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.

You are Not What You Have

bullion gold gold bars golden
Photo by Pixabay on

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.

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.

30 Minute Meditations on Being Human from the Life and Writings of Viktor Frankl, Day 8: Ascribing Dignity to Every Human Being

Viktor Frankl

Lesson for the Day: Dignity (respect) is to be ascribed to all human beings, even those who, through committing evil acts, don’t deserve it.

“‘What is man that you are mindful of him?’ ‘He is a reed,’ said Pascal, ‘but a reed which thinks!’ And it is in this thinking, this consciousness, this responsibility that constitute the dignity of man, the dignity of each individual human being. And it is always to be ascribed to the individual person whether he preserves this dignity or tarnishes it. Whereas the first behavior is personal merit, the second constitutes personal guilt.”

Source: Viktor E. Frankl, Psychotherapy and Existentialism: Selected Papers on Logotherapy (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1967), pp. 110-111.

Mother Teresa’s Opposition to Disposable Human Beings

Teresa of Calcutta: Nun, Humanitarian and Saint

Introduction to Functionalism

It is a violation of a human being’s dignity, his or her inherent worth, to be treated as merely or only as an instrument or tool for the benefit of others. However, a human being has a right, even an expectation, to be treated better than that, because he or she is the imago Dei, that is, a person. In the words of Article 6 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.”

But how is a human being treated merely as tool or instrument? The first way is by viewing him or her as if he or she were a disposable item, something which no longer has any value. Usually, when that happens, it is time to “get rid of him or her,” treating him or her, for all practical purposes, as an “it,” a thing. The second way, which is even worse, is to treat a person as though he or she were rubbish, destined for the junkyard, when he or she is no longer useful to others. Usually, such a human being is “thrown away,” because of his or her appearance, declining skills, performance or old age. Of course, ultimately, all things change and decline over time, “wearing out.” That truth also applies to every human being. But what should remain morally constant, always the same, is the inherent value of a human being as a person. But, unfortunately, it does not.

A Utilitarian Ethic: Human Value Based on Function or Usefulness

When Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she accepted it, in her words, on behalf of

“the hungry, of the naked, of the homeless, of the crippled, of the blind, of the leprous, of all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared [for], thrown away of the society, people who have become a burden to the society, and are ashamed by everybody.”

Indeed, our society throws away — like a used up or worn out pair of shores or clothing — the sick, poor, weak and vulnerable, treating them as if they were objects or things to be used and discarded. One reason is that the West, particularly, the United States of America, is embracing a quality of human life ethic, which says, in effect, “If you cannot do anything for others, then you are not anything.” That is to say, a person who cannot produce is reduced in his or her humanity, treated as if he or she were a nobody and better off dead than alive. Like Mother Teresa, Viktor Frankl, the eminent Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, objects to discarding or throwing away persons who are no longer useful to others. Logotherapy, a school of psychotherapy established by Dr. Frankl, affirms, in his words,

“…[T]he unconditional value of each and every person. It is that which warrants the indelible quality of the dignity of man. Just as life remains potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are the most miserable, so too does the value of each and every person stay with him or her, and it … is not contingent on the usefulness that he or she may or may not retain in the present.”1

An Ontological Ethic: Human Value Based on Being a Person

The opposite ethic, which is truly human and humanizes other persons, is called “an ontological ethic.” It teaches, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “I am somebody. I am a person …. with dignity and honor.”2 In other words, every human being, regardless of his or her physical or mental condition, is someone, not something. Such an ethic, rightly understood and applied, promotes the dignity of the human person and would not, under any circumstance, throw away the life of an innocent, vulnerable human being.

How often we humans miss the obvious! How often we pass by each other without taking the slightest notice of the humanity of the person in front of us! The next time you see another human, take a moment to realize that the being before you is a subject, not an object; a “who,” not a “what;” an end in himself or herself, not merely a means to someone else’s ends. In short, that being is a person. And nothing can be greater than that!


1. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 3rd ed. (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1984), pp. 151-152.

2. 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. 184.

A Credo for Persons That are Elderly

Couple Playing Dominoes At Day Care Centre
Enjoying Life

I am a person that is elderly,

not an elderly person.

I am not “an old man”;

rather, I am man that is old.

My value is not reducible to my age,

but to being a person.

I am a person,

even when I can no longer perform the functions

I did in earlier years.

My dignity consists in whom I am,

not merely in what I do.

My vision, hearing and strength will decline with age,

but my “I” will not decline with them.

My humanity will never decline.

I am and will always remain a person.