Martin Luther King Day is a holiday here in the U.S.—and rightly so. But Americans sometimes forget his importance for the rest of the world. In 1988, I was in Riga as Latvians demonstrated for independence from the Soviet Union. We passed out booklets summarizing the teachings of Dr. King on nonviolence and were delighted to see the Baltic republics win their independence from the Soviet empire though nonviolent means. Later, I was in northeast India with an African-American friend and training companion. We were in a remote village in the Naga Hills. As they shared some of their folks songs we decided to share something from our heritage. We chose “We Shall Overcome.” As we began to sing we had no sooner gotten through a couple words when 200 Naga voices picked up the song. The freedom movement for which King was the visionary has rippled to some of the most remote places on earth.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a Baptist pastor who ultimately gave up his own life to change life for all Americans. His powerful, poetic appeals called upon us all to act in new ways on our deeply held sense of justice. His impact was so profound that in the United States today there is a national holiday dedicated to the enduring energy in Dr. King’s life and message.
As a young pastor, his eloquent voice and strategic planning for the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott quickly pushed him into the top ranks of the U.S. civil rights movement. King developed a philosophy of nonviolent direct action through which oppressed people, especially blacks suffering in the 1950s under a system of legal segregation in the southern U.S., could courageously challenge the people, the attitudes and the legal structures that oppressed them. Today, his principles and the courage of those who followed his teachings is enshrined as a core chapter in what Americans teach their children.
Although celebrated now, this path was never easy for King. He was jailed along the way and eventually was assassinated at the age of 39.
At the core of King’s movement was his organization of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which helped to coordinate local struggles from Selma to Memphis as well as national campaigns for civil rights legislation in Congress. As president of the SCLC, King also appealed directly to the nation’s conscience through marches and speeches.
In his years of activism, King boldly tackled “the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism.” He became a prophet and activist whose influence was recognized in 1964 with a Nobel Peace Prize. King is the youngest person to receive this global honor. (You may want to visit the Nobel website to read and hear portions of King’s Nobel lecture from December 1964.)
King’s philosophy of nonviolence derived from Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), but it was from the Hindu activist Mahatma Gandhi that King drew the methodology for putting Jesus’ teachings into practice in the segregationist South. As he wrote: “Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, while Gandhi furnished the method.” In 1959 he traveled to India and deepened his understanding of nonviolence in dialogue with the Gandhi family and others active in the movement.
Many Jewish leaders joined in the struggle for civil rights for black citizens – and many Jewish activists were brutalized while working shoulder to shoulder with non-Jews in King’s movement. Together, these people found new ways to pray and work together for change.
King was a consistent prophetic voice against antisemitism as expressed by both segregationists and by some within his own black community. King said, “I solemnly pledge to do my utmost to uphold the fair name of the Jews–because bigotry in any form is an affront to us all.” He was an early advocate for the freedom of Jews who also were facing fierce discrimination in the Soviet Union.
In Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? King wrote, “When I speak of love, I am speaking of that force which all the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the First Epistle of Saint John: ‘Let us love one another; for love is of God, and everyone that loves is born of God, and knows God.’”
King envisioned a “beloved community” where all people were welcomed and treated with dignity. For King, religion was not a cause of division but an avenue to the deeper unity of love that should be expressed in justice for all.
Care to learn more?
Learn more about Daniel Buttry’s series of books on global peacemakers.
This article is adapted from the pages of Dan’s book, Interfaith Heroes.