Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Martin Luther King from a Black Humanist View
By Norm R. Allen Jr.
We are familiar with Martin Luther
King's important work in the civil rights movement, and the
tremendous role that some churches played in the fight for social
justice. However, there were great humanists and humanistic ideals
that preceded King and the movement.
King is best known for using passive resistance to fight for
freedom, justice and equality. However, in the 19th century, Henry
David Thoreau wrote his famous essay "On the Duty of Civil
Disobedience." His theory became influential after his death,
largely because it is completely secular.
Thoreau's earliest protest was lodged over a church/state separation
issue. He was a schoolmaster in 1838, and the state of Massachusetts
required him to pay a tax to a church he did not even attend. He
refused to pay the tax, though another man paid it without his
knowledge or approval.
Thoreau did not attend church and associated primarily with
unchurched individuals. He believed that people have the right to
disobey unjust laws, and that they were required to follow the
dictates of their conscience, as opposed to divine or secular
Ironically, though King was a Christian, his entire crusade was in
opposition to the biblical command to obey the authorities that were
supposedly ordained by God (Romans 13: 1-3). Moreover, he opposed
the First (Old) Testament law supporting "an eye for an eye, a tooth
for a tooth, a head for a head, and a life for a life." Rather, like
Gandhi, King said, "That old law about an eye for an eye leaves
Christians had the support of many humanists during the civil rights
movement. People such as A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer, James
Forman, Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, and numerous others were
major voices in the movement. Indeed, in his book, From Strength
to Love, King wrote:
"I would be the last to condemn the thousands of sincere and
dedicated people outside the churches who have labored unselfishly
through various humanitarian movements to cure the world of social
evils, for I would rather a man be a committed humanist than an
King also firmly believed in church/state separation. In his famous
1965 interview in Playboy, he addressed the U.S. Supreme
Court's ruling that made prayer in public schools unconstitutional.
"I endorse it. I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have
said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a
pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer
shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally, or
otherwise, the state certainly has no such right. I am strongly
opposed to the efforts that have been made to nullify the decision."
This should not be surprising. According to his biographer David J.
Garrow in Bearing the Cross, King read the writings of
philosopher Paul Tillich and almost became an atheist. King's major
attraction to Christianity was its emphasis upon communal love, or
King was also knowledgable about the so-called pagan origins of
Christianity. He knew about the religion of Mithraism and its
influence upon Christianity. He knew that, before Christians,
devotees of Mithra accepted Sunday as their holy day, December 25th
as the birth of Mithra, etc. (From the papers of Martin Luther King,
Jr., Volume 4, University Press of California.)
Martin Luther King was one of the most important individuals in
American history. His religion greatly motivated him. However, after
all is said and done, there is no evidence that God had anything
whatsoever to do with the success of the civil rights movement.
Everything that King and his supporters accomplished can be
explained in terms that are clearly and strictly human. King and his
followers, sang, spoke, marched, protested, etc. Human beings have
always engaged in such behaviors. However, King performed no
miracles of a religious nature. What King demonstrated is that human
thought and human activism will always have to be at the center of
any program of action geared toward gaining freedom, justice, and
equality. This is a message that humanists have been trying to get
across for years, and one we will continue to promote.