Martin Luther King Jr.’s Political and Religious Teachings: Black Lives and All Lives Matter

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Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

King’s Particular Concern for Black Lives

One of the primary concerns for Martin Luther King, Jr. (Ph.D.), the Baptist Minister and Civil Rights leader, is segregation, which strips “Negro people of their sense of dignity,”1 gives them “a sense of inferiority,”2 robs “them of their birthright of freedom”3 and “personhood.”4 Thus, Dr. King would definitely maintain that “black lives matter.”

King’s Teaching on the Human Person as the Imago Dei: “Image of God”

However, King, as a Baptist Minister, would also stress that “Every man is somebody because he is a child of God.”5 For King, the phrase “child of God” means that a human being is “made in His image, and therefore must be respected as such.”6 Now, because a human being is a “child of God,” made in God’s image, a human is a person, not a thing; a subject, not an object; “someone” to be respected, not “something” to be used and abused by any form of government.

King’s Teaching on One Human Race

What is true, then, of a particular human being is also true of all human beings. That is to say, because all human beings are made in the image of God, Dr. King teaches that all members of the human race are one human family, brothers and sisters, sharing the same nature, namely, a human nature. Thus, he 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 respect the dignity and worth of human personality.”7

Elsewhere, King makes the same point even more forcefully, saying,

“Too seldom do we see people in their true humanness. A spiritual myopia limits our vision to external accidents. We see men as Jews or Gentiles, Catholics or Protestants, Chinese or American, Negroes or whites. We fail to think of them as fellow human beings made from the same basic stuff as we, molded in the same divine image.”8

Because all human beings originate from a common source, namely, God, then there are no inferior humans. Thus, for King, racial discrimination is wrong, because it treats human beings of color, black lives, as if they were not-quite-human, fully members of the human race.

King’s View of the “White Man”

However, even in his struggle for civil rights and his opposition to segregation and discrimination instituted in American culture by white men and women, King refused 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, even at the cost of traditional privilege. … 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.”9

Referring to the leaders and participants in the civil rights movement, including himself, King writes, “We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may be unjust.”10 Hence, he does not teach his followers to hate white men and women. Nor does he seek to vilify and demonize them in less-than-human terms. To King, white racists are seriously misguided and morally blind; nevertheless, they are persons.

Summary

King, then, stressed the particular importance of black lives, reminding them of their inestimable value as human beings and even encouraging them to affirm their own value, saying, “I am somebody. I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honor.”11 and “I’m black and I’m proud of it. I’m black and beautiful.”

Therefore, while calling attention to the particular injustices repeatedly committed against blacks, King would, undoubtedly, maintain that all human lives matter, because all human beings – regardless of their race, color, nationality, language, gender, sexual orientation, politics or ideology – are made in the image of God.

Endnotes

1. Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2010), pp. 24, 29.

2. Ibid., p. 113.

3. Ibid., p. 29.

4. Ibid., p. 113.

5. ———-, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” in The Trumpet of Conscience (Boston, MA.: Beacon Press, 1967), p. 74. Note: For Dr. King, the word “man” was an inclusive noun, referring to both men and women. Hence, during the time in which King lived, preached and wrote, “man” was not meant to exclude women. Today’s equivalent to “man” would be “humankind.”

6. Ibid., p. 74. King’s teaching is based on Genesis 1:26-27.

7. ———-, “Give us the Ballot,” Delivered at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, Washington, D.C., 17 May 1957, in 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. I have taken the editorial liberty of deleting the remarks from King’s audience, such as “Yes” and “All right,” so as not to interrupt the flow of his words.

8. ———-, Strength to Love, op. cit., p. 24.

9. ———-, “Impasse in Race Relations,” in The Trumpet of Conscience, op. cit., p. 9.

10. ———-, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (New York, N.Y.: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1958), p. 103.

11, ———-, “Where Do We Go from Here,” in ibid., p. 184.

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