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.

Some Theological and Philosophical Musings on the Human Face

Emmanuel Levinas: “Philosopher” of the Human Face


The Face in Jewish Philosophy and Christian Theology

Facial expressions reveal a great deal about the emotional states of a human being, such as sadness, happiness, depression, anxiety and anger. The reason is that the face, more than any aspect of the human body, reveals the person. To paraphrase the eminent Jewish “philosopher” of the human face, Emmanuel Levinas, the face suggests the otherness of the human person. For example, because of observing your face and experiencing mine, I realize that I am not you; nor are you I.

Similarly, in Christian theology, the Logos or pre-incarnate Son of God (to be born as Jesus of Nazareth) is “face-to-face with God,” suggesting a distinction between the Logos and God (cf. John 1:1c). In other words, there is interpersonal communion between the Son and Father. Now, because the human person is made in “the image of God,” a human being, by nature, is a communal being, needing face-to-face human relationships.

Face-to-Face, Not Back-to-Back, Relationships

Interpersonal relationships, then, are not developed back-to-back but face-to-face. To borrow the language of Jewish philosopher-theologian Martin Buber, the “I,” that is, the self, is revealed in the face. But the “It,” that is, the back, hides the face or manifestation of a person’s presence. That is why, for example, it is an insult for one person to turn his or her back, walking away from the other, when the two are engaged in a conversation. Therefore, face-to-face promotes an “I-Thou” or person-to-person relationship. But back-to-face inhibits interpersonal communion and is, as it were, an “I-It” or person-to-object relationship.

The Appropriateness of Face-to-Face Relationships

To make the same point in slightly different terms: To see my face is, most fully or completely, to see me as a person but to see my back is only to see a part of my body. For example, typically, I do not say “Hello” to someone, when his or her back is toward me. Rather, I say it when I am face-to-face with that person. Human beings, then, positioned back-to-back, do not develop truly interpersonal relationships.

To “drive home” the same point, take two more examples. First, when doctors or nurses walk into a patient’s room to see him or her, they do not, typically, communicate with his or her back. Rather, they want to see the patient’s face and talk face-to-face. Second, it is bad enough to slap a person’s back but it is even worse to slap his or her face, “adding insult to injury.” The reason is that a person is most fully expressed through his or her face.


The face suggests that without other human faces, that is, without other human persons, I cannot be complete as a person. Thus, at the very root of a person’s being, expressed through and in his or her face, is the need to be face-to-face, in interpersonal communion. In the words of Kallistos Ware, the eminent Orthodox bishop and former lecturer at Oxford University, “I need you in order to be myself.”

A Personalist Credo

The Human Person as the Imago Dei

I am a person:

unique, precious and unrepeatable in worth.
I also inhabit a world of other human persons who are
unique, precious and unrepeatable in worth.
As a person, I expect to be treated as a subject,
not an object.
I am an end in myself,
not merely a means to someone else’s end.
I will not allow myself to be used;
nor will I tolerate abuse.
I will respect my body
as well as the bodies of other human persons.
I will not undermine the dignity of another human being;
because in doing so, I undermine my own dignity.
I will not label others in dehumanizing terms,
because persons are infinitely more
than all labels, classifications or categories.
Except in the context of appropriate humor,
I will not take others “lightly,”
negating their inestimable value as human persons.
I will not reduce my humanity to a color.
Hence, I am not, first, a white person.
Rather, I am a person who is white.
Nor will I reduce my humanity to a function.
Hence, I am not, first, a teacher.
Rather, I am a person who teaches.
Therefore, I am valuable, first and foremost,
because of who I am, not what I do.
I am someone, not something;
a “who,” not a “what;”
begotten, not made.

I am a person.

Exploitation: Wrongfully Using Persons

Karol Wojtyla

Not Usable Objects

In his book Love and Responsibility, philosopher Karol Wojtyla (Catholic, then seminarian, then deacon, then priest, then philosopher, then bishop, then pope and, finally, saint) teaches “the personalistic norm,” which is an ethical principle for humanizing personal relationships. According to the norm’s negative formulation, “The person is the kind of good which does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and, as such, the means to an end.”

Not Throw-Away Things

What is Wojtyla’s point? Simply this: I may not use another person like I use clothing, such as a pair of pants or shirt. The value of clothing is instrumental, which is merely a means to an end. When my clothing is worn out or no longer useful to me, I throw it away or dispose of it. Then, in its place, I buy new clothing. However, I should not do that to another human being, because a human is a person, not a thing.

Not Merely Tools

There is a hierarchy (order of importance) of being. In other words, persons are more valuable than things. That is why persons should be loved and things should used rather than using persons as though they were things.

No one, then, ethically speaking, has a right to use you, as if your were merely an instrument or tool. Nor does anyone have the right to use you to the point of wearing you out and tossing you aside, like worn out clothing. Such moral acts violate the dignity or inherent value of a human being; a value that is irreducible, non–negotiable and non-exchangeable, that is, the value of a person.


Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, trans. H.T. Willetts (San Francisco, CA.: Ignatius Press, 1993), pp. 41, 228.

You are Not What You Have

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Confusing Being with Having

Many Americans confuse their worth or value with what they have, how much they earn and the size of their possessions. For such people, if they have more money than someone, they might be inclined to feel superior to that person. Again, if they have more possessions than someone, they may reason that they are more important than that person. Still again, if their houses or diamonds are bigger than someone’s house or diamonds, they may tend to think that they are better human beings than that person.

