Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Doctrine of Human Dignity

By Burrow, Rufus, Jr. | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Doctrine of Human Dignity


Burrow, Rufus, Jr., The Western Journal of Black Studies


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.

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