January 15 is the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. -- born this day in 1929, ninety years ago this year.
As everyone knows, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a towering champion of justice, democracy and human dignity, and a courageous and tireless opponent of oppression, racism, segregation, poverty and colonialism.
His life and message was one of opportunity for all. His message was against fear, against violence, and against the idea that giving opportunity for one group necessarily required taking away opportunity from another group.
In a text he wrote in 1961, entitled "After Desegregation, What?" speaking of those involved in the movement on college campuses against segregation, he declared:
The problem is not merely a racial one, with Negroes set against white; rather, it is a tension between justice and injustice. Therefore, their movement is not aimed against oppressors but against oppression.
In his participation in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, he stood against segregation -- and also for full employment.
His message was not just against the oppressive structures of racism and oppression, but also included a positive vision of creating a society in which men and women could attain their full potential, and "the achievements of the human mind and heart would be limitless" (see "After Desegregation, What?" page 7).
This focus on the positive was absolutely essential to Dr. King's message and plan of action. Indeed, in the same text he declares:
This constructive program is a basic part of any genuine non-violent movement, for non-violence is essentially a positive concept. Its corollary must always be growth. Without this broad range of positive goals, non-cooperation ends where it begins (5).
Dr. King's message was so powerful because it realized that violence is only a negative tool, and that it could be overcome by positive action -- indeed, that it could not stand against positive action, if only enough people could be awakened to what is right, and emboldened to act on behalf of what is right.
This same message can be heard very clearly in one of his very first public speeches calling for a stand against injustice, at the mass meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association in December of 1955, in which he pointed to the unjust arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to relinquish her seat on a public bus, and called for a non-violent boycott of the buses of the city and municipality.
At that meeting (transcription here), Dr. King announces:
We are here, we are here this evening, because we're tired now. And I want to say that we are not here advocating violence. We have never done that. [. . .] The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest.
The power of that message was such that it woke people up, around the country and around the world, in a way that violence never could have done.
But it is now up to us to heed his message and continue his work, to prove that justice is stronger than violence.
See previous posts about the life and message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: