Remembering King Through His Ideals

by Preston Williams

Editor-at-Large Preston N. Williams is Houghton professor of theology and contemporary change at Harvard Divinity School.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 19, 1986, p.175Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Why have many social critics and reformers, including both conservatives and liberals, found fault with the ideals of Martin Luther King, Jr.? His conviction was that only love can truly unite men and women of diverse cultures, religions, races and classes, for we all possess equally the dignity and respect that the God of love and power conferred upon us.

On January 20, America officially celebrated for the first time the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., as a national holiday. The occasion was unique because King is the first clergyman and the first Afro-American to be so honored. It is unique also because it comes so soon after King’s assassination in 1968 and at a time when the policy decisions made during his leadership of the civil rights movement are still being disputed. This was evident two years ago when President Reagan, whose policies are reversing that era’s civil rights gains, reluctantly signed the legislation that created the holiday. Many liberation theologians and democratic socialists damn King with faint praise as they continue to pursue those goals for which he gave his life: peace, the empowerment of the poor and the Third World, and the elimination of racism. As in life, so in death King still proves worrisome to many and now, as the nation’s celebration of his birthday passes, we should consider why this is so.

The reasons are clear why the Reagan administration and the neoconservatives oppose a holiday that recognizes King’s accomplishments. They see King as one who contributed significantly to the destruction of legal segregation and to the mortal wounding of America’s racial caste system. As supporters and defenders of the old order, they are willing to watch some of its racist elements die, but they will not acknowledge the great evil it brought to the nation. Moreover, they reject King’s vision of a peaceful global society characterized by economic, political and social justice and instead hold a Rambo-like vision of peace and how to attain it. King’s opposition to the Vietnam war, apartheid in South Africa and oppression in Asia and Latin America as well as his desire for justice for America’s poor frightens those who seek a return to the "normalcy" of the ‘20s and the international hegemony of America from 1945 to 1968. Although King’s hope for a new age seems now to have been mistaken and almost forgotten, the conservatives and neoconservatives still vigorously oppose it and work diligently to prevent it. Their unease with a King holiday is patent.

But what of the liberationist, the democratic socialist and the other progressives who perceive King’s accomplishments as small compared to their own achievements, and negligible in the light of America’s need? They see King as one who faced the right direction but whose dreams and methods, even in the ‘60s, were obsolete. Why do these people want to distance themselves from King’s program and methods even as they seek to appropriate his mandate? Some of these progressives would have us believe that the conservatives will manipulate the King legacy so as to halt its slight tendency to reform. Others assert that King’s accomplishments are so fully imprinted on American hearts and institutions that we needn’t dwell on them and open old wounds; we should assume them and move on. Still others desire to have the nation turn itself away from King’s particular agenda and toward the single momentous issue of possible total annihilation by nuclear war. The explanations are many, but they have not blunted the nation’s conservative mood or persuaded many outside their own circles. However, the progressives’ frenetic pursuit of new causes does suggest that they believe that King, at the time of his death, was beginning to understand America’s evils and Americans’ hardheartedness. I submit that their concern is not so much with the conservatives’ possible manipulation of King’s dream as with the difficulties that dream creates for the aspirations of the liberationists, democratic socialists and progressives.

The first King national holiday was celebrated with little enthusiasm for the ideas that were central to the civil rights leader’s thought and action. Conservatives and liberals whose sense of guilt contributed to the creation of the national holiday seem to share little of the theological foundation or ultimate vision which motivated King’s desire to transform America’s soul. In a sense this is right and proper. Individuals and institutions from various periods will differ in their perceptions and responses to truth -- especially, from period to period. It would be unwise, however, if we were to let this season pass without emphasizing several fundamental ideas which remain relevant in spite of the many radical changes that have taken place since 1968.

Like many today, King felt that the conception of God needed correction, but for him that task required one humbly to permit God to more fully reveal himself -- for behind the symbol is the friendly force that guides the universe and works for good. God is not only symbol but a reality that informs and molds those who open themselves to him. King motivated individuals to discover the revelation of this love in their lives and in human activity. He saw power involved in all life’s arenas -- personal, economic and political -- because contests are never simply between force and force or authority and authority. Force and authority could always be brute or legitimate, oppressive or liberating, unjust or just. Because the ultimate power is that of love, one is drawn to work for righteousness and to temper with love one’s understanding of justice.

Since King’s death several seminal works on justice have appeared and many crusades fired by righteous moral indignation have begun, but few have acknowledged, as did King, the necessity of love. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that if one sought only to establish justice one would produce something less than justice. This has surely been true since King’s death. Equal rights for men and women and ever-more radical approaches to justice have been pursued without King’s moderation and restraint. His stress upon love may have led to a type of conservatism, but it also prepared the ground for reconciliation. Something very important died when, social critics and reformers ceased trying to make love an important ingredient in social policy. Social Darwinism has returned to the strategies and programs of both conservatives and liberals: the desire now is to have winners and losers. Some are to die because there are no rules, others are to die because the rules demand that they die. The strategy may incite the losers to fight more, but this is not often the case. It is true, however, that the rich, the powerful and the whites usually win, and the minorities and the Third World usually lose. The gap between rich and poor has increased, the number of homeless is growing, the nation has come to accept 7 per cent unemployment as economic success, and the existence of a trapped underclass is perceived as normal.

