January 19, 2016

Something else that Martin Luther King taught me

From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith - One of the early influences on me was a book I had read in college: Stride Towards Freedom, especially the sixth chapter in which King described his pilgrimage towards nonviolence. I had only recently graduated from a Quaker high school, half impressed by and half cynical of the experience. Now I had left the peaceable kingdom of the Friends for the oscillating values of tumult of college and King's book proved more than an introduction to the civil rights movement. It helped straighten out messages I had received about a lot of things, but had never quite understood.

I was too lusty and too enthralled by politics to think that simply being good and not bopping people on the head was a sufficient approach to life. King helped to explain it in new terms: "My study of Gandhi convinced me that true pacifism is not nonresistance to evil. . . Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate."

He read Niebuhr's criticisms of pacifism, which he rejected in part but noted:
Niebuhr has extraordinary insight into human nature, especially the behavior of nations and social groups. He is keenly aware of the complexity of human motives and the relationship between morality and power. . . While I still believed in man's potential for good, Niebuhr made me realize his potential for evil as well. Moreover, Niebuhr helped me recognize the complexity of man's social involvement and the glaring reality of collective evil.

Many pacifists, I felt, failed to see this. All too many had an unwarranted optimism concerning man and leaned unconsciously towards self-righteousness. It was my revolt against these attitudes under the influence of Niebuhr that accounts for the fact that in spite of my strong leaning toward pacifism, I have never joined a pacifist organization. . . I felt then, and I feel now, that the pacifist would have a great appeal if he did not claim to be free from the moral dilemmas that the Christian non-pacifist confronts.

His four pages on Marx also appealed to me. I had just been introduced to Marx and, unlike college students of a later generation, thought him dreary and opaque. King approached Marx with curiosity and analysis and when he was through, concluded, "My reading of Marx also convinced me that truth is found neither in Marxism nor in traditional capitalism. Each, represents a partial truth. Historically, capitalism failed to see the truth in collective enterprise, and Marxism failed to see the truth in individual enterprise. Nineteenth-century capitalism failed to see that life is social and Marxism failed and still fails to see that life is individual and personal."

So Martin Luther King came to me not so much as a civil rights leader but as a philosopher-friend, the first non-mushy pacifist I had met, and a guy helping me get through Marx. Not that civil rights and race weren't important. I was an anthropology major and that experience combined with a Quaker education helped form a strong revulsion against the cultural myopia of white America. I knew from anthropology that there was no scientific basis for segregation and discrimination, and from the Friends I had learned there was no moral one either. But King synthesized wandering feelings, giving them a point, and words: "When a subject people moves towards freedom, they are not creating cleavage, but are revealing the cleavage which apologists of the old order have sought to conceal." Try to say that as succinctly when you're a sophomore.

Of course, King would touch me many times again though I never got closer to him than the lawn of the chapel at Howard University when he spoke in 1959 or 1960. There were too many people for the church so loudspeakers were mounted outside and we sat on the grass, moved but not fully understanding how much more we would be moved before it was over.

In the wake of his assassination, I almost lost him. King the leader still remained, but King the philosopher was being discredited at every turn. The tough guys had moved in, with their revolutions in the barrels of guns, actions that assumed principles would follow, the conscious re-segregation on new terms. Agape was for white flower children; King was a Tom; and new leaders proliferated. There was progress, yes. There was necessity, too. Black nationalism was part of the unfinished business. But there was also a hollowness.

It was not a question of old style integration. Ethnic identity was not the issue. It was a matter of rediscovering friendly turf, the reintroduction of decency as a value, a mutual regard for cultural differences and a mutual recognition of common aspirations. I knew it was true, because Martin Luther King had told me. He said, "Something must happen so as to touch the hearts and souls of men that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right."


Anonymous said...

In a world unconvinced that war is a question of honor, and a recently isolationist US, King was an anti-war activist on behalf of human life. This was the promise of the post missile crisis pact in 1963. Disarmament and international law are the inevitable result of a pax Americana if America is a democracy.

Anonymous said...

I love you Sam Smith. Peace, Christine