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Martin Luther King, Jr. from a Humanist Perspective

By Norm R. Allen Jr.
Executive Director, African Americans for Humanism
Editor, AAH Examiner
Deputy Editor, Free Inquiry

Adapted from a speech delivered at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, NY on January 12, 2003.

We are familiar with Martin Luther King’s extraordinary contributions to the Civil Rights Movement, and the role that the churches played in fighting for social justice in this context. However, there were great humanists and humanist ideals that preceded King and the movement.

King is best known for using passive resistance to fight for freedom, justice, and equality. In the 19th century, however, Henry David Thoreau thoughtfully articulated the nonviolent method of protest known as civil disobedience. His theory became influential after his death largely because it is completely secular and attractive to both religious and non-religious people.

Thoreau’s earliest protest was over a church/state separation issue. He was a schoolmaster in 1838 and the state of Massachusetts demanded that he pay a tax to a minister from a church that he did not even attend. He refused to pay the tax, though another man paid it for him without his knowledge.

Thoreau never went to church and mainly associated with unchurched individuals. He asserted that people have the right to disobey unjust laws, and that they have the right to follow the dictates of their conscience, rather than divine or secular authorities.

Thoreau’s essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” influenced Gandhi and King. Ironically, though King was a Christian minister, his entire crusade was in opposition to the biblical command to obey the governing authorities that are supposedly established by God (Romans 13: 1-3). Moreover, as an advocate of passive resistance, he opposed the First (Old) Testament law calling for “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a head for a head, and a life for a life.” Indeed, King boldly stated: “That old law about an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.”

However, King did embrace the Christian idea of turning the other cheek. I received a letter from a man asking how we humanists view King and what we think of passive resistance. I told him that some humanists are pacifists, but that most of us—like most Christians—seem to believe in the right to defend ourselves against aggressors. 

A reporter asked King what his position on the use of violence would have been had he been an activist during World War II. King said that, in his position as a pacifist, he would have opposed going to war against Hitler. Most people from all backgrounds, however, would disagree. As the great 19th century freethinker Robert Green Ingersoll noted, “goodness should have the right to defend itself.” If good people have no right to defend themselves, thugs will by default have the moral sanction to abuse their victims. (Malcolm X and many others were of the same opinion.) Most people do not accept passive resistance as an immutable philosophy, but as a strategy for change in the U.S., King used the tactic brilliantly.

Some of the churches were natural breeding grounds for Black activism. Furthermore, the church has been the only institution in which Blacks had the opportunity to organize for positive change. It was a natural springboard for abolitionists and rebellious slaves. The Civil Rights Movement, however, was not purely religious, and Black humanists influenced the movement in many ways.

Asa Philip Randolph is widely regarded as the “Grandfather of the Civil Rights Movement.” He was an atheist, a pacifist, and a socialist. He and the Black activist Chandler Owen published a newspaper in which they were highly critical of religion. (Ironically, however, Randolph later had a lifetime honorary membership in a church. He discovered that it was difficult to organize African Americans for social protest and criticize religion at the same time.) 

Randolph was the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, one of the nation’s largest labor unions. He proposed a major march on Washington in 1941. In 1963, the march was finally realized and Randolph—along with King—was one of its major speakers. He was a lifelong advocate of civil disobedience, and in 1973, he signed Humanist Manifesto II.

James Farmer founded the Congress of Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.). He was one of the “Big Four” civil rights leaders. He participated in Freedom Rides in the American South and was brutally beaten. He suffered serious injuries, many of them leading to physical complications throughout his life. He lost sight in one eye as the result of a beating, and he later developed diabetes, which led him to become a double amputee. In his later years he also signed Humanist Manifesto II, and became a member of African Americans for Humanism.

James Forman was the leader of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He was a major spokesperson and civil rights activist. Ingersoll and other freethinkers influenced his thinking. He gave a major speech at Riverside Baptist Church in New York in which he demanded that White synagogues and churches pay reparations to African Americans for their role in the slave trade. News of the speech was carried on the front page of the New York Times and other major publications. In 1992 Forman addressed a conference held by the Council for Secular Humanism in Orlando, Florida.

