MLK, Moral Outrage, and the National Discourse

Dear friends, this week we celebrated the life and legacy of a man who was, arguably, the greatest American of the 20th century, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I have always loved and admired Dr. King, for as long as I can remember. For his refusal to disengage from the conversation of justice that constitutes us a people, even and especially in the face of hateful attempts to exclude him from it, he was and he remains a hero of America.

To say he was no stranger to violence would be gross understatement, and yet he constantly refused to give in to the temptation to violent revenge or even the use of physical force to vindicate his and his fellows’ rights. He was well aware of the danger to America, should we not choose to address the grievous wrongs done and the hideous injustice regularly perpetrated against black citizens:

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

Still, he understood that even momentary surrender to the temptation to violence would be ruinous to the souls of citizens and to the soul of the nation he loved:

In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

In this day: when we see the vaults of justice strained by woeful wrongs unremedied, and when we ourselves are tempted – in many areas of life and for causes trivial by comparison with those for which Dr. King struggled so mightily and so well – by the blandishments of facile delight in insult and cajoling, and compound the sin of our indulgence by painting it in the color of high polemic; when we substitute dispassionate discourse with vitriolic dismissal, eschew the reasonable probing of our interlocutors’ positions with an improbable rhetoric of cheap and easy pseudo-remonstration; when we reject decent expressions of legitimate concern over matters of formulation, implication, or direction, in favor of deliriously absolute denunciations; when, in short, we prefer the base pleasure of browbeating to the rare joy of argument; we would do well to remember Dr. King’s advice and example:

WHILE confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom, if ever, do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all of the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would be engaged in little else in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

If prudent consideration of who and what is worth our moral and spiritual energies ever seems too costly; if the temptation to sentiments of outrage and moral superiority ever seem too powerful; if discipline and restraint in response to provocation ever seem too much to ask; remember that Dr. King wrote those words, and the words that followed, from a jail cell in which he had been confined because he believed that “all men are created equal” was not mere rhetorical fancy written in revolutionary fever, but the genuine expression of the moral and spiritual commitment in which we discover ourselves a nation – the ordering principle in the soul of our nation, the manifestation of the truth of which in our national life is the highest aspiration of our people.


Martin Luther King, Jr.: arrest in Montgomery, Alabama, 1958

Below, please find an extended (and slightly modified) excerpt from my book, The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood, in which I discuss some of the reasons for King’s greatness as a representative of the best of us as a people.

King was an American representative, precisely because he sought with his mind and his body to show, not how the elements of power erected for the preservation of American society were in need of fundamental change, but how they were being employed in a manner systematically and diametrically repugnant to the truth they were designed to realize. King was arrested several times during the course of his work. Most famously, he was arrested on 12 april, 1963, on the charge of parading without a permit. King, with Ralph Abernathy and other leaders of the nationwide agitation for civil rights, had come to Birmingham, in Alabama. King had called on Birmingham in order to lead a non-violent citizens’ manifestation, the purpose of which was to protest the injustice of laws that segregated white persons from black persons in Birmingham, the capital, and Alabama, and the whole south of the country and the whole country, generally. King set out his reasons for pursuing non-violent action in a letter dated april 16th, 1963, in which he responded to a series of concerns expressed by fellow clergymen regarding the conduct of civil rights agitation in alabama. Three points of the letter interest us at present. The first of these is King’s close analysis of the nature of law:

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust.

