“Only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”—Martin Luther King, Jr., April 3, 1968
Throughout the history of this nation, African Americans have been the victims of unmerited suffering, and Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke directly to this issue. However, in King’s mature thought, he emphasized equality. The events of the preceding years showed him that the dream would not be implemented as quickly as he had thought. The depths of racism had been revealed. Improvement was obvious, but most white people could not envision equality because it was too costly. Community cannot be established without equality, and equality must precede freedom. Despite criticism, King still believed that America’s healing would come through the nonviolent protest of people who were willing to suffer until equality and justice prevailed and community—that is, integration—ushered freedom in.
Love was central both to King’s belief that “suffering was redemptive” and to nonviolent protest. Nonviolence means not only avoiding physical conflict but also internal, moral conflict. For King, nonviolence had become not only a superior way to live, but the only way to live. Gandhi had provided the tools to implement massive acts of confrontational nonviolence, but King knew that moral values and choices must precede actions. The nation would have to embrace tolerance on its way toward acceptance and, finally, agape—love—for all members of the human family. Nonviolence was Christianity’s body, and love, its soul. Love and nonviolence altered the individual who embraced them—giving strength to endure the suffering until that suffering came to the nation’s attention. Repentance and redemption were possible if the nation’s religious convictions were translated into political action. Redemption, according to King, is possible individually, then for the nation, and finally, the world. The means becomes the end, and love and peace become community.
…. The black church and the slave tradition played major roles in the formation of King’s values and preaching style. The use of the “redemptive value of unmerited suffering” dated from slavery. King’s education in white, liberal institutions, however, helped him gain a larger pool of examples from which to draw, especially classical illustrations from Western history that he used as aptly as those that portrayed his slave ancestors. Fortunately, King was eclectic. He was able to pinpoint common values, illustrate the interconnections between all people, and call people back—to a time where redemption was possible. King’s ability to translate the ever-present burden of racism in the lives of African Americans into language whites understood allowed him to become a preacher to the nation. He always saw whites as part of the “beloved community,” but he worked out his ideas in the black church: he rehearsed his theology in a safe environment. Ideas appeared in sermons at Ebenezer long before they appeared in his speeches. When King spoke to the nation, only his language differed: his values and convictions remained the same. His personal suffering, especially his willingness to go to jail to validate his convictions, challenged white Americans to bring their religion out of their churches; that is, to practice it in everyday life—to bring harmony between stated beliefs and actions.
…. Legislation alone was insufficient to bring about equality. Laws granting rights are useless unless people have the power to exercise them. The right to eat in a restaurant meant little to people who could not afford to eat there. Ridding the world of poverty became a substantial part of King’s dream, and as he matured, his thinking became more inclusive—more global. When he realized that racism was so deeply ingrained in American society that nothing except a transformation of values could bring about freedom, he spoke forcefully, naming racism, poverty, and war as the major ills of America and showing their interconnectedness. The choice was not between nonviolence and violence but between nonviolence and nonexistence. King believed people must stop killing each other and rid the world of war. He had begun to see two kinds of hypocrisy among racists: ignorance accompanied by inconsistent behavior and genuine conviction that equality would not work. He hoped to educate the ignorant, but he had no answer for those who truly believed that masking racism and injustice was enough. How can one aim toward an ideal that does not exist? Exasperated, King became bolder in his prophetic role, using more confrontational language as he questioned America’s ability to distinguish good from evil without a revolution of values.
…. In his final days, King spoke with great urgency—casting aside expectations of approval and ignoring the consequences of his radical statements. When he angered civil rights leaders by linking the Vietnam War with the Civil Rights Movement, he lost popularity and became deeply hurt by negative comments from his former allies. He knew the chances of his assassination were increasing. Whenever he was afraid, he fell back on his testimony, retelling the story of his kitchen experience in Montgomery, when, as a young pastor, he had become discouraged and afraid, yet he found, deep in the night when he felt most alone, that God gave him the strength to stand firm and authenticated his call.* Another story recalled a letter from a young white girl who was glad he didn’t sneeze after his Harlem stabbing. Criticism and weariness had caused Martin to experience a deep depression, but these stories reminded him that hope was greater than disappointment….
* This well documented “kitchen table incident” occurred during the night following Friday January 27, 1955—near the on-set of the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott—when Martin Luther King Jr. received a threatening phone call from a white man, who called him a “nigger” and warned him that he had better leave Montgomery soon, if he wanted to do so alive. The incident is the subject of the following poem.
Shortly after midnight, Martin’s sleep
was broken. Lifting the receiver, bone-tired:
Alone, though his wife
slept beside him, fear drove him
from their bed. The night was filled
with unbearable silence.
Struggling, pacing nervously,
he moved from the hall
to the kitchen,
putting the kettle on the stove
by instinct, walking back and forth,
softly, so as not to wake
the baby, trying to sort
muddled thoughts, to drive away spasms
of godless panic.
Hot coffee cools quickly.
He sat alone
at that kitchen table, eyes downcast,
Grace still amazes.
—Excerpt from Helen Losse, “Making All Things New: The Redemptive Value of Unmerited Suffering In the Life and Works of Martin Luther King Jr.” (master’s thesis), Wake Forest University, 2000.