Note: Originally, I wrote this as a sister article to a piece I put out on MLK last year entitled, “Dr. King: Freedom & Free Thinking”; however, it ended up not being released at that time. So, I figured I would dust this article off and put it out there. Enjoy!
When I was a kid my parents were very serious about us being grounded in God’s Word and knowledgeable of black history. I remember being around 11 years old and hearing my dad lecture me about how no matter what the world says, who I am in Christ is what matters most. He would always add that he and my mother drilled black history into me because he wanted me to have both the biblical and historical tools to defend against the race-based attacks on personhood that I might face. Quite frankly I didn’t fully understand what he was talking about and loathed the book reports on African-American inventors, freedom fighters, etc. that they made me do in addition to my regular homework. As I got older, the wisdom of what my dad instilled in me finally sunk in and I developed a love for reading speeches and writings from abolitionists, civil rights activists, and African-American thinkers who profoundly impacted American history.
One of the unexpected benefits of getting into Christian apologetics is that it’s given me a fresh lens through which to appreciate these writings on a deeper level. Fairly recently— as I’ve been taking time to go back and read the works of Frederick Douglass and Dr. Martin Luther King— I’ve noticed the theological and philosophical underpinnings of their works jumping off the page. I’d like to share a few thoughts that recently came to me as I was reading a bit of MLK.
In December of 1964, Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts toward spearheading the movement for racial equality and civil rights in America. He begins:
“I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice.”
With that opening statement of his acceptance speech, Dr. King sets the tone for the occasion by drawing his audience into importance of that moment within the context of a real and ongoing battle for freedom back home. The weight of the freedom struggle was a very present reality for Dr. King as he briefly stepped away from the civil rights battlefront to receive his Nobel award in Oslo, Norway. Dr. King makes it clear that the Nobel award was not the pinnacle of achievement but rather a pit stop on the way toward the more sacred and enduring prize of freedom and equality.
Dr. King’s acceptance speech is both solemn and hopeful. After giving his audience a brief status report as to the purposes, protest strategies, and progress of the civil rights movement—Dr. King gives them a glimpse into the basis of his hope. He says:
“I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him.
I’m fairly certain that an article I released about this time last year entitled, “#Black Lives Don’t Matter”, is the most misunderstood piece that I’ve written so far. I argued three main points in that article. First, throughout the abolitionist and civil rights movements, the moral claims of intrinsic personal worth which undergirded those efforts were situated within a theistic framework. Second, if naturalism is true then there is no objective foundation for claims of intrinsic personal worth. Thirdly, modern movements and individuals who make moral claims of personal worth and yet reject theism do so at the expense of the objective grounding for claims of personal worth that previous generations relied upon. Let’s take another look at that quote from Dr. King.
“I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him.”
In this quotation from Dr. King’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech we see an example of the theistic worldview intertwined with the ethical assumptions of Dr. King the civil rights movement. Abiding somewhere between “We shall overcome” and George Wallace’s “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” was the potential for disillusionment and hopelessness to set in as the Civil Rights movement trudged onward toward what could easily have been seen as an impossible goal. Dr. King rebels against that looming threat of disenchantment in pointing out that how things currently are does not preclude mankind from reaching toward how things ought to be. Dr. King’s hope for the success of the civil rights movement is buttressed by an “ought”—The eternal oughtness. In Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail he refers to that “eternal oughtness” by another name: The Law of God. But of course, if there is no God then there is no “Law of God” or “eternal oughtness” for mankind to reach up for. If such is the case, then the moral rug has been pulled from under Dr. King’s source of hope and the despair he speaks of refusing is indeed all that is left for him. What Dr. King is expresses here is something powerful but not new to the freedom movement for African-Americans.
