Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview

the most memorable event in the movement was the march on Washington in August 1963, the last great triumph was the Selma march to Montgomery in April 1965, ten years after the movement began in the same city. King was murdered in Memphis in 1968 as he was organizing the "poor people's march" on Washington. The selection explains his nonviolent philosophy and his differing debts to Niebuhr and Gandhi (described as a recollection from his student days, probably over Christmas vacation in 1949).


The Power of Nonviolent Action

Martin Luther King Jr. ( 1958)

During this period I had about despaired of the power of love in solving social problems. Perhaps my faith in love was temporarily shaken by the philosophy of Nietzsche. I had been reading parts of The Genealogy of Morals and the whole of The Will to Power. Nietzsche's glorification of power--in his theory all life expressed the will to power--was an outgrowth of his contempt for ordinary morals. He attacked the whole of the Hebraic-Christian morality--with its virtues of piety and humility, its other-worldiness and its attitude toward suffering--as the glorification of weakness, as making virtues out of necessity and impotence. He looked to the development of a superman who would surpass man as man surpassed the ape.

Then 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, and 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 discov

____________________
Excerpt from Stride Toward Freedom ( New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958), pp. 96-97, 213-219, 224. Reprinted by arrangement with The Heirs to the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., c/o Joan Daves Agency as agent for the proprietor. Copyright 1958 by Martin Luther King, Jr., copyright renewed 1986 by Coretta Scott King.

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