Dr. King – An Idealist Turned Realist

In times of great peril, it is natural for people to look for a savior. This said savior is a leader by default and one who by any means can change the state in which said people are living, or that is the hope. African-Americans, who have no doubt faced many defeats and perils in the United States of America, have always needed, or in better terms relied or gravitated or placed the burden to, one person to be their savior. That does not mean that these persons cannot be considered to be saviors simultaneously. It is highly unlikely that an entire group would see the same person to be their savior because in actuality, there are specific qualifications that makes one a savior. One of the main qualifications is that said savior has to be able a leader by default, be able to persuade an audience using rhetorical tactics, and their speech must resonate with their audience. Yes, as an entire group, African-Americans have faced many ills at the hands of white hegemonic power, but it hits African-Americans differently when you factor in gender, ability, socioeconomic status, education, skin color (light or dark), etc. Thus, African-Americans have had many different “savior” figures throughout history.

One of the most influential leaders in both the black and white community, and one who, if analyzed, can give a glimpse into the issues and maybe benefits of being a person chosen to be a savior, is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His ability to move the masses with his words and his beliefs made him a notable and controversial figure in 1960s America – an era where the racial tensions between minorities and whites was becoming very high (not to say that the said tension did not exist prior to this decade since racism was well and alive from the moment colonists reached soil that was not theirs, but more and more African-Americans were grouping together for change – not to say that they also were not doing this before the 1960s). When celebrated in history, we remember Dr. King for his words on peace and non-violence and having a dream and ending racism. But that is merely picking certain words and certain moments of one’s life to dictate the entire identity of the person. When analyzing Dr. King’s speeches throughout his time as a prolific leader, one can see certain changes in thought.

Through my case study, I want to show that Dr. King is remembered for his early thinking – that of an idealist, and why this may be problematic in ensuring the freedom that he so heavily fought for. This realization may have been of knowledge to him because throughout 1960s towards his assassination, Dr. King’s became more pragmatic in his speech. What I am analyzing is the change and why that may have occurred. My theories are that the pressure to lead an entire group of people, the pressure to keep up with idealistic views that are not shared with or can not be practically implemented because people do not share the same ideas as him and the realization that asking for personal change of others does not guarantee societal and political change that fix inequalities may have started to wear Dr. King down. I start by analyzing three of Dr. King’s early work – Love, Law & Civil Disobedience, Letter from Birmingham City Jail, and I Have A Dream.

On November 16th, 1961, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his speech Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience before the start of the annual meeting of the Fellowship of the Concerned. This group consisted of both black and white Southern pastors who were supposedly against racism – what some would consider “progressives”. This speech was made to persuade the whites of this fellowship to support the sit-ins and freedom rides that many African-Americans were a part of. On April 16th, 1963, Dr. King wrote an open letter, which he wrote while being held in jail for civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama. The letter was written in response to an open letter written by eight “liberal” white Alabama clergymen who believed that King’s demonstrations were going to lead to civil chaos and that racism should be left to fight in the courts. King’s letter was to show that the Christian beliefs were the essence of the African-American fight for civil rights. On August 28th, 1963, Dr. King delivered his I Have A Dream speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march was in accordance with President Kennedy’s proposal for civil rights legislation that June. King was asked to be a speaker, but was told to keep his speech calm, so that he would not provoke civil disobedience, which refers to civil rights demonstrations that often times became violent at the hands of white citizens and police.

In all three forms of rhetoric, Dr. King relies on the philosophical aspect of certain terms and concepts to prove why what he and his fellow African-American citizens were fighting for are so important. The fight for equal rights becomes solely about the fight against racism. The fight against racism is a fight against good vs. bad/evil, moral vs. immoral, just vs. unjust. In Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience, Dr. King equates the inequalities that African-Americans were facing as threats to their “freedom” and “human dignity”. “He has reevaluated his own intrinsic worth” (page 44).[1] In this same speech he continues to break down the ethics behind the student non-violent movements and why they are morally just. He points to conceptual ideas like the “ends and means must cohere” (page 45).[2] He uses the different Greek versions of love to discuss the concept of agape and why it is necessary in order for students to be able to practice their non-violent demonstrations. He discusses the different types of suffering and determines that self-suffering, similar to ideas of Socrates, is better than inflicting suffering onto others. The idea of racism is taken out of its reality and implicit actions and looked at and judged by its morality. This is also reiterated in his letter from Birmingham jail and the I Have A Dream speech. In his open letter, there is a lot more agitation however, as if it is becoming exasperating to echo the point that those practicing civil disobedience disobey only unjust laws and still believe and uphold just laws. It starts to become infuriating for Dr. King that his white counterparts, at least from these three texts, do not see his efforts as ethical or understand their moral obligations to treat all people as human. All in all, the tone of his rhetoric is one that is demanding, yet peaceful. His words rely on his intellect, on his moral, on his hopes, and on his religion. When Dr. King speaks of God or Christianity, he is directly relating the work that he is doing and the work that his African-American brothers and sisters are doing as a direct work of God. The Birmingham letter seeks to show correlation between apostles of God (in the bible) to disciples of God and all that is good (himself and all African-Americans fighting for civil rights).

