The Theological Personalism of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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(An excerpt from a lecture on Religions in America, which I taught in the Fall Semester, 2018.)

The Theological Basis for King’s Personalism: The Human Person as the Imago Dei

One of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s primary concerns is for “the Negro who has been robbed of his personhood [and] stripped of his sense of dignity.”1 For King (Ph.D.), the Baptist Minister and Civil Rights leader, persons, regardless of their color, matter more than anything in all creation. He would, for example, often say, “Every man is somebody because he is a child of God.”2 Dr. King, by the phrase “child of God,” means human beings are “made in His image, and therefore must be respected as such.”3

The Brotherhood of Man

King’s theological personalism is the basis for viewing all members of the human race as one human family, as 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 respect the dignity and worth of human personality.”4

Elsewhere, King makes the same point even more forcefully, saying, “even though there may be political and ideological between us, the Vietnamese are our brothers, the Russians are our brothers, the Chinese are our brothers; and one day we’ve got to sit down at the table of brotherhood.”5 On a strictly natural or human level, then, all human beings are brothers and sisters, originating from a common source, namely, God. In that sense, there is a “fatherhood of God and … brotherhood of man.”6

King teaches that there is a natural moral law or a law that is built into the moral order of the universe, which is that “all men must respect the dignity and worth of human personality.”7 However, when a nation or government consistently violates human rights, when it does not pay heed to the cries of its oppressed citizens, it will, sooner or later, be removed from power and replaced by a more just government. Hence, For King, those who break the natural moral law will, in the end, be broken by that law, because human beings are meant or, in his words, “made to live together as brothers.”8

The “Thingification” of the Human Person

King is critical of any society in which persons are viewed as things among other things. That is especially true of America and its view of the Negro or, as King says, “A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will ‘thingify’ them and make them things.”9 By “thingify,” King is saying that it is wrong to reduce persons to the level or status of things. It is, philosophically, an ontological error, a distorted sense of the hierarchy of being, to confuse persons with things. Such confusion results in a distorted sense of human worth. King writes,

“[W]e see people as entities or merely as things. 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.”10

For King, then, persons are always, and infinitely, more important than things, such as material possessions and property. He says, “A [human] life is sacred. Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround it with rights and respect, it has no personal being. It is part of the earth man walks on; it is not man.”11 In other words, property is a material thing, being derived from the earth and, as such, property is not as important as a human person, a divine-like being; one who is made in the image of God.

Thus, King criticizes a capitalist economy on personalist grounds, stressing the primacy of persons over things. Such an economy places more value on property-rights than basic humans rights, such as the rights of a man, woman or family to have food and shelter, which are basic necessities for life. Therefore, according to King, persons are not meant to serve things; rather, things are meant to serve persons, their well-being; because in the hierarchy of value, the lower serves the higher being.

Human Exploitation

True to the Christian personalist tradition, Dr. King teaches that it is wrong to use and abuse other human beings. His objection to such treatment is rooted in the biblical teaching that humans are the imago Dei, the “image of God.” King writes, “when we truly believe in the sacredness of human personality, we won’t exploit people, we won’t trample over people with the iron feet of oppression.”12

Human exploitation, then, which is unjustly taking advantage of human persons, is using them as merely a means to an end. For King, it is wrong, because it treats persons as if they were only tools or instruments in the “hands” of others, especially economically and politically powerful men and women.

Discrimination and Segregation

According to King, segregation is to treat human beings, whose human nature is equal, unequally. For instance, to tell a human being who is black, “Sit in the back of the bus,” is to discriminate against him or her, to treat him or her unequally, that is, unjustly or unfairly, simply because of the color of his or her skin. Segregation, then, regards Negroes or humans of color as inferior or sub-human beings.

Again, to tell a human who is black, “You cannot eat at the front counter of a restaurant, because that is reserved for ‘whites only,’ is to say, in effect, to him or her, “You are not as good as, as high a being as, a human who is white.” Hence, segregation regards humans as though they were not-quite human, as if they were not fully members of the human race.

