Learning Justice from Dr. King

By Alan Bean

This talk was originally delivered as an address at an MLK program at the Department of Veterans Affairs Dallas Campus on January 12, 2012

I was thrilled to be asked to speak to you today. For one thing, it gave me a chance to reflect on what Martin Luther King’s understanding of justice can teach us about leadership in the twenty-first century. There is a big picture of King in my office. “The ultimate measure of a man,” the caption reads, “is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

As we will see, Dr. King knew whereof he spoke.

When I arrived at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the summer of 1975, I entered a new world. There were more Baptists in a single Dallas church than in all of Western Canada. I had come south because my denomination was too small to support a seminary. There were 3,000 men and women enrolled at Southern, and there were five other Southern Baptist seminaries stretched across the southern half of America.

I can still remember waking up my first morning in the dorm. “Gol-ly!” a preacher boy down the hall was bellowing. He sounded exactly like Gomer Pyle. I had never reckoned with the possibility that real people sounded like Gomer Pyle.

“I want to preach so bad I can taste it,” a young seminarian told me later that day. Then, he asked what struck me as an odd question: “Who’s your favorite preacher?” I had been asked about my favorite football team or my favorite rock group; no one had ever inquired about my favorite preacher.

I had never given the matter a moment’s thought, but when I did, the answer was readily apparent. “Martin Luther King,” I said.

The young seminarian gave me a quizzical look. “King?” he asked. “Isn’t he supposed to be a communist or something?”

He didn’t say it in a mean way. I realized that no one in his life experience had ever made a positive reference to the great civil rights leader in this man’s presence. King was the man who wanted to destroy “our way of life”. He wasn’t one of us, so he must be one of them. That made him a communist or something worse. And you couldn’t be a preacher and a communist at the same time, could you?

I had grown up in a very different world. My first awareness of Jim Crow segregation came in the third grade. A letter arrived from a third grade class in rural Mississippi. My family was moving in Yellowknife, a little mining town on Great Slave Lake, fourteen hundred miles of the Montana border. The letter assumed that we were Eskimos. “This is a picture of one of the houses we live in,” the letter said, “Could you send us a picture of one of the igloos you live in? This is a picture of one of the cars we drive around in; could you send us a picture of a dog team?”

My negative impression of white southerners deepened when two of my teachers swung through the southern states while on vacation. They had been told that black customers could purchase food from the restaurant kitchen but were not allowed to eat with the white patrons. When the Canadian tourists objected they were asked if they had ever eaten with Negroes, the assumption being that no self-respecting white person should be subjected to such an indignity.

The teachers informed us that Canadians aren’t like that. Yellowknife had just hired a black man as the town’s new dentist, a sure sign of right thinking.

Later that same year, a couple from Yellowknife’s Calvary Baptist Church participated in a civil rights march and returned to share their amazing story with an admiring congregation. I grew up thinking of myself as a “good” white person, easily distinguished from those bad white people south of the Mason Dixon line.

I can’t remember where I was when Martin Luther King was assassinated. I recall being deeply moved by the song “Abraham, Martin and John” released in the wake of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination. The closing lines were particularly effecting: “Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby? Can you tell me where he’s gone? Think I saw him walking up over the hill, with Abraham and Martin and John.”

And I remember the television documentaries released after King’s murder in Memphis. The focal point was always his iconic “I have a dream” speech delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in the summer of 1963. Gradually, a place was being made for Martin King in the great American pantheon of fallen heroes.

But, for me, Martin Luther King was a preacher. Not just any kind of preacher. He was the kind of preacher I wanted to listen to every Sunday morning. He was the preacher that set the standard for all the polite, reserved, cautious preachers I encountered in real life. That’s why I answered my preacher friends’ question the way I did.

Fast forward to 1980, a few years before President Ronald Reagan proclaimed the first Martin Luther King Day. I had graduated from seminary a couple of years earlier and was waiting for my wife, Nancy to graduate. The seminary administration kept hinting that Nancy should transfer to the Christian Education program since, they said, “Our churches don’t ordain women preachers,” but Nancy politely refused. As I waited for my renegade wife to graduate, I took a job delivering coffins and caskets to funeral directors in little towns throughout Indiana and Kentucky.

One day, I rented an audio tape featuring Dr. King’s sermons from the seminary library so I would have something to listen to as I made my deliveries. Forty miles from Louisville I slipped in the tape. I can’t remember what King was saying, but the sermon had been recorded in Birmingham when King was being pressured to back down. He wasn’t having any of that nor was his audience. The room was electric with fear, emotion and hope.

My chest began to heave. Tears were coursing down my cheeks. I am not an emotional person, but I was so completely overcome with emotion that I was forced to pull to the side of the interstate. Half of me was embarrassed by the loss of self-control; the other half was in awe of something (what I wasn’t sure) bigger and better than myself. The experience was deeply spiritual . . . in the best sense of that much-abused word. My spirit was stretched to the breaking point. Something big, bold and beautiful welled up within me. But it wasn’t just big, bold and beautiful; it was also terrifying.

What does Dr. King teach us about justice and leadership? In 1957, shortly after a successful bus boycott in Montgomery Alabama, the pastor and civil rights leader talked about the principles that guided his work. A decade of civil rights leadership lay ahead of him, but he never wavered from his guiding principles. Here’s the first thing he had to say:

From the very beginning there was a philosophy undergirding the Montgomery boycott,” King said, “the philosophy of nonviolent resistance. There was always the problem of getting this method over because it didn’t make sense to most of the people in the beginning. We had to use our mass meetings to explain nonviolence to a community of people who had never heard of the philosophy and in many instances were not sympathetic with it. We had meetings twice a week on Mondays and on Thursdays, and we had an institute on nonviolence and social change. We had to make it clear that nonviolent resistance is not a method of cowardice. It does resist.

