Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What Would King say about Ferguson?

Fifty years ago today, on Dec. 10, 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr., was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was 35 years old, and at the time was the youngest person ever to be given the Peace Prize, which was first awarded in 1901.
King gave an acceptance speech upon receiving the prodigious prize on that December day, and on the 11th he delivered the Nobel Lecture. 

From 1960 until his death in 1968, King and his father were co-pastors of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. (That is also where one of King’s funerals was held on 4/9/68.) Last Monday (Dec. 1) Attorney-General Holder met with community leaders of Atlanta in Ebenezer BC.
That gathering was publicized under the name “The Community Speaks: A Service. A Forum. A Place to be Heard.” Prior to that meeting Ebenezer Church’s Facebook page explained,
This service is designed to provide a sacred space for interfaith prayer, solidarity, communal lament, and constructive outlets for community involvement that furthers the work of social justice locally, nationally and globally.
What would King have said last week if he had been there at Ebenezer? (If he had not been assassinated, at age 85 he might have been.)
King would, no doubt, have expressed great sadness at the shooting death of an unarmed black teen-ager. And it is most likely that he would have also expressed grave reservations about the grand jury’s refusal to indict Darren Wilson.
Doubtlessly, King would also have decried the violence that has marred the protest in Ferguson and elsewhere. As he did in the 1950s and ’60s, he would have appealed for nonviolent demonstrations.
In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, King declared that “nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time,” and that it is necessary for humans “to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression.”
King also declared in his Nobel lecture, “Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral.”
Further, “Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible.” And then, “Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.”
If King were to have come back, Rip van Winkle style, to Ebenezer last week, he would quite likely have expressed great disappointment that the racial situation has not improved more than it has since 1964.
In his Nobel lecture, King talked about racial injustice, poverty, and war. Sadly, not very much has changed in 50 years.
In that lecture, King spoke about how we humans suffer from
a poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers [and sisters].
King’s acceptance speech was full of hope, though. To some that may have sounded then, and maybe especially now, as “liberal” or humanistic optimism. But there is a distinct difference between hope and optimism.
King was not, and most likely would not today be, optimistic about race relations in the country. But he was hopeful then, and as a man of deep Christian faith, he would be hopeful now.

That hope rests partly in people of good will truly seeking freedom and justice for all. 


  1. Here is a link to a TV news story about the celebration of the 50th anniversary of King's Peace Prize in Atlanta last night. MLK's daughter Bernice links her father's work and words to the current situation in the U.S.:

  2. Thanks, Leroy! Here's the link to a video of MLK's acceptance speech: The speech can also be read there.

    1. Thanks for sharing this, Michael.

      In an earlier version of my article I had links to both the acceptance speech and an excerpt from the lecture, but somehow those didn't get in the final version.

      When I heard it a couple of weeks ago, I was moved by listening to the speech you linked to, and I hope others will listen to it also.

  3. Local Thinking Friend Cole Morgan shares significant comments:

    "​I do admire and support King's nonviolent approach. Oppression is a part of humans that needs a lot of work. Are we learning from this?"

    ​"My question to you, Leroy, is this: Living as sisters and brothers, is it better now or worse in America, in the world?

    "Leroy, I do agree with you there is a difference between hope and optimism. Are you saying because King was a Christian he was hopeful? And you also think King would not have a humanist optimism nowadays about peace?

    "Leroy, you posted: King was not, and most likely would not today be, optimistic about race relations in the country. But he was hopeful then, and as a man of deep Christian faith, he would be hopeful now.

    "Here are these two word, again: hope and optimism. Do you think out of all the effort to find peace in America, in the world, it is worse now than a hundred years ago, 500 hundred years ago, two thousand years ago, ten thousand years ago?

    "In this perspective do you think we are getting worse or better?"

  4. Another local Thinking Friend, Eric Dollard, sent these important comments:

    "I was fortunate enough to hear Dr King speak in January 1968, less than three months before his assassination. He was an excellent public speaker. In 1986, we visited his grave site at the Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta and I was deeply moved by what I saw and experienced.

    "I am saddened and shamed, as an American, by the report released yesterday about the use of torture by the CIA and I think we all know what Dr King would have said about it. My hope is that the report will challenge the people of America to look seriously at our history and our actions to see if we are really the nation of 'liberty and justice for all' as we claim. We still have a long road ahead of us."

  5. Race relations in America are held hostage by the law of intended consequences. This law is much less known than its cousin, the law of unintended consequences, but its power is greater. When a law or regulation is promulgated ostensibly to do one thing, while in fact designed to do another, that is the law of intended consequences at work. Or, as its practitioners say, "Give them enough rope, and they will hang themselves."

    Case in point, the war on drugs. Nixon declared the war on drugs, ostensibly to help America. Actually, it was a cynical part of his notorious Southern Strategy, designed to denigrate minority communities and please the poor whites who would be the targets of the Southern Strategy. Just today I read that the United States Congress, in its hurry to pass a late spending bill, added a provision nullifying the legalization of marijuana in the District of Columbia, despite that action having just been passed by a 2-1 margin by District voters. The Southern Strategy lives on, and whatever motives Congress may claim, the intended consequence is not hard to see. The residents of Washington be damned, the Southern Strategy must continue! Massive resistance has not gone away, it has just become shrewder.

    Strict policing of minority communities is another case where the intended consequence must be seen beyond the smoke screen of political excuses. Hyper-enforcement puts the police in the face of the minority communities, leading the communities to hate and fear the police, even as the police come to hate and fear the community. This is not an accident. This is the intended consequence. The police and the communities are both victims of this subversive strategy. Even in New York City.

    Urban areas are frequently politically shattered to such an extent that they are nearly ungovernable. This works well for small, rich enclaves that do not want to carry their share of the load. For small, poor communities, such as Ferguson, Missouri, this is the road to ruin. Generations of red-lining, housing segregation, and infrastructure neglect have born a bitter fruit, very little of which was an unintended consequence.

  6. Local Thinking friend Don Wideman shares these comments:

    "I think you captured the spirit and direction of MLK exactly! My prayer is that God would once again raise up prophetic leaders like him! We also need similar leaders in the Caucasian community because of deep seated racial prejudice among us. May God who can change the hearts of kings also do a work in mine and ours."

  7. Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona writes,

    "Thanks for another insightful commentary on current affairs. I would expect that MLK would have been very disappointed about Ferguson--not because of the protest, but the terrible violence. Peaceful protest becomes difficult when the level of frustration becomes so high. All that Ferguson achieved was the release of pressure--no solutions were reached, but my guess is that the spirit of that city's expression of violence will not easily go away in spite of MLK's touching plea for peace. Sad!"