King’s most famous speech is “I Have a Dream.” Before King, however, humanists had a similar dream. Ingersoll made a speech that is remarkably similar to King’s. Ingersoll dreamt of a world in which all people got along regardless of color, nationality, and so forth. 

Langston Hughes was a major poet during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. He was non-religious and was highly critical of religion. Some of his poems were deemed blasphemous, and some religionists harshly criticized him for his views. Hughes wrote a poem titled “I, Too, Dream America,” that inspired King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Many people are not aware of these humanist contributions. Many people who are aware of them mistakenly believe that these humanists were deeply spiritual. For example, when I spoke at the W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Centre for Pan-African Culture in Accra, Ghana in 1991, some people in the audience claimed that Lorraine Hansberry was a spiritual person. However, Hansberry, a critically acclaimed playwright, was a militant atheist and secular humanist. This point is made abundantly clear in her play “A Raisin in the Sun.” Many people are simply of the opinion that anyone capable of deep feeling and a commitment to their fellow beings must be religious, despite all evidence to the contrary.

One of King’s most important contributions to the Civil Rights Movement was his consistent opposition to bigotry in all of its forms. He opposed White supremacy, but he understood that it would be blatantly hypocritical and unfair of him to embrace Black bigots. 

For example, the Nation of Islam taught that Whites were a filthy race of devils, and that Blacks were better than Whites. Many Black militants called King an Uncle Tom for opposing these views. But King said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He understood that the only way to establish true moral authority was to avoid double standards. He criticized reactionary and theo-fascist nationalists just as he did White racists.

Most Black followers of King today, however, embrace many Black bigots and try to rationalize their bigoted ideas. They have made the mistake in assuming that Black unity—and not necessarily true democracy—at all costs is always a virtue. I was upset to see so many Blacks give legitimacy to Louis Farrakhan at the Million Man March. Farrakhan has supported the racist Arab regime in Sudan in their efforts to fight against and enslave Black Christians and animists in southern Sudan. He traveled to Iran and said that Iran has the only government on Earth run according to God’s laws. He has served as an apologist for oppressive regimes throughout Africa and Asia. Most of his followers do not seem to understand that just because he hates White supremacy and has other virtues, it does not necessarily follow that he sincerely believes in freedom, justice, and equality. King, however, understood. Those who continue to blindly embrace anti-democratic Black leaders will never establish the moral authority that guided King throughout his career and gave credibility to his movement.

Many anti-war activists are planning demonstrations against the likelihood of America’s war against Iraq. After King strongly opposed the Vietnam War, he had many detractors. It will be interesting to see where Christians stand where the possibility of war with Iraq is concerned. Will most of them heed Christ’s command to turn the other cheek and be non-violent? Or will most of them march to the tune of “Onward Christian Soldier?” 

The truth of the matter is that, though King is a Christian hero, most Christians are just like everyone else where the topic of violence is concerned. That is why they should not be so smug by asserting that non-violence is a uniquely Christian virtue. As the New York detective Frank Serpico pointed out: “We like to create heroes so we don’t have to do anything ourselves.” It is therefore not surprising that King has far more admirers than fellow pacifists. 

In the 1970s Black ministers launched a drive to include King’s famous letter from the Birmingham jail as a book of the Bible. They argued that it was clear that God inspired King to write the letter. I have not heard any more talk of this drive since the 1970s, and the enthusiasm for this idea might have waned.

In any case, there is no evidence that God had anything to do with King or the Civil Rights Movement. Everything that King accomplished could be explained in terms that are clearly and strictly human. He sang, marched, spoke, wrote, protested, and so forth. Human beings have always engaged in these kinds of actions. However, King performed no miracles of a religious nature. He was a human being who led a movement of human beings with human needs and desires. We should honor him as a man and not cast doubts upon his legacy by desperately claiming that a Supreme Being had anything whatsoever to with the extraordinary movement he led. King’s legacy is a clear testament to the power of human thought and human action. God or no God, human beings will always be in need of courageous individuals such as Martin Luther King. And unless there is strong evidence of divine intervention, to human beings should go the credit and the glory.

[*] Secular Humanism Online Library

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