Martin Luther King, Jr. grew up in a well-to-do family in Atlanta, Georgia. Notwithstanding this, King did not escape indirect and direct encounters with one of the cruelest enemies of human dignity--racism. As a young boy he witnessed the racist mistreatment of his father by a White shoe salesman (King, 1958, 19) and by a White policeman (Ibid., 20). Around the age of six, when he' had started school, he was told by the parents of his White friend that he could no longer play with him. King recalled this as his first encounter with racism (Carson, 1992, 362; also King, 1958, 18-19). A number of times he saw members of the Ku Klux Klan riding through black neighborhoods trying to intimidate the residents. In addition, he had witnessed police brutality, "and watched Negroes receive the most tragic injustice in the courts" (King, 1958, 90). Moreover, while in high school, there was a nasty incident on a return bus trip from Dublin, Georgia, where he won an oratory contest. Because of segregation laws, King and his teacher were disrespectfully ordered by the bus driver to give their seats to White patrons. When King hesitated, the driver began cursing at him and his teacher. Urged by his teacher to get up, because it was the law, King recalled that they stood all the way back to Atlanta. He said: "That night will never leave my memory. It was the angriest I have ever been in my life" (King, 1998, 10). As if this were not enough, King recalled that, just before he entered Morehouse College, he spent the summer working on a tobacco farm in Connecticut. He was thrilled by the fact that he could move about freely and eat wherever he wanted. However, it was hurtful to have to return to a segregated South. He reflected on how it made him feel to have to move to a Jim Crow car on the return trip to Atlanta.
It was hard to understand why I could ride wherever I pleased on the train from New York to Washington and then had to change to a Jim Crow car at the nation's capital in order to continue the trip to Atlanta. The first time that I was seated behind a curtain in a dining car, I felt as if the curtain had been dropped on my selfhood. I could never adjust to the separate waiting rooms, separate eating places, separate rest rooms, partly because the very idea of separation did something to my sense of dignity and self-respect (King, 1998, 11-12).
It is not difficult to understand why King confessed to having come "perilously close to resenting all White people" (King, 1958, 90).
In any case we can see that neither money nor status completely shielded King from the degradation caused by racism. His own early encounters with racism and the utter disgust that resulted helps us to understand why he was so devoted to fighting for the dignity of persons as such, and that of his own people in particular. King learned when he was young that every person is a child of God and therefore is sacred and infinitely valuable to God. However, he also knew that, because of slavery and the continued practice of racial discrimination, the sense of human dignity was marred, and even lost, in large numbers of his people. Therefore much of his work was devoted to helping to restore in his people their lost sense of dignity. Although there are a number of themes that appear repeatedly in King's published and unpublished writings, speeches, and sermons, a case could be made that the two themes that appear most often have to do with God and with human dignity. As a pastor and theological social ethicist, King believed God to be the fundamental source of human worth or dignity. Persons have inviolable worth because they are created, loved, and sustained by the God of the Hebrew prophets and Jesus Christ.
Although King discovered the theological ground for his doctrine of dignity in his conception of God, he grounded it metaphysically in the philosophy of Personalism. There is evidence that he first encountered this philosophy as a student at Morehouse College (Oates, 1982, 35). However, his first serious encounter with Personalism occurred when he was a seminary student at Crozer Theological Seminary, and later at Boston University. Although the doctrine of human dignity Was instilled in King by his parents and his upbringing at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the philosophy of Personalism provided the intellectual framework for him to ground that doctrine in a formal way. In any case, from the time King was a boy, and especially after the encounter with the parents of his White friends, he had a profound sense of his own and that of others. This essay therefore focuses on the meaning of King's doctrine of human dignity, and what it requires of us today. Since King was first and last a Christian minister (Carson and Holloran, 1998, 146), I focus especially on the relevance of human dignity for Christians, and how they should be behaving in light of it.
The phenomenon of self-inflicted genocide, what Cornel West calls the "nihilistic threat" (West, 1993, Chapter 1), is pervasive among young Afrikan American males in the urban centers of this nation, and presently is one of the most effective means of depopulating Afrikan American communities. As a theological social ethicist, it is increasingly difficult for me to take seriously those in the academy and church who do their work in a way that does not reflect the sense of urgency prompted by the daily murders of young Black males by other young Black males, or by the police, welfare agencies, schools, and even churches. The latter tend to participate in this tragedy through silence. If it is true that persons as such are precious and have inviolable dignity by virtue of being created in God's image, then the work of the theological social ethicist--indeed all scholars, regardless of academic discipline--should reflect the influence of the tragic phenomena of Black against Black violence and murder among young Afrikan American males.
Witnesses to Human Dignity
My boyhood church and familial teachings convinced me that, if there is a God at all, God is personal, is always present, is relentlessly faithful, and cares about all of creation, and especially persons. Black religious tradition maintains that God lovingly, thoughtfully, and willingly calls persons into existence. At the bare minimum this implies an ongoing transitive love and concern for the created. This, in turn, implies something that I learned in the days of my youth, viz., that all persons have absolute dignity and worth. Moreover, my doctoral studies under the Personalists, Walter G. Muelder and the late Peter A. Bertocci (men who mentored and taught King), provided an excellent intellectual framework both for articulating and living out these teachings. And finally, like King (King, 1963, 47; also Ahman, 1963, 156-157), I take very seriously the tradition of Hebrew prophecy and its focus on justice and righteousness, as well as the sacredness of persons. From the Book of Jeremiah, for example, we get a clear sense of God as personal and desirous that justice be done in the world. In light of these influences and connections, I am prompted to say that Black children and teens are, after all, my children, and the reader's as well. What puts all of us in danger of divine judgment is that at the core they are God's children, and God expects that they be treated like the precious beings they are.
As a theological social ethicist I am hopeful that these reflections on King's doctrine of dignity will remind us of our own moral obligation to live and behave in ways that exhibit respect for every person, no matter their race, gender, sexuality, class, age, or health. This means, minimally, that we will have to be witnesses to the true meaning of human dignity as something concrete, and not merely abstract. To be a witness means not only to see and report clearly. In the Afrikan American tradition and that of eighth-century Hebrew prophecy, it also means to be a disturber of the peace---of the way things are when they do not comply with divine expectations. But to be a witness also means to speak the truth about what ought and can be. It means that in the face of injustice, for example, one does not merely suggest that justice be done. Instead, one admonishes, even demands, that justice be done. James Baldwin captures the point well when he writes: "In the church in which I was raised you were supposed to bear witness to the truth" (Standley and Pratt, 1989, 226). Period. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a witness, and for this he was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee, April 4, 1968. That persons develop courage to be witnesses to the truth about the dignity of persons as such is the challenge issued in this essay. Witnessing, in the best sense, is risky business, and requires moral fiber and courage (key missing ingredients in the lives and behavior of far too many Christians and persons of other faiths).
The Humanity of Martin Luther King, …