Martin Luther King Jr. was an American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. King is best known for advancing civil rights through nonviolence and civil disobedience, tactics his Christian beliefs and the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi helped inspire. On October 14, 1964, King won the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance. In 1971, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a holiday in numerous cities and states, and as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986. Hundreds of streets in the U.S. have been renamed in his honour. King has become a national icon in the history of American liberalism and American progressivism.
What is your idea of perfect happiness? The poor, white, and black, rebelling together against the establishment.
What is your greatest fear? No nation can suffer any greater tragedy than to cause millions of its citizens to feel that they have no stake in their own society.
What is the trait you most deplore in others? As much as I deplore violence, there is one evil that is worse than violence, and that’s cowardice.
Which living person do you most admire? I never will forget a moment in Birmingham when a white policeman accosted a little Negro girl, seven or eight years old, who was walking in a demonstration with her mother. “What do you want?” the policeman asked her gruffly, and the little girl looked him straight in the eye and answered, “Fee-dom.” She couldn’t even pronounce it, but she knew. It was beautiful! Many times when I have been in sorely trying situations, the memory of that little one has come into my mind, and has buoyed me.
What is your greatest extravagance? Music. In a sense, songs are the soul of a movement. Consider, in World War Two, Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition, and in World War One, Over There and Tipperary, and during the Civil War, Battle Hymn of the Republic andJohn Brown’s Body. A Negro song anthology would include sorrow songs, shouts for joy, battle hymns, anthems. Since slavery, the Negro has sung throughout his struggle in America. Steal Away and Go Down, Moses were the songs of faith and inspiration which were sung on the plantations. For the same reasons the slaves sang, Negroes today sing freedom songs, for we, too, are in bondage. We sing out our determination that “We shall overcome, black and white together, we shall overcome someday.” I should also mention a song parody that I enjoyed very much which the Negroes sang during our campaign in Albany, Georgia. It goes: “I’m comin’, I’m comin’ / And my head ain’t bendin’ low / I’m walkin’ tall, I’m talkin’ strong / I’m America’s New Black Joe.”
What is your current state of mind? We have lived so long with this idea with people saying it takes time and wait on time, that I find it very difficult to, to adjust to this. I mean, I, I get annoyed almost when I hear it, although I know it takes time. But the people that use this argument have been people so often who, who really didn’t want the change to come, and gradualism for them meant a do nothing-ism, you know, and the standstill-ism, so that it has been a revolt, I think, against the idea of a feeling on the part of some that you can just sit around and wait on time, when, actually, time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively.
Which living person do you most despise? I wouldn’t mind seeing Mr. Trump dispatched to a desert island. I hope they’d feed him and everything, of course. I am nonviolent, you know. Politically, though, he’s already on a desert island, so it may be unnecessary to send him there.
What is the quality you most like in a man? A strong man must be militant as well as moderate. He must be a realist as well as an idealist. Wherever the early Christians appeared, spreading Christ’s doctrine of love, the resident power structure accused them of being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the small Christian band continued to teach and exemplify love, convinced that they were “a colony of heaven” on this earth who were missioned to obey not man but God. Our white brothers must be made to understand that nonviolence is a weapon fabricated of love. It is a sword that heals. Our nonviolent direct-action program has as its objective not the creation of tensions, but the surfacing of tensions already present. We set out to precipitate a crisis situation that must open the door to negotiation. I am not afraid of the words “crisis” and “tension.” I deeply oppose violence, but constructive crisis and tension are necessary for growth. Innate in all life, and all growth, is tension. Only in death is there an absence of tension. To cure injustices, you must expose them before the light of human conscience and the bar of public opinion, regardless of whatever tensions that exposure generates. Injustices to the Negro must be brought out into the open where they cannot be evaded.
What or who is the greatest love of your life? God. My wife and children, of course. My family. And everyone who performs God’s will on a daily basis.
When and where were you happiest? Those who are not looking for happiness are the most likely to find it, because those who are searching forget that the surest way to be happy is to seek happiness for others.
