Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Civil Rights Doctrine for the 21st Century

Martin Luther King, Jr.


One Human Race

At the basis of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights doctrine is the belief that all human beings are made in “the image of God.” Dr. King teaches that there is only one race, namely, the human race. That is why he says that all human beings are brothers and sisters, sharing the same nature, namely, a human nature. Because all human beings are made in the “image of God,” King could say,

“God is not interested merely in freeing [from racial inequality] black men and brown men and yellow men, but God is interested in freeing the whole human race. We must work with determination to create a society … in which all men will live together as brothers [and sisters] and respect the dignity and worth of human personality.”1

On a strictly natural or human level, then, all human beings originate from a common source, namely, God. In that sense, there is a “fatherhood of God and … brotherhood of man.”2 That is why all human beings are meant, in King’s words, “to live together as brothers [and sisters].”3

“Our White Brothers and Sisters”

Even in his struggle for civil rights and opposition to segregation and discrimination instituted in America by white men and women, King refuses to label all white people as “racists.” In fact, he says,

“In using the term ‘white man,’ I am seeking to describe in general terms the Negro’s adversary. It is not meant to encompass all white people. There are millions who have morally risen above prevailing prejudices. They are willing to share power and to accept structural alterations of society…. It is not the race per say that we fight but the policies and ideology that leaders of that race have formulated to perpetuate oppression.”4

“I am Somebody”

King reminds African Americans of their inestimable value as a human beings, encouraging them to affirm their value, saying, “I am somebody. I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honor.”5 Similarly, in March and April of 1968, the sanitation workers took to the streets of Memphis in protest, wearing a placard which said, “I AM A MAN.” Today, the placard is equivalent to saying, “I AM A PERSON.”

The Right to Peaceful Protests

When human beings, then, are dehumanized, when they are consistently denied the right to be treated as persons, then they have a right to protest publicly. However, King would not approve of riots, destroying property and harming others in the name of “civil rights.” As a civil rights leader and peace activist, he would approve of correctly applying the clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States to public protests, namely, “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”


1. Martin Luther King, Jr., A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., eds. Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard (New York, N.Y.: Warner Books, Inc., 2001), p. 53.

2. Ibid., p. 41.

3. Ibid.

4. ———-, The Trumpet of Conscience (Boston, MA.: Beacon Press, 1967), p. 9.

5. ———-, A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., op. cit. , p. 184.

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