Non-violent resistance is the only road to justice. Let me make a bold statement . . . see if you agree. The civil rights movement succeeded only where the principle of non-violent resistance was conscientiously employed and failed whenever this principle was rejected.

Non-violent resistance is a thundering NO grounded in love. The emotional avalanche that drove me to the shoulder of a Kentucky highway was a manifestation of the same power principle that drove Jim Crow to his knees.

Non-violent non-resistance was counter-intuitive for most people in 1957, and it remains so today. It had to be taught back then, and if we do not teach it today the spirituality of the civil rights era will not and cannot return.

After introducing the foundational principle of non-violent resistance, King turned to the second justice principle leaders must understand. No one wants to be maladjusted in the sense of being neurotic or emotionally unstable, King acknowledged:

But there are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon you to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to mob rule. I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic effects of the methods of physical violence and to tragic militarism. I call upon you to be maladjusted to such things.

I call upon you to be as maladjusted as Amos who in the midst of the injustices of his day cried out in words that echo across the generations, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

I challenge you to be as maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln who knew this nation could not exist half slave and half free.

As maladjusted as Jefferson, who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery could cry out, “All men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

We all like to fit in, don’t we? What could be more natural? But only maladjusted leaders can take us to a new and better place. True leaders are gripped by a holy discontent. We’re willing to work for justice in society and in the workplace so long as it doesn’t make us feel uncomfortable.

News flash: the pursuit of justice ALWAYS makes us feel uncomfortable. A few years ago, Paul Simon, a sixties folk singer who just slipped into his seventies, worked these words into a song:

You cannot walk with the holy,
If you’re just a halfway decent man.
I don’t pretend that I’m a mastermind
With a genius marketing plan.
I’m trying to tap into some wisdom,
Even a little drop will do.
I want to rid my heart of envy
And cleanse my soul of rage
Before I’m through.

Every true leader feels that way. Getting by is never good enough. There must be a passion for something better, something higher, something beautiful before real justice can blossom among us.

To avoid conflict at all costs is to become complicit in evil. Evil doesn’t just wrap itself around isolated individuals; evil invades and pervades social systems. That is why every leader working for justice must experience the same holy discontent, the same creative maladjustment that drove Dr. King.

Martin Luther King wasn’t divine and he wasn’t an angel; he was a flawed human being just like you and me. His life was transformative because he refused to adapt to the injustice he encountered in the world.

King cut to the heart of the matter.

“The nonviolent resister does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding. This was always a cry that we had to set before people that our aim is not to defeat the white community, not to humiliate the white community, but to win the friendship of all of the persons who had perpetrated this system in the past. The end of violence or the aftermath of violence is bitterness. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of a beloved community.”

We are often told that to focus on a single leader to the exclusion of all the great men and women who sacrificed for justice in the civil rights era is an unfair distortion of reality. The Great Man theory of social change is deeply flawed; like they say, it takes a village. But in one important respect, Dr. King did stand out from his peers: he refused to think, feel or react like an enemy.

The natural human tendency is to segregate the world into two camps: those I can trust, and those I can’t. One group we call friends; the other group is the opposition and we treat them accordingly. Our adversarial political system easily devolves into a zero sum poker game in which you must lose if I am to win. Rather than sifting through the various political philosophies for good ideas, we embrace one side of the argument and work for the destruction of our ideological rivals.

This is a natural, intensely human tendency, but it is the death knell of true justice. Dr. King could have been excused if he had created an enemies list. The FBI bugged his phone and worked tirelessly to undermine his integrity.  The state of Alabama launched a non-stop campaign to convict him on bogus tax evasion charges.  Law enforcement failed to protect his movement and usually sided with the Jim Crow establishment. His house was firebombed and death threats were a constant fact of life.

And things weren’t much better closer to home. Well established black organizations like the NAACP and the National Baptist Convention were threatened by the non-violent resistance movement. Impatient leaders in his movement resented King’s stature, referring to him dismissively as “Da Lawd”. When King arrived in Jackson for the funeral of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, local black leaders refused to let him address the congregation.

Yet King consistently refused to become anyone’s enemy. He welcomed the involvement of Jewish rabbis and white Catholic and Protestant pastors and was more than happy to work with people of no faith so long as they were committed to the principle of non-violent resistance. He stayed in contact with representatives of the Nation of Islam and the Black Power movement.

He didn’t do these things because he was a nice guy; his vision of the common good (he called it The Beloved Community) gave him no alternative.

Justice can never be about just-us. Only a vision that works for everyone works for anyone. And that remains true even when the people in your workplace are uncooperative, ungrateful, obstinate and downright dismissive or your good intentions. We must confront evil; but if we ever stop reaching out to the opposition we become complicit in evil ourselves.

And that’s what was wrong with the smug “thank God we’re not like those nasty white folks down South” righteousness in which I was raised. We Canadians were trying to make ourselves look good at the expense of people we neither knew nor loved. We were making southern whites look bad so we could look good. We were concerned about just-us, not justice.

Dr. King was all about the common good; a just society that works for everybody. That, I suggest, is his greatest legacy. A song written by some young white boys who call themselves the Old Crow Medicine Show comes to mind when I think of brother King. I leave you with these simple words:

All we are is a picture in a mirror
Fancy shoes to grace our feet
All there is is a slow road to freedom
Heaven above and the devil beneath

We’re all in this thing together
Walkin’ the line between faith and fear
This life don’t last forever
When you cry I taste the salt in your tears

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