Leaders of the New School
To understand how crucial this eternal oughtness was to Dr. King and freedom fighters who came before him we have to grapple with the nature of racism in America’s history and the ideological importance of the biblical worldview throughout the abolitionist and civil rights movement. We often talk about chattel slavery and Jim Crow but we generally don’t focus in on the assault on the personhood of African people that made those institutions possible. We have to understand that racism in colonial America and this country’s early period was somewhat different and more blunt than how we might generally see it today. Racism wasn’t just a matter of preference as in a dislike or even simply hatred of African people. Also, it wasn’t just a feeling of superiority among Europeans. Racism was actually more concrete than that. In America’s formative years among the main justifications for slavery in the West were the widely held beliefs that Africans were not “human”, did not have souls, or were at best like a race of children that needed to be cared for by the white “civilized” races.
It is on this point that we can see how Christianity played a dynamic role as a liberating factor in African American history. As I’ve mentioned in my last article, the conversion experiences for many African enslaved persons who accepted Christianity served to anchor their sense of worth in something that was beyond the reach of the slavemasters’ ability to degrade them. In the foreword of his book “God Struck Me Dead”, Dr. Albert Raboteau, Professor Emeritus of Princeton University, puts it this way:
“Amidst a system bent on reducing them to an inferior status, the experience of conversion rooted deep within the slave converts’ psyche a sense of personal value and individual importance that helped to ground their identity in the unimpeachable authority of almighty God.”
In other words, for many African enslaved persons, Christian conversion was like a statement of personal defiance. This conviction— coming from a place of God given intrinsic worth— was foundational for the black church and the black community more broadly during the period that African-Americans were fighting for the abolition of slavery and throughout the civil rights movement. African Americans appealed to this notion of equal personhood through the Biblical framework which afforded them the moral currency, if you will, by which they could advocate for themselves to the predominant culture. This theme of personhood and transcendent morality can be seen echoing throughout the speeches and writings of some of the most prominent voices for African American freedom such as JW Loguen, Henry Highland Garnet, Frederick Douglass, Absolom Jones, Ida B. Wells, and many others.
There is a long line of freedom fighters that preceded Dr. King who drew upon the biblical worldview as a basis of intrinsic moral worth and as an impetus for challenging oppressive systems that stood before them. In articulating where God’s Law intersects with the civil rights movement, Dr. King gives voice to one of the central pillars of moral progress as it relates to equality in this country.
Barz in Birmingham
As I close out this article I would like to briefly turn to my personal favorite piece from Dr. King; The Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In April of 1963 Dr. King found himself behind bars for the cause of freedom. While being detained for non-violent protest, Dr. King took time to responds to a group of white ministers who had reached out to him and were critical of his civil disobedience movement because they broke the laws of the land, supposedly caused racial tensions to flare, and pressed for immediate change toward equality.
In the 13th paragraph of the letter, Dr. King spells out the moral framework that undergirded his civil disobedience movement. He begins by quoting St. Augustine of North Africa in establishing that the determining factor as to whether a law was just or unjust was whether or not that law is aligned with God’s moral law. Dr. King goes on to explain how that higher law never tramples upon the personhood of those governed by it. Dr. King concludes that therefore, any law that undermines personhood is out of step with God’s law and on that basis, unjust. Dr. King then cites a Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, in making a distinction between laws that affirm the sacred personhood of man versus laws that relegate persons to the status of things. In this passage we see that for Dr. King personhood was intricately connected with God’s moral law; that eternal oughtness. As Dr. King draws upon the biblical worldview concerning personhood and morality, this propels him to spearhead the civil rights movement which is surely among the most profound campaigns for freedom in human history.
I often hear about how Christianity was used to oppress Africans as if that is the entirety of what historical evidence has to say on the subject. In addition to that, certain figures of black history like Dr. Martin Luther King, are believed by some to have only served the purpose of quieting black people with Christian principles like forgiving those who have wronged you. On those grounds some important figures in our history are cast as being stumbling blocks to progress for the black community in that they supposedly stood in the way of more radical or militant approaches to overturning racialized oppression. We need to bring the historical facts to the table so that people can make an informed assessment about what is actually the case. The fact of the matter is, as African Americans pushed toward freedom, they found a bedrock for personhood and liberty through the biblical worldview such that they were able to fight against both internalized oppression and the immoral systems that stood before them.