Every year on the third Monday in January, we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and reflect on his profound contribution to civil and human rights. We commemorate his ethic of love, brotherhood and non-violence.
We reflect on her dream, that her “four grandchildren will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” We note his emphasis on creating the Beloved Community. It is important, however, that we begin to pay more attention to a fundamental but overlooked aspect of King’s legacy: his moral view of American politics.
We face an America plagued by political polarization, racial and economic disparities, a global pandemic and much more. Dr. King’s view of the role morality should play in politics can serve as a compass to help us navigate today’s pressing political issues. King paid more attention to the moral behavior of governments and social institutions than to individual morality and personal piety. His political work did not only reflect what was expedient, practical or strategic. Instead, his principles often led him into political positions that were, at the time, quite unpopular. King’s ethical vision also guided his dedication to nonviolent direct action to bring about change.
King viewed American politics from the perspective of the marginalized and excluded, racial minorities, the poor and vulnerable. With this in mind, he determined that America was in an existential crisis which, if left unresolved, would lead to the demise of the nation. He said, “Civilization can flounder as easily in the face of moral bankruptcy as it can in the face of financial bankruptcy. He named three evils of American politics – racism, economic exploitation, and war/imperialism – that had been endemic to our nation since its founding and argued for public policy consistent with eradicating these evils.
Given his view of political ills, it’s easy to imagine how King would position himself in the face of the manifestations of racism that continue to plague our society, such as police brutality. He would view this as morally wrong and would support police reform. It would see our society’s tolerance of poverty and economic exploitation as morally wrong and support a stronger safety net. He would view contemporary voter suppression efforts (for example, reducing the number of polling places in black communities, removing people from voter rolls and requiring voter ID) as morally wrong. Confronting issues like voter suppression, poverty, and police brutality would surely be part of an agenda that uses King’s moral vision for American politics. But King can also offer advice on issues that weren’t on the radar in his day, like the coronavirus pandemic. A moral vision of King would emphasize protecting our most vulnerable. Failure to do so would be considered both a public health crisis and a moral crisis.
These principles also guided King’s strategies for bringing about change. In fact, the best-known reflection of King’s moral outlook is his dedication to nonviolence. What is often misunderstood about King’s dedication to nonviolence is that with it came a parallel dedication to direct action. Contrary to what many think, King’s strategy for social change was based on disrupting the status quo. It was not a passive non-violent approach but actually a confrontation. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King explained, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to deal with the problem.” For King, these disruptive tactics should be carried out through nonviolent action, because nonviolence would ultimately allow the possibility of reconciliation for all parties following movements for justice and social change.
Today, the nuance of King’s perspective becomes more striking when one hears criticism of people protesting police brutality in a disruptive way as not being “à la King”. In fact, according to King, this tension, disruption and confrontation is often necessary to force reluctant people to the negotiating table. When it comes to the method of change, following King’s vision can require tension and disruption.
In 1968, at the National Cathedral, King said, “…the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” According to King, it is our responsibility to bend the bow toward justice. In doing so, we should embrace direct action and disruption of the status quo as well as nonviolence. We should use King’s vision as both a compass and a barometer for navigating current political issues, determining the right moral position, and seeking a moral way to bring about change.
Dr. Tamelyn Tucker-Worgs is chair of Hood College’s Department of Political Science, as well as the Virginia E. Lewis Professor of Political Science for the College. Her work is interdisciplinary, with specializations in American race and politics, African American religion, public policy, gender and politics, and urban politics.