What do you consider your greatest achievement? Not long ago, I toured in eight communities of the state of Mississippi. And I have carried with me ever since a visual image of the penniless and the unlettered, and of the expressions on their faces—of deep and courageous determination to cast off the imprint of the past and become free people. I welcome the opportunity to be a part of this great drama, for it is a drama that will determine America’s destiny. If the problem is not solved, America will be on the road to its self-destruction. But if it is solved, America will just as surely be on the high road to the fulfillment of the founding fathers’ dream, when they wrote: “We hold these truths to be self evident….”
Where would you most like to live? Right here in America. But under different circumstances. What the Negro wants—and will not stop until he gets—is absolute and unqualified freedom and equality here in this land of his birth, and not in Africa or in some imaginary state. The Negro no longer will be tolerant of anything less than his due right and heritage. He is pursuing only that which he knows is honourably his. He knows that he is right.
What is your most treasured possession? My Bible.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? Ignorance. You may remember that during the rise of Nazi Germany, a rash of books by respected German scientists appeared, supporting the master-race theory. This utterly ignorant fallacy has been so thoroughly refuted by the social scientists, as well as by medical science, that any individual who goes on believing it is standing in an absolutely misguided and diminishing circle. The American Anthropological Association has unanimously adopted a resolution repudiating statements that Negroes are biologically, in innate mental ability or in any other way inferior to whites. The collective weight and authority of world scientists are embodied in a Unesco report on races which flatly refutes the theory of innate superiority among any ethnic group. And as far as Negro “blood” is concerned, medical science finds the same four blood types in all race groups. When the Southern white finally accepts this simple fact—as he eventually must—beautiful results will follow, for we will have come a long way toward transforming his master-servant perspective into a person-to-person perspective. The Southern white man, discovering the “nonmyth” Negro, exhibits all the passion of the new convert, seeing the black man as a man among men for the first time. The South, if it is to survive economically, must make dramatic changes, and these must include the Negro. People of good will in the South, who are the vast majority, have the challenge to be open and honest, and to turn a deaf ear to the shrill cries of the irresponsible few on the lunatic fringe. I think and pray they will.
What is your favorite occupation? Well, at one time I dreamed of pastoring for a few years, and then of going to a university to teach theology. But I gave that up when I became deeply involved in the civil rights struggle. Perhaps, in five years or so, if the demands on me have lightened, I will have the chance to make that dream come true.
What is your most marked characteristic? I subject myself to self-purification and to endless self-analysis; I question and soul-search constantly into myself to be as certain as I can that I am fulfilling the true meaning of my work, that I am maintaining my sense of purpose, that I am holding fast to my ideals, that I am guiding my people in the right direction.
What do you most value in your friends? Loyalty, sincerity, and commitment.
Who are your favorite writers? I enjoy Plato’s Republic. I feel that it brings together more of the insights of history than any other book. There is not a creative idea extant that is not discussed, in some way, in this work. Whatever realm of theology or philosophy is one’s interest—and I am deeply interested in both—somewhere along the way, in this book, you will find the matter explored.
Who is your hero of fiction? John Donne was right. No man is an island and the tide that fills every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. And he goes on toward the end to say, “any man’s death diminishes me because I’m involved in mankind. Therefore, it’s not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” Somehow we must come to see that in this pluralistic, interrelated society we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And by working with determination and realizing that power must be shared, I think we can solve this problem.