To point out the reasons why his ideologies may have worked to bring people to together, but why it may not have worked to implicate long-lasting change, is not to say that Dr. King’s ideologies were wrong or unfitting of the time. I personally do take his ideologies as right. Racism, or more inherently the ideas that creates racism, is morally unjust from my interpretations and learning of what is right and wrong. The idea of not liking someone based on the color of their skin is morally unjust from my interpretations and learning of what is right and wrong. Perhaps what Dr. King misses is that racism is by definition more than not liking someone based off the color of their skin which means fighting racism deals with more than battling the ideas of what is morally right and wrong. Racism itself is a system withheld by certain ideologies and certain people. To focus solely on morality and the morality of human beings to know what is right and wrong and then be able to practice it, misses the entire real-life implications that racism has on certain people. For example, Dr. King relies heavily on quoting philosophers, leaders, and rhetoricians of the past to prove his points on morality and just. One person in particular that he tends to reference, when speaking on the injustices faced all over the world due to racism (including Africa), is Mahatma Gandhi. Dr. King speaks of Gandhi’s civil disobedience and his good moral will that led his people to freedom. However, this same morally conscious man was blatantly racist to the original South Africans that he encountered when fighting for Indian liberation while in their country. Gandhi, a man Dr. King speaks of who knew right from wrong, only applied what he knew when it came to his immediate people. It is the same when comparing Hitler, who Dr. King uses as example of a man who was immoral. But would Hitler be considered immoral or unjust to the Germans who in fact reaped benefits from his laws? Morality and ethics is important yes, and should be considered, but Dr. King did not account for the fact that it is not the only component when fighting for practical equality – equality that deals with laws, education, social economics, violence, etc. I believe he began to realize this during his later years by analyzing his later speeches, but was sadly assassinated before he could work to implement his reformed ideas.

Starting with his speech The Other America that was delivered at Stanford to his essays that were published after his assassination in 1968, Showdown for Nonviolence and A Testament of Hope, Dr. King began to marry his ideals with the current state of America. He began to look towards racism on a broader spectrum and accounted all the ills that were served to African-Americans that made hope for change in morality seem not as important or ideal in terms of true economic power and freedom. Dr. King began to speak more about poverty and its affect on blacks. He also internalized religion – meaning it was more about how he used God to do his work instead of the work he and other civil rights activists did being the work of God. “It is possible for me to falter, but I am profoundly secure in my knowledge that God loves us; he has not worked out design for our failure” (Page 314)[3]. What happened in my opinion and analysis of his speeches, is that Dr. King realized that he could only judge and monitor his own moral compass and that the moral compass of others did not necessarily dictate the measures of equality that could be reached for African-Americans because the issue of racism was/is more complex than just skin color.

Another assumption that one can make is that the criticism that one receives can force them to change their rhetoric. As a “savior” figure who is suppose to lead a blind people, one must make sure that their speech matches the needs and wants of their followers or else they do not have disciples anymore. That stress, that agitation of trying to figure out if their beliefs alone can really trigger change, will cause a person to grow and evolve in various ways. Taking on the role of being a “savior”, one will never truly be the same person they were before. If Dr. King isn’t a good enough example of this change, especially within the African-American community, one could use Malcolm X or James Baldwin or President Obama. If one analyzes their speech and rhetoric from their earlier years to their later years, as black men dealing with the black struggle in America, there is a difference that occurs in their speech. What if the weight of demands and lack of acknowledgment for at least the effort of taking on the role to be a leader of an entire group is too much for one person? What if seeing first hand how a nation could continue to lie and manipulate a people is too much to bear?

I would go as far to say that it may have been necessary for Dr. King to become the “savior” figure because it allowed him to become more pragmatic, but I could imagine that it was not easy. What isn’t any easier, is finding a solution to the issue that Dr. King and some many before and after him deal with in finding equality for the African-American community.

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