, as King reminded us, of our “tragic separation, awful estrangement, our terrible sinfulness.” The legal battle has been won, but a cultural, moral and spiritual battle remains to integrate.

We’re living in a time that is very different from the days of Martin Luther King Jr. It’s possible to be legally and constitutionally American without feeling emotionally or culturally bonded to American neighborhoods, institutions or cultural practices. New issues in today’s America are forcing us to reflect on what it means to belong and what it means to exclude or be excluded. What would it mean to read Martin Luther King Jr. in the days of our war on terror? How do we pursue perpetrators of terror without demonizing entire communities or religions?

Last summer, Americans were divided over the issue of whether to allow a Muslim developer to construct an Islamic Center near Ground Zero in New York City. For some, the issue was not one of legal rights but of cultural feelings and community relations. In an August 2010 op-ed column in the New York Times, one writer described two Americas: a legal, constitutional America and a Judeo-Christian, Anglo-Saxon America:

“There’s an America where it doesn’t matter what language you speak, what god you worship, or how deep your New World roots run. An America where allegiance to the Constitution trumps ethnic differences, language barriers and religious divides. An America where the newest arrival to our shores is no less American than the ever-so-great granddaughter of the Pilgrims.

“But there’s another America as well, one that understands itself as a distinctive culture, rather than just a set of political propositions. This America speaks English, not Spanish or Chinese or Arabic. It looks back to a particular religious heritage: Protestantism originally, and then a Judeo-Christian consensus that accommodated Jews and Catholics as well. It draws its social norms from the mores of the Anglo-Saxon diaspora — and it expects new arrivals to assimilate themselves to these norms, and quickly.

“These two understandings of America, one constitutional and one cultural, have been in tension throughout our history.”4

As I read this column, I experienced conflicting feelings. On the one hand, I was entirely sympathetic with the fact that American people are not merely legal entities but are emotional, cultural and relational beings as well. Constructing anything in proximity to Ground Zero requires not only legal clearance but should entail relational and emotional clearance as well.

On the other hand, I found myself deeply troubled by the juxtaposition of Judeo-Christian and Anglo-Saxon. Not only are there important empirical problems with this assertion — the face of Christianity is becoming increasingly if not predominantly non-Anglo — but it also raises theological red flags. Jesus Christ is no one’s tribal god. He is the Lord of the universe. He signs on to no one’s formula of “family, faith and flag” if it encodes a vision of racial and cultural imperialism and exclusion.

Chandra Mallampalli joined the Westmont history faculty in 2001.

In sum, the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his campaigns of civil disobedience are like a two-edged sword. On the one hand, his legacy holds social structures accountable to a moral universe, pressing them to serve all people, not simply members of one race or class. His legacy also pushes us toward a more capacious and inviting notion of what it means to be American.

The other edge of his sword, however, applies to angry, wounded people. His message holds angry people accountable to the same moral universe. It calls on them to deal with anger constructively and redemptively, not through unkind, extreme, or destructive behavior. Dr. King held America accountable to its best self by drawing our attention to a larger vision in which all of us participate constructively. Will we take hold of that vision?

1 King, “Letter from Birmingham Prison.”
2 Ibid.
3 Karuna Mantena, “Alibis of Empire” (Princeton, 2010)
4 Ross Douthat, “Islam in Two Americas,” New York Times, August 15, 2010.

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