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Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Every third Monday of the year America celebrates the Martin Luther King Day – a holiday dedicated to the life and ideals of one of the greatest activists in the struggle for civil rights. The activities and teachings of Martin Luther King are a vivid example of how faith can be applied in practical social life of the modern world.
Martin Luther King Jr. showed that the sphere of religion involves not only spiritual problems related to the salvation of human soul for eternity, but also issues related to improving the quality of earthly existence – the struggle against social injustice, discrimination, poverty, inequality and hostility between social groups of people . The most important moment of King’s activity was the emphasis on the unacceptability of the use of violence in struggle.
Overview of Activity
The beginning of King’s activity as the leader of the struggle against discrimination accounts for December 1955. Returning home from work, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give way to a white passenger on a bus. After this incident, the Black community under the leadership of Martin Luther King boycotted the transport of Montgomery for 382 days. In November 1956 the U.S. Supreme Court declared the law of segregation in Alabama as unconstitutional, and in December blacks and whites used buses together.
In 1957 King was elected to head the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. For 11 years he had traveled more than seven million miles, giving speeches more than 2,500 times, constantly finding himself in places of protests, actions and fight against injustice. However, he managed to write five books and a huge number of articles.
As head of a protest in Birmingham, Alabama Martin Luther King was arrested and imprisoned for nine days in custody, where he wrote a series of well-known essays Letter from Birmingham Jail. It was a manifesto of the fighters against discrimination, justifying the moral right of man to oppose unjust laws.
King was one of the organizers of the peaceful march to Washington, attended by half a million people, and which culminated in one of King’s most quoted speeches – I Have a Dream. In 1964, for his fight against racial discrimination King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. On March 28, 1968 King led a protest march to support the striking workers. On April 4, he was mortally wounded. Since 1986, the third Monday in January is celebrated as a national holiday in his honor.
The Principle of Nonviolence
King’s ideas are particularly interesting being the mix of traditional Christian views with the philosophy of nonviolence, which is much more characteristic for Eastern religions and in Christianity is mainly related to “nontraditional” communities, which are called “sects.” But King, like Leo Tolstoy, was convinced that the principles of nonviolence are approved by Jesus Christ in the Gospel. King contribution to human culture was the fact that he led the struggle for universal human rights principles, justifying them by the principles of Christian morality: “In this first speech, his appeal to nonviolence is based on no theory other than the simple assumption that Christians will do no harm to those who have harmed them” (Lischer, 1997, p. 86).
Being sure that nonviolence is the epitome of the teachings of Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King articulated six principles of nonviolent struggle against social injustice and discrimination. King explained the basic principles of nonviolence in his Stride Toward Freedom (1958). According to him, nonviolent resistance is not a method of cowards who are afraid to fight, but the resistance, which requires strength and courage. A person shall not submit to any injustice. But the struggle must be based not upon violence, but upon persuasion. This method is not a passive resistance to evil, but the active nonviolent resistance to evil.
Also, nonviolence does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but tries to win friendship and understanding. Although nonviolent struggle can be expressed in the protests, noncooperation, or boycotts, this is not the goal. The goal is to unite people who are separated by the barriers of social injustice. Nonviolent struggle is directed against evil, not against its carriers. Nonviolence embodies the principle of one of the commandments: “But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Mathew 5:39). This means a willingness to accept suffering without revenge; to accept enemy’s attacks, not responding with retaliation. Nonviolence means not only absence of physical violence, but also rejection of moral violence. As a final characteristic of nonviolent struggle, Martin Luther King highlighted the belief that the universe is based on love. In describing God’s love—agape—which should be used by people against their enemies, Martin Luther King advocates the logic of the interconnectedness and interdependence of whole life. This logic is rooted in Eastern philosophy and is most fully reflected in Buddhism. However, it is not alien to Christianity as well.
King’s attention span was not limited merely to racial discrimination; he was concerned about poverty in the United States, the unemployment rate, showed dissatisfaction with the events in Vietnam, because this war “offended his nonviolence” (DeLeon, 1994, p. 121). His activity made a great influence almost on all spheres of life, defined the direction of development of civil rights movement and continues to motivate people today.
The historical experience of African Americans will always be unique. But the provision of suffrage at the federal level provided Black Americans with the tools that have long been used by immigrants and other minority groups, carrying out “the American dream.” In the United States, people who vote possess real political power. Over time, thanks to voting, legal and political equality for African Americans produced gains in almost all areas of life.
Although Americans continue to face racial problems, these problems are fundamentally different from those addressed by such leaders as Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King and the generation of the civil rights movement. Of course, the civil rights movement led the American people to face the contradiction between its ideals and the reality of segregation and inequality. In this case it greatly advanced the country on its path to full racial equality, which has yet to be achieved. Perhaps the most important measure of progress is the appearance among young Americans—who have the future of the country—of a broad and deep consensus that a shameful history of slavery, segregation and oppression must be left in history. As one of 12 year old Americans said:
I’ve often wondered what would happen if this man had never been born. Would we have made any strides against racial discrimination? If you agree with what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did and said, then you will have the courage and pride to voice your convictions. We must learn to live in harmony with one another. We can all make a difference if we try (cited in Ebony, 1992, p. 74).