It is not only necessary, but right and good to obey the law. This means that the edicts of constituted authorities must enjoy habitual obedience, and so precisely insofar as they come from the constituted authorities. The order of society would disintegrate without obedience to constituted authority. The need for a constituted authority is clear, and the nervous tension in the minds of the nine religious leaders who wrote to King is perfectly understandable and even laudable, as King himself is at pains to recognize in the letter. King’s argument appeals to what we might call the idem sentire, the “common sense” of American society. having thus presented his problematic in terms as favorable to his interlocutors as possible, King enlarges:

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? a just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. an unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas aquinas: an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. any law that uplifts human personality is just. any law that degrades human personality is unjust. all segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-Thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound; it is morally wrong and awful. Paul Tillich said that sin is separation. is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

The second and third principle points of interest emerge from this paragraph. The second point is that the law, in order to be just, i.e., to conform to the good of the people and the constitution of society, must edify human personality. This is to say that the law presupposes an idea of man, of which it is a reflection. Basically, we may say that the structure of any given society reflects the way its members conceive human nature, so that a society with a warped vision of human nature will have bad laws and will suffer under the effect of them. It would be, then, the duty of those within society who recognize the evil effects of a warped understanding of human nature, to correct the mistaken understanding; one of the ways in which to effect the correction, indeed the best way, is to secure habitual acceptance of edicts that are in conformity with the proper understanding of human nature. The third point of note is that King, in citing Socrates, Martin Buber and St. Thomas aquinas, is not involving himself in an isolated, ivory tower meditation, abstracted from social reality. He is making explicit the historical instances of thought in which truths active in the formation of an idea of man that we may call, “American”, received theoretical articulation; King accomplishes his explication, precisely by recalling certain thinkers who articulated the ideas constitutive of that history. Simply put, “America” is an expression of certain ideas that inform and illuminate society in the united States. Thus, the States are united “of America”. America unifies the States. America also, and indeed in the first, unites Americans, for it is Americans who make the union of States. for this reason, and to the extent that this is true, could King write in reply to the clergy’s objection to his presence as an ‘outside agitator’, “Anyone who lives inside the united States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” King gives several persons in example of his understanding of the when and how of civil disobedience’s justification:

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. it was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience.

The Jewish faithful disobey Nebuchadnezzar because they participate in the direct experience of Divine transcendent order. The three take part in that order by virtue of their having been born into the race of men that is representative of humanity under the direction of the Divine. The three are directly under the Divine and are his representatives in history; no human being has authority over them. The importance of Hebrew history for the American forma mentis is recognized virtually universally.

Noteworthy then, is that our discussion of Dr. King’s rhetoric to this point at the very least suggests the following: that King is not citing the faithful three simply because certain rabbis were cosignatories of the open letter that occasioned his response. Instead, we may say with a degree of plausibility that King is responding to his interlocutors as an American addressing Americans. It is in this context that we must understand King’s invocation of the story from the Hebrew Scriptures. Thus, the American expression of order is traceable to the emergence of hebrew order in its explosion of one-to-one cosmic analogy in social structure beginning with Pharaoh-Ra, and proceeding to israel’s encounter with the Babylonian order of empire epitomized by Nebuchadnezzar). Socrates discovered the human-divine orientation by giving attention to the voice of a god. The inscription above the entrance to the Delphic oracle, “Know thyself!”, was generally understood to mean, “Know that you are not a god,” which is to say, “Think human thoughts.” Socrates recognized that, if the inscription meant what Athenians took it to mean, then every human attempt to obey the dictum would be in contravention of it, for the human person who heeds the command is heeding the words of a god, which is precisely the activity proscribed by the construction, which Athenian society had put on the command. In so doing, Socrates is challenging the Athenian understanding of what a human being is; by issuing such a challenge, which is a new claim regarding human nature, Socrates is setting himself up against the authority of athens as interpreted by Socrates’ athenian contemporaries. That King is able to call on Socrates to witness the justice of King’s own act of civil disobedience in America, i.e., King’s claim to the effect that America in some way requires his act of civil disobedience, or that King’s own act of civil disobedience is American and that the American is steeped in the tradition to which Socrates’ act in some wise belongs (which is to say that America has benefited from Socrates’ act—and this is King’s almost explicit claim—thereby incurring a debt that America must pay and pay in kind), suggests that America is (has paid its debt by becoming?) a conceptual space in which the apparently intractable enmity of athens for Socrates has been overcome. Would this not mean, in its turn, that America, i.e., the conceptual space in which that union of persons is formed and nurtured, which forges the union of States and gives sense to the name, “United States of America”, is essentially the conception of a philosophical mission? Is this not the answer to the political problem proposed by Plato in another famous letter? Would it not explain the strange, even uncanny fact that, while the athenian crisis of order produced Socrates and Plato, and the Roman crisis of the late fourth and early fifth centuries issued forth in St. augustine, and the internecine wars of europe in the aftermath of Christendom’s disintegration gave Hegel to the warring German principates; the United States, through all its many crises, has never had a philosopher, but never failed to have a statesman?

