He's got his own national holiday, but it seems that every year Martin Luther King's real message becomes more obscured. For most Americans he has been reduced to posters and postage stamps, an excuse for a long weekend once a year. But in these days of heightened fear, acute injustice, and daily warmongering, King’s example of nonviolent resistance becomes more relevant than ever before. In fact, unrealistic as it may sound, I believe King’s principle of overcoming enemies with love is the only solution to the problems facing us today, both at home and abroad.
In the spring of 1965 I marched with King in Marion, Alabama, and experienced firsthand his deep love and humility in the face of injustice. I was visiting the Tuskegee Institute with colleagues from New York when we heard about the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young man who had been shot eight days earlier when a rally at a church in Marion was broken up by police. State troopers from all over central Alabama had converged on the town and beaten the protesters with clubs as they poured out onto the streets.
Bystanders later described a scene of utter chaos: white onlookers smashed cameras and shot out street lights, while police officers brutally attacked black men and women, some of whom were kneeling and praying on the steps of their church.
Jimmie’s crime was to tackle a state trooper who was mercilessly beating his mother. His punishment: to be shot in the stomach and clubbed over the head until almost dead. Denied admission at the local hospital, he was taken to Selma, where he was able to tell his story to reporters. He died several days later.
At the news of Jimmie’s death, we drove to Selma immediately. The viewing, at Brown Chapel, was open-casket, and although the mortician had done his best to cover his injuries, the wounds on Jimmie’s head could not be hidden: three murderous blows, each an inch wide and three inches long, ran above his ear, at the base of his skull, and on the top of his head.
Deeply shaken, we attended a memorial service there. The room was packed with about three thousand people (many more stood outside), and we sat on a window sill at the back. Amazingly, there was not one note of anger or revenge to be heard in the service. Instead, an atmosphere of courage and peace radiated from the congregation. And when everyone rose to sing the old slave song, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ’round,” the spirit of triumph was so powerful that an onlooker never would have guessed why we had gathered.
At a second service we attended in Marion, the atmosphere was decidedly more subdued. Lining the veranda of the county court house across the street stood a long row of state troopers, hands on their nightsticks, looking straight at us. These were the same men who had attacked Marion’s blacks only days before. As we left the service for the burial, we passed first them, and then a crowd of hecklers that had gathered at nearby City Hall. The police, who were armed with binoculars and cameras as well as guns, scanned and photographed each one of us; the hecklers, though unarmed, followed us with insults and jeers.
At the cemetery, King spoke about forgiveness and love. He pleaded with his people to pray for the police, to forgive the murderer, and to forgive those who were persecuting them. Then we held hands and sang, “We shall overcome.” It was an unforgettable moment. If there was ever cause for hatred or vengeance, it was here. But none was to be felt, not even from Jimmie’s parents.
The reason for this is probably best explained in this passage from King’s book Strength to Love:
Probably no admonition of Jesus has been more difficult to follow than the command to love our enemies…Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love even for our enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world…
Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.
King’s commitment to love as a political weapon grew out of his faith, but there was a good streak of pragmatism in his thinking as well. He knew that he and other African-Americans involved in the civil rights movement would have to live for decades to come with the same people they were now confronting. If they let their treatment embitter them, it would soon lead to violence, which would only lead to new cycles of repression and embitterment. Rather than breaking down the walls of racial hatred, it would build them higher. Only by forgiving their oppressors, King said, could African-Americans end the “descending spiral of destruction.” Only forgiveness could bring about lasting change.
To our most bitter opponents we say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you.
“We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because non-co-operation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is co-operation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.
“One day we shall win our freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”
Many in the Civil Rights Movement felt King was far too cautious and ineffectual, and disdained his belief in the power of Gandhian nonviolence. King refused to espouse their less peaceful methods of working for change, but neither did he condemn their tactics outright: “If the oppressed are denied the right to carry out revolution peacefully, how can they be condemned when they turn to violent revolution?”
As I wrote in Be Not Afraid, our greatest enemy is fear, and specifically the fear of death. If only we could overcome this fear, terrorists would hold no power over us. If anyone had a reason to fear death, it was King. Immensely charismatic and unabashedly outspoken, he put his life on the line for the cause of racial equality time and again. In the end, as we know, he paid the ultimate price. Like anyone else, he must have been afraid of dying, yet the few times I met him or heard him speak, he radiated a deep calm and peace. Here was a man with no doubts as to his mission, and no crippling fears about the cost of carrying it out.
“No man is free if he fears death,” he told the crowd at a civil rights rally in 1963. “But the minute you conquer the fear of death, at that moment you are free.” Friends urged him to take fewer risks, but he shrugged them off. “I cannot worry about my safety,” he told them. “I cannot live in fear. I have to function. If there is one fear I have conquered, it is the fear of death…I submit to you that if a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live!”
King was (and still is) an inspiring figure for me. His belief in the cause of justice was unwavering, and he seemed utterly fearless, though he was hated by so many, and threatened so often, that death must have continually lingered at the back of his mind. Just days before his assassination he admitted as much – and explained why he refused to yield to fear:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. And I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land! So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I am not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
This is the confidence and hope we need to meet the challenges facing us. When we are ready, like Martin Luther King was, to lay down our lives for the cause of peace, we too shall overcome. We, too, can disarm our enemies – any enemy – with love. I am certain of it.