Martin Buber’s Personalist Phraseology

Borrowing from the phraseology of Martin Buber, the eminent Jewish philosopher, Dr. King insists that segregation substitutes “an ‘I-it’ relationship for the ‘I-thou’ relationship and relegates persons to the status of things.”13 According to the Buber, there are, in general, two fundamental ways in which human beings relate to each other. The first relation is called “I-It;” the second is “I-Thou.”14 The I-It is “a relation of a person to thing, of subject to object, involving some form of utilization, domination, or control.”15 For King, then, segregation strips “Negro people of their sense of dignity,”16 gives them “a sense of inferiority,”17 robs “them of their birthright of freedom”18 and “personhood.”19 In short, segregation is the dehumanizing or depersonalizing treatment of human persons, specifically, men, women and children of color.

Vilifying and Demonizing the “White Man”

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.”20

Elsewhere, King writes, “We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may be unjust.”21 Hence, King 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, morally blind. Nevertheless, he teaches that they are persons.

Not Mere Sentimentality

King’s personalism is not a form of sentimentality, a feeling of “love,” say, for racists. He, being a Christian, follows the simple, but extremely difficult, command of Jesus, namely, “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44, NIV). Lest Jesus’ imperative be misunderstood, King explains what Jesus does not mean, saying,

“He didn’t say, ‘Like your enemies,” because there are some people that I find it pretty difficult to like. Liking is an affectionate emotion, and I can’t like anybody who would bomb my home. I can’t like anybody who would exploit me. I can’t like anybody who would trample over me with injustices. … I can’t like anybody who threatens to kill me day in and day out. But Jesus reminds us that love is greater than liking.”22

The reason “love is greater than liking” is that love is a commitment, an act of the will, not to hate one’s enemies. It is a choice to love the unlovable. That requires moral strength, which develops over time by resisting the “natural” inclination to attack one’s enemies. After all, they are, for King, the imago Dei or “image of God.” In other words, they are subjects, not objects. In short, they are persons.

Society of Persons

For Dr. King, a human being is not merely a “drop of water” in the vast ocean of humankind. According to King, the modern world has become increasingly impersonal. Thus, many people feel as though their humanity were reducible to a number, such as statistical data for government records or a Social Security number.

Particularly, King is concerned about an impersonal, dehumanized American culture in which “machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people.”23 At its best, community or society, for King, is a society of persons. That is why he says, “We must rapidly begin … the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.”24 For King, then, abstract, collective humanity is reducible to concrete, particular, here-and-now human persons, entering into dialogue or interpersonal relationships.

Self-Reflexive Moral Acts

To the extent that human beings are living in community, they fulfill or complete their lives. That is why, for King, hatred is personally degrading, because it “wounds” the community of persons, but even more than that, hatred degrades oneself. As he says, “If I meet hate with hate, I become depersonalized, because creation is so designed that my personality can only be fulfilled in the context of community.”25 Moral acts, then, are self-reflexive, coming back, as it were, and going into the one who commits them. In King’s words, “To the degree that I harm my brother, … I am harming myself.”26 In short, “If you harm me,” King says, “ you harm yourself.”27

King’s Objection to Statism or Communism

Dr. King objects to the political view, which he calls “communism,” of the person existing for the sake of the state. His or her freedom exists for the good of the state, the government. If personal freedom gets in the way of the “good” of the government, then that freedom is either restricted or denied. The government, then, can revoke or deny a person’s freedom to vote for a president, censor what a person writes, watches on television or reads and determine the wages or income from his or her place of employment. For King, “Man becomes hardly more, in communism, than a depersonalized cog in the turning wheel of the state.”28

King’s personalist opposition to communism is based a religious principle, which bears some similarity to Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. King says,

“[M]an is an end because he is a child of God. Man is not made for the state; the state is made for man. To deprive man of freedom is to relegate him to the status of a thing, rather than elevate him to the status of a person. Man must never be treated as means to the end of the state; but always as an end within himself.”29

In other words, because a human being is a “child of God,” that is, made in God’s image, a human is a person, not a thing; a subject, not an object; a “someone” to be respected, not a “something” to be used and abused by a government.

The Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968

In March, 1968, Dr. King flew to Memphis, TN., to call attention to the 1,300 black sanitation workers who had gone on strike, because they wanted safer better working conditions and a “living wage,” that is, an income to support their families, because many of them were on welfare and received food stamps. In the last speech before his assassination, King explains why, on personalist grounds, the workers went on strike:

“We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying … that we are God’s children.”30 In other words, to insult human beings is also to insult the sacredness of human persons, divine image-bearers, who should have, at the very least, a right to ear a wage that is befitting of human dignity.31

Application of King’s Personalism to the 21st Century

King reminds the Negro of his inestimable value as a human being, encouraging him to affirm his value, saying, “I am somebody. I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honor.”32 Similarly, the sanitation workers took to the streets of Memphis in protest, wearing a placard which said, “I AM A MAN.” That, in a nutshell, is personalism! Today, the placard is equivalent to saying, “I AM A PERSON.”

When a human, then, is dehumanized or depersonalized, when others fail to recognize the humanity of another human being, they need to be reminded that all humans beings – regardless of their race, color, nationality, language, gender, sexual inclination, politics or ideology – are persons and should be respected and treated as such. Not only that, but personhood is to be ascribed to them, whether they worthy or deserving of it or not. That is the application of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s personalism to human beings in the 21st century.


  1. Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2010), p. 24.
  2. ———-, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” in The Trumpet of Conscience (Boston, MA.: Beacon Press, 1967), p. 74. The book consists of five talks, during November and December, 1967. They were made public by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as the Seventh Annual Series of the Massey Lectures, which were in honor of the Right Honorable Vincent Massey, former Governor General of Canada., ibid., p. v. “A Christmas Sermon on Peace” was delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, 24 December 1967. It was the last of King’s Massey Lectures, which was made public by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on 24 December 1967, ibid., p. 69. Note: For 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.”
  3. Ibid., p. 74.
  4. ———-, “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.
  5. ———-, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” in The Trumpet of Conscience, op. cit., p. 74.
  6. ———-, “The Birth of a New Nation,” Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, 7 April 1957, in A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., op. cit., p. 41. However, as a Christian theologian, I cannot conclude from King’s words that all human beings, by virtue of being human, are regenerate, that is, “born again” or Christian brothers and sisters.
  7. Ibid., p. 38. Cf. pp. 39-40.
  8. Ibid., p. 41.
  9. ———-, “Where Do We Go from Here,” Delivered at the Eleventh Annual Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Atlanta, Georgia, 16 August 1967, in ibid., p. 195.
  10. ———-, Strength to Love, op. cit., p. 24. Italics are the publisher’s.
  11. ———-, “Nonviolence and Social Change,” in The Trumpet of Conscience, p. 58.
  12. ———-, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” in ibid., p. 74.
  13. ———-, Strength to Love, p. 149.
  14. Francis J. Lescoe, Existentialism with or without God (Staten Island, N.Y.: Alba House, 1974), p. 158.
  15. Martin Buber, The Writings of Martin Buber, ed. Will Herberg (Cleveland, OH.: The World Publishing Company, 1956, 7th printing November 1963), p. 14, quoted in Francis J. Lescoe, Existentialism with or without God, p. 158. Cf. Will Herberg, Martin Buber: Personalist Philosopher in an Age of Depersonalization, in McAuley Lecture Series: Lecture 15 (West Hartford, CT.: Saint Joseph College, 1972), p. 3.
  16. Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, p. 29.
  17. Ibid., p. 113.
  18. Ibid., p. 29.
  19. Ibid., p. 113.
  20. ———-, “Impasse in Race Relations,” in The Trumpet of Conscience, p. 9.
  21. ———-, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (New York, N.Y.: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1958), p. 103.
  22. ———-, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” in The Trumpet of Conscience, pp. 75-76.
  23. ———-, “Beyond Vietnam,” Delivered at Riverside Church, New York, New York, 4 April 1967, in A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther KingJr., p. 157.
  24. Ibid.
  25. ———-, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, op. cit., p. 106.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid., p. 93.
  29. Ibid.
  30. ———-, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” Delivered at Bishop Charles Mason Temple, Memphis, Tennessee, 3 April 1968, in A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., p. 210.
  31. Ibid.
  32. ———-, “Where Do We Go from Here,” in ibid., p. 184.

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