Which historical figure do you most identify with? One Sunday afternoon I traveled to Philadelphia to hear a sermon by Dr. Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University. He was there to preach for the Fellowship House of Philadelphia. Dr. Johnson had just returned from a trip to India, and to my great interest. He spoke of the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. His message was so profound and electrifying that I left the meeting and bought a half-dozen books on Gandhi’s life and works. Like most people, I had heard of Gandhi, but I had never studied him seriously. As I read I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance. I was particularly moved by the Salt March to the Sea and his numerous fasts. The whole concept of “Satyagraha” (Satya is truth which equals love, agraha is force; “Satyagraha,” therefore, means truth-force or love force) was profoundly significant to me. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform. Prior to reading Gandhi, I had about concluded that the ethics of Jesus were only effective in individual relationship. The “turn the other cheek” philosophy and the “love your enemies” philosophy were only valid, I felt when individuals were in conflict with other individuals; when racial groups and nations were in conflict a more realistic approach seemed necessary. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I was. Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. Love for Gandhi was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation. It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking for do many months. The intellectual and moral satisfaction that I failed to gain from the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, the revolutionary methods of Marx and Lenin, the social contracts theory of Hobbes, the “back to nature” optimism of Rousseau, and the superman philosophy of Nietzsche. I found in the nonviolent resistance philosophy of Gandhi. I came to feel that this was the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom. Posterity could not escape him even if it tried. By all standards of measurement, he is one of the half-dozen greatest men in world history.”
Who are your heroes in real life? The world doesn’t like people like Gandhi. That’s strange, isn’t it? They don’t like people like Christ, they don’t like people like Abraham Lincoln…One afternoon he walked to his evening prayer meeting. Every evening he had a prayer meeting where hundreds of people came. And he prayed with them. And on his way out that afternoon, one of his fellows Hindus shot him. And here was a man of nonviolence falling at the hands of man of violence. Here was a man of love falling at the hands of a man of hate. This seems the way of history. And isn’t it significant that he died on the same day that Christ died. It was on a Friday. And this is the story of history. But thank God, it never stopped there. Thank God Friday is never the end. The man who shot Gandhi only shot him into the hearts of humanity.
What are your favorite names? I always liked the names Jethro, Giddeon, and Thaddeus. Delilah is also a nice name.
What is it that you most dislike? Segregation laws. The family often used to ride with me to the Atlanta airport, and on our way, we always passed Funtown, a sort of miniature Disneyland with mechanical rides and that sort of thing. Yolanda would inevitably say, “I want to go to Funtown,” and I would always evade a direct reply. I really didn’t know how to explain to her why she couldn’t go. Then one day at home, she ran downstairs exclaiming that a TV commercial was urging people to come to Funtown. Then my wife and I had to sit down with her between us and try to explain it. I have won some applause as a speaker, but my tongue twisted and my speech stammered seeking to explain to my six-year-old daughter why the public invitation on television didn’t include her, and others like her. One of the most painful experiences I have ever faced was to see her tears when I told her that Funtown was closed to colored children, for I realized that at that moment the first dark cloud of inferiority had floated into her little mental sky, that at that moment her personality had begun to warp with that first unconscious bitterness toward white people. It was the first time that prejudice based upon skin color had been explained to her. But it was of paramount importance to me that she not grow up bitter. So I told her that although many white people were against her going to Funtown, there were many others who did want colored children to go. It helped somewhat. Pleasantly, word came to me later that Funtown had quietly desegregated, so I took Yolanda. A number of white persons there asked, “Aren’t you Dr. King, and isn’t this your daughter?” I said we were, and she heard them say how glad they were to see us there.
What is your greatest regret? Well, the most pervasive mistake I have made was in believing that because our cause was just, we could be sure that the white ministers of the South, once their Christian consciences were challenged, would rise to our aid. I felt that white ministers would take our cause to the white power structures. I ended up, ofcourse, chastened and disillusioned. As our movement unfolded, and direct appeals were made to white ministers, most folded their hands—and some even took stands against us. The essence of the Epistles of Paul is that Christians should rejoice at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believe. The projection of a social gospel, in my opinion, is the true witness of a Christian life. This is the meaning of the true ekklesia—the inner, spiritual church. The church once changed society. It was then a thermostat of society. But today I feel that too much of the church is merely a thermometer, which measures rather than molds popular opinion.
How would you like to die? If I were constantly worried about death, I couldn’t function. After a while, if your life is more or less constantly in peril, you come to a point where you accept the possibility philosophically. I must face the fact, as all others in positions of leadership must do, that America today is an extremely sick nation, and that something could well happen to me at any time. I feel, though, that my cause is so right, so moral, that if I should lose my life, in some way it would aid the cause.
What is your motto? The time is always right to do what is right.