Martin Luther King, Jr. - Political and Social Views
On 7 January 1966, Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) announced plans for the Chicago Freedom Movement, a campaign that marked the expansion of their civil rights activities from the South to northern cities. King believed that “the moral force of SCLC’s nonviolent movement philosophy was needed to help eradicate a vicious system which seeks to further colonize thousands of Negroes within a slum environment” (King, 18 March 1966). King and his family moved to one such Chicago slum at the end of January so that he could be closer to the movement.
On 4 April 1967 Martin Luther King delivered his seminal speech at Riverside Church condemning the Vietnam War. Declaring “my conscience leaves me no other choice,” King described the war’s deleterious effects on both America’s poor and Vietnamese peasants and insisted that it was morally imperative for the United States to take radical steps to halt the war through nonviolent means (King, “Beyond Vietnam,” 139).
As chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Stokely Carmichael challenged the philosophy of nonviolence and interracial alliances that had come to define the modern civil rights movement, calling instead for “Black Power.” Although critical of the “Black Power” slogan, King acknowledged that “if Stokely Carmichael now says that nonviolence is irrelevant, it is because he, as a dedicated veteran of many battles, has seen with his own eyes the most brutal white violence against Negroes and white civil rights workers, and he has seen it go unpunished” (King, 33–34).
In the Cold War climate of the 1950s and 1960s, the threat of communism galvanized public attention. In 1953 Martin Luther King called communism “one of the most important issues of our day” (Papers 6:146). As King rose to prominence he frequently had to defend himself against allegations of being a Communist, though his view that “Communism and Christianity are fundamentally incompatible” did not change (King, Strength, 93). Although sympathetic to communism’s core concern with social justice, King complained that with its “cold atheism wrapped in the garments of materialism, communism provides no place for God or Christ” (Strength, 94).
In this sermon, delivered as early as 1958, King speaks candidly about the church's inability to meet the challenges of modern life and the needs of those seeking religious solace.1 He charges, “How often has the church left men disappointed at midnight, while it slept quietly in a chamber of pious irrelevancy.” In particular, King criticizes the black church for being either one that “reduces worship to entertainment” or that offers “a loaf of stale bread that has been hardened by the winter
Throughout the modern civil rights movement, the similarity of the social ideals of Martin Luther King and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) led them to work on the same side of racial issues.
Founded in 1953, the American Committee on Africa (ACOA) was dedicated to supporting African liberation struggles and informing the American public about African issues. As one of the first national organizations dedicated to anti-colonial struggles in Africa, the organization played host to countless African leaders in the United States. Martin Luther King served on the national committee from 1957 until his death.
For Martin Luther King, the concept of agape stood at the center of both his spiritual belief in a knowable God and his assertion that love and nonviolence were essential to remedying America’s race problems. He defined agape as “purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative. It is the love of God operating in the human heart” (Papers 6:325)
With the successful conclusion of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956 and the establishment of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference the following year, Martin Luther King became a national civil rights spokesman and his opinions, even on personal matters, attracted considerable interest. Thus, in 1957 Ebony magazine invited King to write a monthly column “Advice for Living.” Responding to readers’ questions about marital infidelity, sexuality, birth control, capital punishment, atomic weapons testing, and race relations, King’s column reflected his moral and religious convictions and his thoughts on a wide range of issues.
Expanding on a 28 November 1960 outline titled “The Goodness of the Good Samaritan,” this sermon draft hews closely to George Buttrick’s themes in his lecture on the Good Samaritan.1 King lauds the Samaritan's altruism, which enabled him to look beyond “accidents of race, religion and nationality” and applies the parable’s message to race relations, acknowledging that laws “may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.” To effect true change, King submits, “Something must happen so to tou