While war and rebellion have raged across the globe these last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr. That is, thinking not exactly what King would have done at a time like this, but why King’s message resonated when it did, and still does today.

A bright and focused student, King skipped two grades of high school and entered Morehouse College in Atlanta at age 15. That means he graduated at 19 or so, then entered seminary. No sooner had he taken his first church assignment (in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1954), than he began work on a doctorate in theology at Boston University.

The early Fifties were halcyon days for liberal Protestant religious thought. World War II was behind us, and man’s future looked bright. The only things eating us from the inside out – besides the bomb -- were poverty, segregation, and rampant inequities in an otherwise burgeoning country still basking in the glory of having ended the war.  

Graduate work drew King to Boston in 1955, the year liberal Protestant theologian Paul Tillich -- one of his major influences-- joined the faculty of Harvard Divinity School. Another of King's heroes, liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was also in the area. Niebuhr once blasted white Protestants for giving birth and sustenance to the Ku Klux Klan, saying "
I hit Protestant bigotry the hardest at this time because it happens to be our sin and there is no use repenting for other people's sins. Let us repent of our own. .... We are admonished in Scripture to judge men by their fruits, not by their roots; and their fruits are their character, their deeds and accomplishments."

Black theologian Howard Thurman, a friend of King’s father who lived in Boston, was chaplain at BU and happy to take his friend’s son under his wing. Thurman told King about meeting Mahatma Gandhi a decade or so earlier in India, while he was a missionary. The older clergyman encouraged his protégée to study Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, so King went to India in 1959.

While there, King wrote:  "Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity. In a real sense, Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation.”

That trip gave King energy to push a fledgling civil rights movement, forward. Between 1955 and 1965, King would apply Gandhi's principles, as well as Christian theology, as he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, tested  Jim Crow laws up and down the South, led the March on Washington in 1963 and the March to Montgomery in 1965. Later, he expanded his support to the anti-war movement and economic justice before he was assassinated in 1968.

I never met the man or heard him speak, except on television and radio, and, although I admired his courage and commitment, I didn’t like everything he said or did. Martin Luther King was no saint. He had women in his life other than wife Coretta. Long after receiving his doctorate, he was accused of plagiarizing portions of his dissertation. Some close to him called him vain, competitive, stubborn and careless about his personal safety. (In other words, he was human!) Black Power advocates derided him, saying he was more interested in integration than in strengthening the autonomy of his own race.  He lost friends in Washington, the media and unions when he came out against US involvement in the Vietnam War. 

Even so, no one could fault Martin Luther King for his commitment to the poor and abused, of any race or background. In this, he was steadfast to the end, in spite of incarceration, death threats and numerous attempts on his life. I don’t recall ever hearing him mention it publicly, but it must have been difficult for him to live with the knowledge that he had blood on his hands because many who followed his call for action, suffered mightily.

Still, he had a tremendous impact on the path this country took during his lifetime and for decades beyond. He had an equally strong impact on the lives of individuals, including this one. For a time before 1965, the world rested on King’s every word. People either loved him or hated him; there was no in-between.

Like the story of David and Goliath, King and his followers were mighty. They forced states to change laws that had been on the books for 100 years. They altered a nation’s perception of race and justice in a diverse society. In a way, King’s legacy may have outstripped his personal accomplishments, because the momentum he set in motion 45 years ago, is evident today.

I think the man was a genius but am afraid, if were alive today, he would fail to meet the level of scrutiny we insist on for our leaders. His genius was in transposing the simple truths of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance in India and Jesus' exhortation to turn the other cheek, to a workable plan for a society born and raised on violence.

As a Christian clergyman, King harnessed the power of religious beliefs to show fellow believers how to turn moral tenets into reality, in the form of laws affecting daily life, especially those affecting access to public accommodations and the voting booth. People already knew what was right and wrong, they just didn't know how to express it. King gave them the tools and pointed the way. 

By adhering to non-violent actions, his followers believed they had “God on their side” and, so, would prevail. And, they did.

King was not the only individual responsible for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, but he certainly was a prime mover. 

Few leaders understood as well as he did the importance and dignity of ordinary people, black or white. Early in his short life, King vowed to do all he could to make their lives better. By the mid-1960s he was teaching hundreds, then thousands and finally  millions of other ordinary people – including a host of college students (like me), long-time activists and clergy of all backgrounds – how to play very small roles in an enormous theater. 

The work of those involved in the US civil rights movement wasn’t easy and certainly wasn't pretty. Through training, organization and discipline, King empowered the powerless by incorporating them into large, committed but peaceful groups. He showed the world that, under the right circumstances, ordinary folk can overturn laws, up-end nations and change the expected course of history, just as we see happening today in the Middle East. 

For more on this topic, go here  For a look at my own memories of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, go to this group of stories.  

By 1968, what was once radical -- i.e., principles of non-violent action, as exemplified by the work of Gandhi and King -- had proven to be a viable means of social change.  At that point, non-violence lost its radical cachet and became more or less mainstream. By 1968, the only thing left for radicals was violence or at least the threat of violence, and that wasn't Martin Luther King's message, at all.

King's success proved violence wasn't necessary to affect change. Non-violent protest funneled power into the weak, and turned those who held onto Jim Crow as villains. When protestors couldn’t be riled, they were the perfect foil for exposing the true character of those who spat, shouted obscenities, raised their fists, or worse.  Let the American people decide, who has more courage? Who is in the right? The one who speaks politely, is respectful and when faced with aggression turns the other cheek, or the one who hides behind dogs and billyclubs?

Thanks mostly to Dr. King,  non-violence brought this country positive change in the form of rights protected by enforceable law, and opportunities for growth that have led to attitudinal change in places we never expected.  That's not to say his work is done, by any means, but without the changes he set in motion, it's frightening to imagine where this country might be today. 

On the other hand, the threat of violence as espoused by the radical left and right, brought us tighter security, restrictions and paranoia. Again, we reap what we sow, for better or worse. 

Dr. King took young and old, black and white, and taught us the impact an individual can have on history. While it was all going on, it was hard to gauge where it would all end. For me, looking backward, I’m amazed at how much progress was made in such a short time, but also dismayed that there’s still so much left undone.  

Young people looking for a niche in activism today should know the door is still open to those who want to get involved. Pick your issue and get to work! Just look around and follow your passion. Are you concerned about the environment, or disparities in health or education? Are you ready to advocate for the arts, the homeless or the aged? Find others with the same interests, and get to work!  

Several weeks ago, I was thrilled to be part of a group of people recognized in Springfield, Massachusetts for civil rights activities we took part in decades ago, either in the Freedom Rides of 1961 and other protests. Several Freedom Riders recounted horrific tales and – as you can probably tell from the photo -- I felt honored to be standing among them.  

Western New England public television station WGBY, in conjunction with the Springfield Public Forum, hosted a preview of the upcoming documentary, Freedom Riders, produced by WGBH-Boston and scheduled to air on public television stations nationwide on May 16. Don’t miss it! 

In the meantime, you might want to check out their website, which is full of interactive information, including the mugshots of those arrested during the Freedom Rides. (Not me, I was able to avoid jail.) I thought it was wonderful that those photos are now seen as badges of honor. At last!

Watch the full episode. See more Freedom Riders.

For Part I of this post, go here.  For a look at my own memories of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, go to this group of stories.