Righteous Resistance and Martin Luther King, Jr.

by John C. Raines

Dr. Raines taught religion at Temple University in Philadelphia at the time this article was written. He is coauthor of Modern Work and Human Meaning (Westminster, 1986).

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 18, 1984, p. 52. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Whether they were learned 40 years ago in Warsaw, or 20 years ago along the hot and dusty roads of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, the lessons of righteous resistance are universal. They belong not to one but to all people who struggle for their dignity.

The first time that I met a survivor of  the Holocaust was in the summer of 1964 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The Civil Rights Bill had recently been passed by Congress, and, along with other students from the North, I was in Mississippi helping blacks register to vote.

It was, by virtually everyone’s reckoning, a mean and vicious time. The Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Councils did their dirty work unhindered by police restraint. Earlier that summer three civil rights workers had been murdered: a local black, James Chaney, and two young Jewish men from New York, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, had been shot, crushed by a bulldozer and then buried under a dam in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Local whites were either furious with us, calling us “communists” and “outside agitators,” or, if more favorable, terrified into silence and avoidance. Time and again we would approach local white clergymen, only to be treated as if we didn’t exist.

The only exception to this pattern was the head of the music department at what was then the all-white University of Southern Mississippi. He invited a group of us civil rights workers to his home one evening, where perhaps a dozen other white sympathizers were gathered. They were all frightened. If it became known that they had met with us, they faced certain social ostracism, and perhaps even the loss of their jobs. That was especially true for our host, who was Jewish and spoke with a thick German accent. His university administration was highly politicized and terrified of local reprisal. I asked him why he was taking such a risk. His reply was brief, and devastating: “You see, I come from Auschwitz.”

Whether they were learned 40 years ago in Warsaw, or 20 years ago along the hot and dusty roads of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, the lessons of righteous resistance are universal. They belong not to one but to all people who struggle for their dignity. Among the resisters of our own time and place, one name stands out above all the rest -- Martin Luther King, Jr. As King wrote in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. What affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” King’s words and actions teach us invaluable lessons about resistance.

First, we learn from him that before there can be opposition to a situation of oppression, that situation must be recognized and named as oppressive. The first act of resistance is to gain clarity about one’s own situation, and unity of purpose among the oppressed. But that is not easy.

Lord Acton once said, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But powerlessness also corrupts. In situations of oppression both the oppressors and, often, the oppressed lose moral clarity. The powerful lose this clarity because part of their power is the power to define their social situation. The established social explanations of an era are always the explanations of the establishment. Into these explanations the mighty build their own self-interests and biases. Thus, their view of reality is always biased. Their power renders them morally pretentious and blind to their own ethical obtuseness.

But powerlessness also can lead to lack of clarity. The terrible temptation for the powerless is to believe what the oppressors say about them -- to think of themselves as “dumb,” “weak” and “lazy.” The corruption of powerlessness is that the oppressed may come to envy and seek to emulate the oppressor, dreaming of someday taking the oppressor’s place.

When this happens a terrible silence and isolation opens up among the powerless. Dreaming of becoming like the mighty, they fear and flee the wounds of their oppressed fellows, because those wounds remind them of their own degradation. The deepest and most devastating injury of oppression is that it produces mute suffering -- suffering that cannot even name its own situation, cannot cry out, cannot say how things really are, cannot protest.

Martin Luther King, Jr., knew that clarity alone can bring community among the oppressed. And clarity comes when the downtrodden protest their oppression in the name of their own dignity, deciding not to dream of becoming someone else, but to stand together with their own kind.

On Monday December 5, 1955, Martin Luther King, Jr., newly appointed head of the Montgomery Improvement Association, stood behind his pulpit in that Alabama city and urged its black citizens to join together in a bus boycott to protest the indignity of segregated seating.

He issued a call for moral clarity, a call to rise up out of apathy and despair:

There comes a time when people get tired. We are here this evening to say to those who have mistreated us so long that we are tired -- tired of being segregated and humiliated; tired of being kicked about by the brutal feet of oppression. We have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved, to be saved less than freedom and justice.

Until that evening few had ever heard of King. Now he stood barely 100 yards from the capital of the old Confederacy, surrounded by a vast sea of racial prejudice. But King knew that although righteous resistance can be defeated, it can never be silenced. He knew that the long arm of history bends toward justice. And so he concluded his speech by claiming the future:

If we protest courageously, and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written in the future, somebody will have to say, “There lived a race of people, of black people, of people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights. And thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and civilization.”