The Examples of King: Athens and Jerusalem in America

As we have begun to see, another question that King’s “letter” presses upon us is that of athens and Jerusalem. a certain author, whose works and whose teaching have achieved national prominence of late in both the universities and the public discourse of the American nation, has argued that athens, the representative of philosophy, is locked in eternal and irreducible opposition to Jerusalem, the city founded by faith.

Assuming for the sake of argument that there is or can be such an opposition, and admitting the possibility of that opposition’s being eternal and irreducible, is not America as King presents it to us in his use of it an overcoming of the opposition of athens and Jerusalem? Does America overcome the enmity of Athens and Jerusalem? Is it rather true that America is possible because the opposition of athens and Jerusalem has been overcome?

King says that the first Christians deliberately disobey “certain unjust laws of the Roman empire.” What laws were they, and on what grounds does King presume to call them unjust? Generally, Christians would face execution because they committed treason by refusing to swear by the god augustus or by the reigning emperor. in the Roman order of empire as it existed in pagan antiquity, the State was the supreme religious authority, originally in the Senate and, from the time of augustus, the emperor, who assumed the presidency of the college of augurs and the high priesthood of Rome.

The reason for this was that the State was still understood to be the direct and unique mediator between the earth-bound human and the divine transcendent. The advent of Christianity is a direct political challenge to the power of the Caesars: when Christ says to Caesar (through Caesar’s representative), “Yes [I am a king], though my kingdom is not of this earth,” Christ is claiming two things: His kingdom could never be conquered by Caesar, even though Caesar should conquer and rule over every square inch of the planet; He, as the earthly representative of an other-worldly realm, is mediator between God and man.

When Christianity is accepted by a sufficient number of citizens, the imperial order itself will be threatened; the State will no longer be divine mediator for the Roman people. a Roman who accepts Christianity, however, does not thereby cease to be a Roman, just as a Platonist does not cease to use his reason in his embrace of Christianity. it is for precisely this reason that the Roman order of empire required a rethinking; for precisely this reason, St. Augustine responds to the Roman crisis of order in the 5th century by arguing that Christianity is not the bane of Roman imperial order, but its completion and perfection, or rather that Christianity represents the chance for Rome to keep faith with its best angels.

Fides (faith), after all, is a technical term of Roman jurisprudence. It is in precisely Augustine’s understanding of the Roman sense that America is founded on faith, for the American decision to have a people emerges from the debate over what kind of foedus to make among persons whose depravity requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, but whose other qualities justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. The American choice for a republic is an expression of assent to an understanding of human being as naturally capable of faith, for republican government presupposes the presence in human nature of precisely those qualities, which justify esteem and confidence in a higher degree than any other form. Is this not reasonable?

The founding fathers believed that it is; believing its reasonability, they acted. our claim for America is that America is the expression of an experience that makes a difference. The American tradition, in which King lives and for fellows in which he writes, is itself steeped in the tradition we have just discussed. in order to understand the expression of America, i.e., in order to grasp that of which America is an expression, we must turn to the human experience of order on the continent called North America. A way toward that task, as it were, may be found in King’s own public and representative use of America.

King and America

Later in 1963, from the steps of the lincoln Memorial, King gave a speech to the quarter part of one million Americans, gathered on the National Mall. That speech, known the world over as the “I have a Dream” speech, illustrates the presence of a particular American idiom, the origins of which we saw in the writing of the critical period [the British imperial crisis that led to the separation of the colonies from the British Empire and the founding of the United States – CRA], so that the presence of the idiom as a part of or a sign of the ordering power of the conceptual space called america was assured as lately as 1963.