Moreover, there is no political will to fight poverty or other domestic injustices that are not prevalent among the middle class. The main concerns are cutting the budget and our taxes, enlarging the private sector through either deregulation or public-private partnership, and encouraging greed, on the belief that if all persons are sufficiently greedy there will be no poor. Our land is fast becoming insensitive to the losers because we are told that their fate is the result of the operation of the market, the absence of talents and abilities, or the failure of character. Conservatives and liberals tell us that the solution is toughness -- a code word, it seems, for Social Darwinism. The goals of both conservatives and liberals would be greatly advanced if they, like King, were to recognize that love is necessary for social cohesion, especially in a nationally, racially and religiously plural state. Niebuhr was correct in insight and King in insight and practice: without love every endeavor toward justice can only produce something less than justice. If we could incorporate this insight into our present approaches to social justice or even social stability, we could take a positive step toward improving our society.

A significantly more just society will acknowledge King’s insistence that love entails a concern for good means as well as a good will. King sought always to inculcate this in his followers and to carry it out in his campaigns. His efforts led many blacks and a few whites to endure suffering and death in the face of white violence. Eventually some activists rejected this idea and adopted some questionable tactics and strategies to fight injustice. Admittedly, leaders cannot completely control their followers, yet few who advocated nonviolence were as scrupulous about it as was King. Those blacks and whites who rejected his teaching regarding the coherence of the means and ends also frequently adopted attitudes of hatred, blame and desire for victory over those they believed to be the oppressors. King sought to exclude these attitudes by understanding God and the universe in terms of love and power and by insisting that means and ends cohere.

The consequences of King’s convictions are momentous. South Africa daily reminds us that love and nonviolent action frequently entail suffering and death with little or no increase in justice. The oppressor’s good conscience may be awakened if at all, only after numerous persons are murdered with impunity and some dismayed third parties threaten the oppressor. It is difficult to know how best to work toward justice and reconciliation in these situations. I cannot recommend King’s position with his absolute conviction. I am persuaded. however, that his concern for the coherence of means and ends is necessary for achieving justice and breaking the cycle of violence. I am also persuaded that in the United States in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s it is the proper strategy, even if not in South Africa, Latin America or the Middle East. King sought to practice it everywhere; I recommend it now only in respect to America’s domestic and international responsibilities. Our means must cohere with our ends.

Certainly the policies of the Reagan administration, whether one agrees with their results or not, are undermined by their means. Examples found in its policies on civil and human rights, national health care, church-state issues and judicial appointments lead me to conclude that the administration uses any means necessary to gain the desired ends. The strategy is working and may determine national policy for at least a generation. Yet like many short-term-oriented business decisions, the immediate profits are secured at the risk of the corporation or the entire industry. A day of reckoning will come and delayed justice will prevail.

If God is love and power and his concern is justice, then, as King stated, unjust means will finally ensure only an unjust and fractious society. Some advocates of black power, liberation theology and more radical approaches to social change would also use any means necessary. The rightness of King’s position to approach our present serious social problems is clear compared to the relative and morally ambiguous nature of these alternatives. Not sharing King’s concern for just means has not enabled us to avoid suffering. Rather, we have only imposed more suffering upon the oppressed and poor, and for a longer period of time and with a diminished possibility for redemption. "By any means necessary" may appeal to some because it promises full exploitation of every avenue to liberation, but its failure to use only just means results ultimately in creating more suffering and evil. The children of light should be as wise as or wiser than the children of darkness, but should not mistake cleverness or dirty tricks for God’s wisdom. For God’s wisdom, like King’s teaching, often appears to both religious and worldly persons as foolishness and weakness.

This year has provided us with a new national symbol: Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. It is also the year in which we will celebrate the centennial of another national symbol: the Statue of Liberty. Both symbols point to America as a land of liberty, or at least the promise of liberty. Both also suggest that liberty cannot be gained without a struggle. Those who came freely -- the immigrants -- and those who came in chains -- the black slaves -- had to endure great privations before they could achieve full citizenship. It may be propitious that King Day has come first. It can remind us that those who so cherished liberty for themselves were willing to enslave and exploit others; that a civil war and long years of struggle were required before the nation legally ended slavery, segregation and discrimination and attempted to redress the harm done to the conquered native people.

Even now we have not achieved full equality between the white European immigrants, the native Americans, the children of black slaves from Africa and the newer immigrants from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. All these people must struggle if they are to gain the liberty promised. Yet if the land is to be good and the nation is to love unity, we must emphasize, even more than we did on the first King Day, his conviction that only love can truly unite men and women of diverse cultures, religions, races and classes, for we all possess equally the dignity and respect that the God of love and power conferred upon us. In light of that conviction, conservatives and liberals could repossess the love that makes possible justice, social policies and practices in which just means and ends cohere.