King was right. When resistance breaks forth, when the oppressed protest their situation, they do introduce a new meaning and a new possibility, both for themselves and for those who oppress them. Resistance leads toward freedom -- for the enslaved, but also for those who are so lost in the pretensions of their power that they do not know themselves as enslavers.

If the first task of resistance, then, is to see things as they really are, to stop dreaming and to stand together, the second step is to claim moral authority for one’s cause. Resisters need to proclaim the righteousness of their purpose in terms which are widely, if not universally, recognized. At first this claim may be greeted with silence, and the protesters may stand alone. But the appeal is never futile. That protest against inhumanity and indignity will echo, and this echoing cannot be silenced. The moral ideals in whose name the resistance is undertaken are ideals shared by others. They fire the ethical imagination not just of the resisters, but of all those who try to make moral sense of their lives. Thus righteous resisters may be defeated, but they never fail, for their memory lives on and gives birth to other quests for justice.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King spoke to the white clergy of that city, but also to the nation and to the world. He linked black resistance to oppression in the South to the very meaning of America -- indeed, to the meaning of humanity. Wrote King:

We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages. . . . If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the oppression we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.

Hearing about King’s letter, a black janitor In Montgomery declared, “We got our heads up now.

The third task of resistance is even more difficult. It is to resist despair, to resist giving in to the terrible prices of the struggle -- the loss of friends, the stubbornness of evil, the inevitable weariness -- and to resist giving up hope when early victories become clouded by defeat, the way becomes difficult, and the goal seems ever more distant.

At first, things went well for Martin Luther King, Jr. From an unknown Baptist preacher leading a bus boycott in 1955, he became, just nine years later, the acknowledged moral leader of our country, standing in the oval office of the White House for the signing of the historic Civil Rights Act. In 1964, he also received a Nobel Peace Prize -- an event that galled certain people in high authority in Washington.

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover feared and detested King and fought to have him made a major target of FBI investigation. At last his second in command, William Sullivan, wrote his boss a memo that opened the door: “I believe [King] stands head and shoulders over all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negroes. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future of this nation from the standpoint of Communism, the Negro, and national security.”

Hoover had FBI agents tap King’s telephone, trying to gather evidence to discredit him. When agents made a clandestine tape that caught the civil rights leader in a compromising situation, Hoover gleefully released it to certain confidants in the press. He even had a copy sent to Mrs. King, while a note was forwarded to King suggesting that the only honorable thing for him to do now was to commit suicide.

Hoover and Sullivan were not King’s only detractors. After Stokely Carmichael’s call for “black power,” divisions began to appear within the black community. Uncertainty grew over whether King’s vision of an integrated America was possible or even desirable. Many of the younger leaders of the protest movement spoke of King as a “has-been.” In the ‘60s the ghettos of the North were erupting in fiery riots, and many saw nonviolent resistance as a thing of the past.

Of deep concern to King was the emergence of black separatism as an ideology, and along with it the use of anti-Semitism as a recruiting device for separatist liberation movements.

Mayor Robert Wagner of New York City, faced with a riot in Harlem, asked King to come North for consultations. It was a disastrous trip for King. He was booed in Harlem, and bombarded with anti-Semitic epithets. He told the mayor and police commissioner that what was needed was “an honest soul-searching analysis and evaluation of the environmental causes which have spawned the riots.” He told black anti-Semites, “I solemnly pledge to do my utmost to uphold the fair name of Jews. Not only because we need their friendship, and surely we do, but mainly because bigotry in any form is an affront to us all.”

And, of course, there was always the southern segregationists’ vicious, often violent opposition to King and all he stood for, The cry of “black power” was echoed by a call for “white power” in some parts of the white community. J. B. Stoner, vice-presidential candidate of the National State’s Rights Party, came to St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964 to attend a segregationist rally. To cheers of defiance, Stoner cried out: “Tonight we’re going to find out whether white people have any rights. The coons have been parading around St. Augustine for a long time. Now we whites are going to march. And no ‘Martin Luther Coon’ -- that longtime associate of communists -- and no Jew-stacked communist-loving Supreme Court is going to stop us!”

Whether North or South, the language of the land began to turn sour and grow mean. Bigotry was on the rise. The prices of the struggle were mounting, and the road seemed endless. In his speech at Montgomery, Alabama, concluding, the long march from Selma, King asked, “How long?” How long would the struggle take? He answered his own question as follows:

. . . however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again. How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you will reap what you sow. How long? Not long, because the arm of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. . . .

King urged resisters to resist their own despair, and march on.