In that speech, King employs the words, “America” and “American” a total of nine times. The oblique references to America, such as “the nation”, and “our republic” are myriad. More important than “the nation”, and prior both chronologically and conceptually in the speech, is King’s use of the first person plural possessive article, “our”, in describing the “nation.”

King opens his speech by claiming, “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” From the very beginning, then, King presents his case as a full member of the American nation, and the importance of this cannot be overstated, for it was precisely this that was at stake. in speaking as an American, King is making himself a representative of America. The logic of King’s speech, further, is such that America is an idea that is, that must be, embodied—its existence outside the American nation is a sort of half-life, and its flourishing depends on the right ordering of the body politic that knows itself as America. Those who embody America are responsible to America, and so to each and every one of their fellows. We see this logic at work when King says:

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

In the first place, King assumes the inclusion of “black men as well as white men” in the promises of the Declaration. The second thing to emerge is the affinity, to the point of interchangeability and, in this particular idiom, synonymy of the terms, America and Justice, American and Just. The riches of freedom and the security of justice are stored, says King, in the vaults of America.

As the economic language suggests, however, King, was not inventing an idiom; however deft his use; he was only using the language of public discourse in the united States, as he had inherited it. Through all the turmoil of the second half of the last century, the citizenry of the united States constantly asked themselves, in deliberating any question important to the common good, what the “American” thing to do might be. Racial segregation was decried as un-American. Communism was un-American. This last, interestingly, produced a backlash of fear and suspicion that led to the formation of the House un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC), which eventually became the object of most vitriolic condemnation as being itself essentially un-American. In the minds of U.S. citizens, America was synonymous with goodness, American with the good, and un-American with evil. If to ask, “What is the American thing to do?” was to ask, “what is the right thing to do?” then to ask, “What is America?” was to ask, “What is the good?” The U.S. citizenry was concerned with discovering the good, and convinced that it must be directed by the object of that search in its national life.

At the same time—and this is the genius of King’s employment of the American idiom—the citizens of the united States recognize themselves as Americans. In its turn, this claim to be Americans, is to recognize that there is good in the order of society in the united States.

There is a grave danger in this: properly ordered, America will be informed by the right apprehension of the good; there is, however, no guarantee that some, and so perhaps even a majority, or at least a number sufficient to subvert the order of society, would pervert the order of understanding, whether by inversion, or replacement. This is the unavoidable risk involved in founding a nation in view of the good.

In other words, America is not an empty concept. it is not that, in the words of one historian, “The Jeffersonian [i.e., American rhetoric as guided and established by the Declaration] magic works because we permit it to function in a rarefied rhetorical region where real-world choices do not have to be made.” Quite the contrary, American rhetoric “works” precisely to the extent that citizens of the United States can and do inform and perfect their citizenship by sharing in common experiences of the good, to which they give the name, America, and from which they receive the name, Americans.

This is what King saw, and this is the reason for which he was able to say:

[M]any of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. . .their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

Many thousands of the participants in the manifestation at which King delivered his remarks had, quite literally, marched on Washington, walking to the capital from hundreds of miles away, as in a pilgrimage. King’s language is symbolic, to be sure; it is a symbolic extension of U.S. citizens’ concrete act of coming to the head of the united States, by which act Americans came together in the living heart of America.

Concluding his speech, King says, “[I]f America is to be a great nation, this [dream of mine] must become true.” Far from operating at a rarefied level, King’s dream is, “deeply rooted in the ‘American Dream,’” so that the American Dream is fertile soil, and not rare atmosphere. Fertile soil, however, is made of the detritus of years past, which nurture the new growth, the roots of which keep both the organism and the soil that nurtures it, in place. This is another way of saying that the American people is constituted.

The question is: “how?”

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