June 27, 2022

Spending an Hour with Dr. King

If you could spend one hour with MLK, what would you talk about with him?

If you could travel back in time and spend an hour with ten people of your choosing, who would you choose and why? What would you want to talk to him or her about?

This is a fascinating thought experiment I recommend you present to your friends. It never fails to produce interesting discussion that everyone involved learns from. In my case, the great Roman orator Cicero is always among my top ten choices.

So is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whom we honor today with a national holiday (though his actual birthdate is January 15). I would relish beyond measure the opportunity to speak with him one-on-one.

We would not agree on everything, to be sure. I think Dr. King often erred when he addressed economic issues. However, he was such a thoughtful and gracious man that I am certain he would listen carefully to my perspective. I would want to explain to him why his support for the minimum wage, compulsory unionism, and welfare programs conflicts with his devotion to nonviolence.

Dr. King noted that capitalism (the system of private property, entrepreneurship, and free markets) made it possible for America “to do wonders” and “become the richest nation in the world.” He called it “the greatest system of production that history has ever known.” And he knew that communism was rooted in deceit and tyranny, and said so multiple times. So even on economics, we would likely find considerable harmony of views.

On other matters—really big ones, in fact—we would agree enthusiastically. I would thoroughly enjoy discussing that common ground in detail.

For example, as fellow Christians, we would likely talk about our mutual understanding of Christian ethics. I would also want to tell him about how science, in the years since he died in 1968, has increasingly affirmed Creation and a Creator, not an accidental universe. I think he would be thrilled by this development.

Dr. King famously declared, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I would thank him for so eloquently endorsing the critical importance of character. I have addressed that matter many times myself over the years, including as a major theme in Are We Good Enough for Liberty?.

Dr. King’s many wise observations about kindness, courage, forgiveness, responsibility, and compassion would provide a foundation to talk for far more than just one hour. Indeed, I would ask the time machine to grant me several more hours with him.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remains the most eloquent spokesman for the civil rights of all people since the great Frederick Douglass (see my treatment of Douglass here and here). So rather than read my words about him, let me share with you some words from the great man himself. These are among my very favorite King quotes:

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I feel that segregation is totally unChristian, and that it is against everything the Christian religion stands for.

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Man is man because he is free to operate within the framework of his destiny. He is free to deliberate, to make decisions, and to choose between alternatives. He is distinguished from animals by his freedom to do evil or to do good and to walk the high road of beauty or tread the low road of ugly degeneracy.

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A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.

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Our ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it. You must never allow the transitory, evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God.

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This is no day for the rabble-rouser, whether he be Negro or white. We must realize that we are grappling with the weightiest social problem of this nation, and in grappling with such a complex problem there is no place for misguided emotionalism. We must work passionately and unrelentingly for the goal of freedom, but we must be sure that our hands are clean in the struggle. We must never struggle with falsehood, hate, or malice. We must never become bitter.

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We must not become victimized with a philosophy of black supremacy. God is not interested merely in freeing black men and brown men and yellow men, but God is interested in freeing the whole human race. We must work with determination to create a society, not where black men are superior and other men are inferior and vice versa, but a society in which all men will live together as brothers and respect the dignity and worth of human personality.

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Somewhere somebody must have some sense. Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.

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Communism is based on ethical relativism and accepts no stable moral absolutes. Right and wrong are relative to the most expedient methods for dealing with class war. Communism exploits the dreadful philosophy that the end justifies the means. It enunciates movingly the theory of a classless society, but alas! its methods for achieving this noble end are all too often ignoble. Lying, violence, murder, and torture are considered to be justifiable means to achieve the millennial end. Is this an unfair indictment? Listen to the words of Lenin, the real tactician of Communist theory: ‘We must be ready to employ trickery, deceit, lawbreaking, withholding and concealing truth.’ Modem history has known many tortuous nights and horror-filled days because his followers have taken this statement seriously.

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One of the great philosophical debates of the centuries has been over the whole question of ends and means. There have been those individuals from Machiavelli on down who argued that the end justifies the means. Sometimes systems of government have followed this theory. Listen to Lenin as he says, “Lying, deceit, violence, concealing and withholding the truth are all justifiable means to bring about the end of the classless society.” This is the great weakness and tragedy of communism and any other system that argues that the end justifies the means, for in a real sense, the end is pre-existent in the means; the means represent the ideal in the making, and the end in process. In the long run of history, immoral means cannot bring about moral ends. Destructive means cannot bring about constructive goals. The beauty of non-violence is that it makes it possible for the individual to struggle to secure moral ends through moral means. 

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Another reason why we must love our enemies is that hate scars the soul and distorts the personality. Mindful that hate is an evil and dangerous force, we too often think of what it does to the person hated. This is understandable, for hate brings irreparable damage to its victims. We have seen its ugly consequences in the ignominious deaths brought to six million Jews by a hate-obsessed madman named Hitler, in the unspeakable violence inflicted upon Negroes by blood-thirsty mobs, in the dark horrors of war, and in the terrible indignities and injustices perpetrated against millions of God’s children by unconscionable oppressors.

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Hate is just as injurious to the person who hates. Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man’s sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.

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History unfortunately leaves some people oppressed and some people oppressors. And there are three ways that individuals who are oppressed can deal with their oppression. One of them is to rise up against their oppressors with physical violence and corroding hatred. But oh, this isn’t the way. For the danger and the weakness of this method is its futility. Violence creates many more social problems than it solves. And I’ve said, in so many instances, that as the Negro, in particular, and colored peoples all over the world struggle for freedom, if they succumb to the temptation of using violence in their struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos. Violence isn’t the way.

Another way is to acquiesce and to give in, to resign yourself to the oppression. Some people do that. They discover the difficulties of the wilderness moving into the promised land, and they would rather go back to the despots of Egypt because it’s difficult to get in the promised land. And so they resign themselves to the fate of oppression; they somehow acquiesce to this thing. But that too isn’t the way because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.

But there is another way. And that is to organize mass non-violent resistance based on the principle of love. It seems to me that this is the only way as our eyes look to the future. As we look out across the years and across the generations, let us develop and move right here. We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new world. We will be able to make men better. Love is the only way.

This article, Spending an Hour with Dr. King, was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education and appears here with permission.  Please support their mission.