When faced with absolute evil, there is probably little one can do except either to defy and resist absolutely, or to die quietly. But most oppressive situations are not absolute. King saw that in most instances protest is not an end in itself, but an instrument of reconciliation. This is the fourth lesson about resistance that we can learn from King; he showed us that although nonviolent resistance has a No in it, its Yes is more important. It is the Yes of honesty, of a nation restored and able to live with its own conscience. It is the Yes of that justice which is the beginning of friendship, and the end of the terrible waste of injustice and oppression.

A tremendous insight of King’s was that the oppressed have a moral mission to the oppressor. It is when the powerless realize this that they transcend their demoralization and dependency and assume responsibility for themselves. But more than that, they take on the far larger dignity of becoming moral agents of history.

The danger for resisters is that in the heat of the battle they will wound their own souls by becoming overwhelmed with the passion for revenge. For King, nonviolent resistance was far from the spirit of retaliation. It bore. instead, the spirit of Jesus and of Gandhi, seeking the reconciliation of the injured with the injurer. When Jesus told his followers to “pray for those who persecute you,” it was not in the spirit of subservience. As Gandhi and King both knew, taking on moral responsibility for those who hurt one is the highest form of dignity, the greatest example of strength.

Moreover, in situations where one faces relative rather than absolute evil, nonviolent resistance is the most promising instrument of success. The oppressor can be led to discover that his own best interest is not in keeping others down, locked in poverty and misery that are both financially wasteful and morally disastrous. Nonviolent resisters can help both the oppressor and the oppressed begin to dream a new dream, a more honest dream -- the dream of a new future made stronger for all because it is fairer for all. Twenty years ago Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and before the largest crowd of witnesses for America that Washington had ever seen he talked about his dream – “a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

The spirit of revenge is easy -- not as easy, perhaps, as is the spirit of abject surrender. But reconciliation takes real courage -- the courage not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good. That happens when people find a common dream.

The last lesson Martin Luther King, Jr., has to teach us is also the most difficult, the most serious. Resisters come at last to face the ultimate challenge, the fear of death.

Early in his career, King had said, “If you don’t have something worth dying for, you can’t live free.” This strange freedom that comes to those who, in the face of death, say “Here I stand” is the freedom to live free from fear. It is the steadiness and calm that come when one knows that to this duty and to this place one has been called, and that death itself cannot stop one.

King went to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968 to march in solidarity with that city’s trash collectors, who had gone on strike for decent wages. He saw this act as the beginning of a whole new phase in his resistance movement. He saw that in a country where 20 per cent of the population owns 80 per cent of the wealth and where, when times turn hard, the middle class is tempted to vent its frustrations by blaming and punishing the poor, a civil rights movement must also become a movement for economic justice.

Going to Memphis was a dangerous thing for King to do. First protesting against segregation, then the war in Vietnam, and now saying No to the way work and wealth are distributed in our society made him suspect to many. Some earlier friends began to wonder, and earlier enemies began to plot.

All through his years of resistance there had been threats against his life. He had narrowly escaped being killed when a woman crazed by poverty had stabbed him in Harlem, But in the winter and spring of 1968, the threats became more ominous. There were rumors of a $50,000 bounty on his head.

Still, the Memphis protest was a new level of resistance that King felt he had to undertake. What good is a desegregated lunch counter when you can’t afford the meal? What do federal regulations desegregating housing mean when you can’t afford a house? What does the right to work with people of all races mean when you can’t find a job? King saw that for the vast majority of black Americans, their fundamental oppression was not that they were black, but that they were poor -- last hired, first fired, locked out of the American dream, living in a vast twilight zone of joblessness and hopelessness.

On the night before King died, he made his final speech. He told his fellow protesters:

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. 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’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. I have a dream this afternoon that the brotherhood of man will become a reality. With this faith, we will be able to achieve this new day, when all of God’s children -- black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics -- will be able to join hands and sing with the Negroes in the spiritual of old. ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty we are free at last.’’

At five minutes after six on the evening of April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot dead.

On March 25, just ten days before he was killed, King had met with the annual Rabbinical Assembly in the Catskill Mountains of New York. The rabbis gave him a special greeting that evening, singing “We Shall Overcome” in Hebrew. An old friend and ally, theologian Abraham Heschel, introduced him to the assembly, saying: “Martin Luther King is a voice, a vision and a way. . . . I call upon every Jew to harken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow in his way, The whole future of America will depend upon the impact and influence of Dr. King.” Heschel’s words are true for all of us still.

It’s not difficult to silence a good man. But it is very difficult to silence a good man’s dream, because it becomes the dream of others. You can kill good people, but you can’t kill goodness. As King well knew, the arm of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.