“Applications from Martin”
During the 1960’s the Black community underwent numerous radical transformations,
as a new and progressive generation of leaders emerged and began to direct the thinking
and acting of the masses. Among these leaders was one outstanding personality: Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. In this vein I wish to draw insights from his teachings
and make applications for us, today, in 2009. Lastly, the focus of this short talk
is freedom. By “freedom” I, essentially, mean ‘being normal or the way one perceives
the Creator intends or desires’. Dynamically or existentially, “freedom” is ‘execution
of responsibility for all that one is, has, and does by being the person one perceives
the Creator created that one to be.’ Thus, in examining some of the thoughts of
Martin Luther King, Jr., I shall focus our attention upon what he promulgated as
the means or steps to freedom.
First, King perceived freedom as attitude-adjustment. He advocated self-education,
that is, active involvement of each individual in her/his intellectual development!
His world was not too different from ours; it was a racist society. This racism
was, and to some significant degree still is, evidenced in the biases, distortions,
and subtle though demeaning views of Blacks perpetrated through the media, educational
resources, cultural expressions, socio-political systems, etc. of the politically-dominant.
Such research, he felt, instills a sense of pride and dignity and cultivates a disposition
that fosters the self-esteem and self-motivation needed to be who one is! In addition
to this, such educational endeavors facilitate development of a world or international
perspective, which engenders hope through a sense of unity with other oppressed
peoples in the world, including our African comrades. In his sermon, “Remaining
Awake Through a Great Revolution” (delivered on Passion Sunday, March 31, 1968 in
Washington, D.C. at the National Cathedral) he stated:
..one of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves
living amid a great period of social change yet they fail to develop the new attitudes,
the new mental responses––that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through
He challenged Blacks: 1. to develop a world perspective; 2. to eradicate the last
vestiges of racial injustice from our nation; and 3. to rid our nation and the world
of poverty. Here, creation and development of a mindset or disposition from which
affirmative action can be achieved is required for freedom! In essence, one’s governing-center,
one’s decision-making mechanism, one’s consciousness-controller, one’s emotional
thermostat––I mean one’s heart––must operate uninhibitedly and positively! The key
to freedom is control of the mind, I mean, whatever or whoever does not enlist you
in your own educational processes endoctrinates you for slavery in their systems!
Second, King advocated freedom as economic overhaul and involvement. In his last
and most apocalyptic sermon (delivered at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee––headquarters
of the Church of God in Christ––on April 3, 1968) entitled “I See the Promised Land”,
he charged Blacks: 1. to determine their own destiny; 2. to pursue the prevalent
issues of poverty, injustice, and racism; 3. to utilize the available, economic
clout; 4. to strengthen Black institutions; and 5. to persevere to the end. In rendering
this challenge he lifted up this principle: “Always anchor our external direct action
with the power of economic withdrawal.” Freedom is integrally related to the sources
of sustenance or supply in society. ‘The hands that feed’ must be your own, lest
you are manipulated like dogs. You must learn how to fish and do so for yourself,
if you would realize the true dignity of personhood!
Third, King advocated freedom as integration. In a speech, “Negroes Are Not Moving
Too Fast” (1964) he noted that the solution to the problem of rampant racketeering
and subtle, fraudulent policies on the part of law enforcement agencies lies in
the grand alliance of Blacks and whites in order to eradicate social evils that
oppress them both. He perceived that interracial efforts should begin, initially
rather than subsequently, in addressing inequality and racism. Here, integration
is not the shuffling of ethnic groups like cards with the same rules to the game,
but development of an eclectic agenda by a pluralistic body born of mutuality! The
school curricula must be integrated! The political system must be integrated! The
cultural ethos and societal norms must be integrated! This quality of integration
facilitates genuine dialogue, in which the evils that divide and separate are exorcised!
Indeed, here, freedom is interdependence born of comparable and simultaneous initiative
on the part of Blacks and whites independent of one another, wherein each participant
genuinely receives and cooperates with the other!
Fourth, King advocated freedom as political self-determinism. In an article, “Black
Power Defined” (New York Times Magazine 11 [June 1967]), he commented: “In our society
power sources can always finally be traced to ideological, economic, and political
forces.” He defined “Black Power” as ‘the influence or impact of Blacks in the ideological,
economic, and political arenas.’ Pervading this thought is the assumption that one’s
ideas are the basis for economic and political constructs. In other words, what
one fundamentally believes is expressed by and in the policies and systems that
one constructs in business and politics. Thus he challenged Blacks: 1. ideologically,
to achieve proficient literacy and intellectual integrity, whereby their basic principles
for living are articulated; 2. economically, to develop their own businesses, using
organized labor and economic withdrawal or boycott to establish the ‘source-supply’
sufficiency to be competitive; and 3. politically, to participate in the political
process through voting and strategic alliances with interest-groups compatible with
their determined ideology. The key is the solidarity of Black leadership! Freedom
entails assumption of responsibility, socially, politically, economically, for one’s
own by selection of one’s own leaders, that is, persons who are committed to the
goals and objectives of one’s community, and not another!
Now, let me summarize. Dr. King perceived and advocated ‘freedom as attitude-adjustment’,
‘freedom as economic overhaul and involvement’, ‘freedom as integration’, and ‘freedom
as political self-determinism’. In these respects several guidelines emerged: 1.
The key to freedom is control of the mind, I mean, whatever or whoever does not
enlist you in your own educational processes endoctrinates you for slavery in their
systems. 2. Freedom is integrally related to the sources of sustenance or supply
in society. ‘The hands that feed’ must be your own, lest you are manipulated like
dogs. You must learn how to fish and do so for yourself, if you would realize the
true dignity of personhood. 3. Freedom is interdependence born of comparable and
simultaneous initiative on the part of Blacks and non-Blacks independent of one
another, wherein each participant genuinely receives and cooperates with the other!
4. Freedom entails assumption of responsibility, socially, politically, economically,
for one’s own by selection of one’s own leaders, that is, persons who are committed
to the goals and objectives of one’s community, and not another! This conveys a
message to us. King witnessed the plight of this nation! And his diagnosis is still
valid: moral bankruptcy, now evidenced in subtle and systemic segregation, exists
through the education, better labelled, endoctrination system! And still his words
provide us prescriptions for progress! However, the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther
King, Jr. challenges us: 1. to learn to think for ourselves! 2. to protect ourselves!
3. to do whatever it takes to be free! 4. to remember that we are not alone––don’t
Jerome Clayton Ross, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Religious Studies
written: January 5, 2009
delivered: January 15, 2009