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