The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

By Dr. Luis G. Collazo

In 1968 Martin Luther King Jr.’s book “The Trumpet of Conscience” was published in Spanish. It includes five lectures given in 1967 through the Canadian Radio Society, in which I find a particularly good summary of his thought. Because it would be wrong to reduce the message of this prophet of human dignity to a few pages, I will try to avoid such an unforgivable abridgment. However, it is important, particularly in our national and global context, to highlight some of the essential elements of his legacy.

Among these essentials is the recognition that freedom is a fundamental element of society’s ethical and social provision. At the beginning of his first radio lecture, which concerned the safe space that Canada represented for black slaves, he declared, “The Negro slave, denied education, dehumanized, imprisoned in cruel plantations, knew that far to the north a land existed where a fugitive slave, if he survived the horrors of the journey, could find freedom” (Martin Luther King Jr., The Trumpet of Conscience (TOC), Boston: Beacon Press, 1967, p. 3).

Freedom emerged at its legitimate and preferential social starting point, as the foundation of human dignity, through liberation thought and practice. In a sense, Martin Luther King Jr. embodied the right to resist the world when its oppressive configuration depredates integrity and human dignity. He offers us in his thought the possibility of considering freedom in all its complexity and its challenges. His vision continues to inspire confidence when he says: “Today the question is not whether we shall be free but by what course we will win” (TOC, p. 4).

It is relevant to recognize that before engaging in the “ups and downs” of the struggle for freedom, it is imperative to read with acute attentiveness the signs of the times. That is the reason that King warns us of the fact, which is still extremely valid, by highlighting the ongoing question of “in what way we will win our freedom.” This constitutes the great current challenge for our national and global historical conjuncture. It takes deep and humble reflection to identify the paths to freedom when others think the paths have already been charted or are blocked.

In an eloquent, self-reflective note that continues to serve as an existential and historical warning, King said: “As elation and expectations died, Negroes became sharply aware that the goal of freedom was still distant and our immediate plight was substantially still an agony of deprivation” (TOC, p. 6).

Aware of the dilemma of facing a cultural profile marked by the “social sins” of racism, economic inequality, the structural perpetuity of a “white warmongering” economy, and a legal system plagued by iniquity, the black prophet warned clearly that the road to freedom is long. King warned of illusory solutions to the problems of colonialism, discrimination and prejudice. The vices of power, class arrogance and imperial over-reach can disempower and enslave the social conscience and make the road to freedom even longer.

For a long time, King said in 1967, the dominant sectors have financially blackmailed large social sectors, thus imploding the revolutionary will. So, we must be aware that there are no magic solutions on this liberationist pilgrimage. It will require a prophetic patience and a wise strategy.

For King, the tactic of nonviolent resistance helps validate the quest for a new and better world. It ensures that means are consistent with the ends of social change. In fact, that movement of nonviolence was King’s biggest struggle in a world that did not want to pay attention: “The decade of 1955 to 1965 with its constructive elements misled us. Everyone underestimated the amount of violence and rage Negroes were suppressing and the amount of bigotry the white majority was disguising” (TOC, p. 7).

Even today, this reality is perpetuated within our global and local society. Some repress, and others rationalize. Such a reality generates levels of visible and invisible violence in hostility, indifference, crime, widespread discrimination, religious obsession and ethical exhaustion, among many other perversions of the human soul. Islamophobia, xenophobia and racism, among others, particularly undermine human solidarity.

Each historical moment must identify its most pertinent strategies for change.

And yet the strategies for which King opted were nonviolence and peaceful resistance. Both options should be considered transformative action strategies to achieve political efficacy and historical validity. In that perspective, King affirmed: “Nonviolent protest must now mature to a new level to correspond to heightened black impatience and stiffened white resistance. This higher level is mass civil disobedience” (TOC, p. 15).

Each historical moment must identify its most pertinent strategies for change. What King bequeathed us was the idea that an active praxis of nonviolence can constitute the concrete element of the discourse oriented toward societal transformation. The construction of a new human reality represents the ethical foundation of configuring a radical action of change. The abstract and theoretical elaboration of ideas or readings of reality is not enough to achieve the consolidation of what in the evangelical perspective is called “the Kingdom of God and its justice.”

Creativity can offer us new ways of conceiving nonviolence and peaceful resistance. It is urgent to avoid, as King also illustrated for us, dualistic splits between religion and politics or spirituality and material needs. It will be necessarily a political spirituality that gives virtue to a holistic vision of reality and incorporates new contents to the praxis of peaceful resistance, civil disobedience and nonviolence.

The Trumpet of Conscience concludes with a sermon offered by King in Atlanta on Christmas Eve 1967. That sermon includes the following text, which I consider profoundly prophetic and vitally encouraging: “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (TOC, p. 71).

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered on April 4, 1968, in the city of Memphis, Tenn. Long past his death, the hope endures that one day all will be one, in great universal solidarity. That will be the day we achieve a global and political ecumenism on the long road to freedom.

Dr. Luis G. Collazo is a retired professor of ethics and religion at InterAmerican University of Puerto Rico and ordained minister of Iglesias Bautistas de Puerto Rico (Baptist Churches of Puerto Rico). He is a former member of the Hunger Committee of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and a ruling elder. He is also a member of the Gabriel Garcia Márquez Journalist Association and a volunteer for Democracy Now Media. Used by permission of the Graduate Theological Foundation.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.