Being Equally Valuable as Human Persons

However, consumerism and materialism, excessively buying and accumulating lots of things, in no way reflect the true value or worth of a person. Of course, they are indicative of what he or she has, not whom he or she is. That is to say, money and things refer to objects, things, which are external to a human being. But he or she is superior to them in being a subject, that is, a person.

The Declaration of Independence teaches that all human beings are “created equal.” That means they have the same human nature. That is also why those who have lots of money, things and big possessions are not superior to those who lack such things. Thus, humans are equal in being, that is, in dignity or worth as persons.

A Loss of Possessions, not a Loss of Being

Another reason for not confusing being with having this: If my having is confused with my being, then if I lose what I have, such as my wealth and possessions, through, say, some misfortune, then I may no longer feel like I am anything, not being valuable anymore. That mentality may lead to depression (over the alleged loss of personal value), despair (giving up on life) and even suicide.

Therefore, you are not what you have! You are a person, and a person is intrinsically, that is, in worth of being, infinitely superior to things. In other words, one person is worth more than all the riches and finest things in the world, because he or she is the imago Dei, the “image of God.”

In short, you, a human person, are more important than material possessions and financial profits. In forgetting that truth, there may be an inclination to succumb to an inferiority or a superiority complex.

The Cult of Youth, Beauty and Strength

The Aging Process

“My Generation”

In this article, I want to explore briefly the topic of aging, the process of becoming older, especially as it relates to any man or woman near or over the age of 50.

In 1965, The Who, the popular British Rock Band, released “My Generation,” a song which was written by the guitarist Pete Townshend. It was about celebrating the younger generation, even to the point of mocking the elderlyMy Site or aged, saying, “I hope I die before I get old.”

In 1965, Townshend was 20 years of age; today, he is 73. However, I would suppose that he doesn’t want to be dead. He is, undoubtedly, happy to be alive. The reason is that whether a person is 20 or 73, life is still a gift; it is still good to be alive. In short, life has meaning and purpose, regardless of a person’s age.

America’s Cult of Youth

Not much has changed in 52 years, because the young are still focused on “My Generation,” with its worship of youth, beauty and strength. For example, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (referring to a study by the academic psychologist Edith Weisskopf-Joelson) says that the fear of aging is an unhealthy trend in the United States, which stresses “the value of youth.”1 For instance, I recently went to Great Clips for a hair cut. On the walls of the room, I was surrounded by pictures of young men and women with various hair styles. I asked the woman who was cutting my hair, ‘Why don’t you have on your walls pictures of middle-aged or older men and women? They also matter; their lives are worthwhile.’ She laughed at my comments.

I was told by a well-meaning neighbor that I am too old to be hired for a full-time position at any college or university. In his opinion, it was too late for me to become a full-time professor. I suppose that he was implying that if you are, say, 50 or over, your life in the workplace has, for all practical purposes, come to an end. His thinking may be shaped by popular culture, with its the cult or worship of youth. As Frankl rightly observes,

“[T]oday’s society … adores the young. It virtually ignores the value of all those who are otherwise.”2

I went shopping at the King of Prussia Mall and there they were again: Pictures of young men and women, adorning the walls of one store after another. To me, it confirmed Frankl’s point, namely, the idolizing of youth in American culture.

Too Old to be Employed Full-Time?

My neighbor’s view about aging men and women may be shared by some people in the workplace. But such a view is also a form of discrimination. So I ask: Is it too late for me to be a professor? Am I too old? Then I thought: Great things can happen when a person is old. Consider the following examples and then add your own: At the age of 58, Emmanuel Levinas was appointed Professor of Philosophy at Poitiers. Moses was 80 when he led the Jewish people out of Egyptian bondage. At the age of 75, Nelson Mandela became the President of South Africa. Joseph Ratzinger was 78 when he became Pope Benedict XVI. At the age of 67, Viktor Frankl received his license to fly a plane. Ronald Regan was 69 when he became President of the United States.

Too old? Too late? It is never too late to be great!


1. Viktor E. Frankl, Psychotherapy and Existentialism: Selected Papers on Logotherapy (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1967), pp. 31, 84.

2. ———-, Man’s Search for Meaning, 3rd ed. (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1984), p. 152.

A Credo for Persons with Disabilities

Persons with Disabilities

I come, first, into the world as

a human being, a person.

Whatever condition I may “have,”

developmentally and emotionally,

is added to me.

But the condition is not identical with me.

Being a person is not the same as being disabled.

Thus, there are not any disabled persons.

Rather, there are only persons who are disabled.

A person’s being is always much more

than the condition he or she “has.”

Nor is being a person equivalent to being mentally ill.

Thus, there are not any mentally ill persons.

Rather, there are only persons with mental illness.

A person is always greater

– infinitely more –

than what he or she “has.”

Nor is being a person the same as being schizophrenic.

Thus, there are not any schizophrenics.

Rather, there are only persons with schizophrenia.

A person’s “who” is primary,

valued first.

A person’s “what” is secondary,

describing his or her disability or limitation.

Nor is being a person equivalent to being autistic.

Thus, there are not any autistic persons.

Rather, there are only persons with autism.

Nor is being a person the same as being bipolar.

Thus, there are not any bipolar persons.

Rather, there are only persons who are bipolar.

My person is always more than any medical or psychiatric diagnosis.

A diagnosis is about a person,

what a person “has.”

But it is not to be confused with being a person.

A person,

while describable and analyzable,

always remains mysterious, elusive.

No disability

— whether it be of the brain or any part of the body —

can ever remove from a human being

the fact of being a person.

Thus, there are not any developmentally

and emotionally challenged persons.

Rather, there are only persons who are developmentally

and emotionally challenged.