Ancient Virtues for Modern Times: Lessons from the Life of Martin Luther King

JRemarks delivered by Jason Purnell, PhD, Assistant Professor, Brown School, at the 29th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Celebration at Washington University, held on Jan. 18, 2016.

Thank you very much for that kind introduction.  It is an honor to have been asked to provide these remarks on this day and in this place.  I am deeply grateful to my colleagues here at Washington University for their gracious invitation.

Indeed, the honor is so great because of the centrality of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in my life.  It is difficult to overstate the influence that Dr. King has had on my life, my thinking, and my work.  If you took a short walk from this chapel to my office in Brown Hall, opened the door and turned on the light, you’d see a portrait of Dr. King against a backdrop of the American flag, with four little children, two black and two white walking together in the foreground.  It would not be entirely inaccurate to say that he watches over me in my labors—feeble and incomplete though they sometimes seem to me—to be a true and rightful heir to his dream and to help bring some portion of it into reality.

It would also be accurate to say that I spent my younger years nearly obsessed with this great man whose death preceded my own birth by eight years.  My only access to him was through film footage, audio recordings, books, and interviews.  And I have pored over them all, including the 2,306 pages of Taylor Branch’s masterful biographical trilogy, Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge.  Though I do not claim to be a King scholar, I am a student of King, and devoted one.  So, I could easily spend the time I’ve been allotted regaling you with obscure factoids and the microscopic details of his life and work.  But I’m not going to do that.  Instead, I’m following the call of Martin Luther King, Jr. to tell the truth, and of his father, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr., to “make it plain.”

Now, truth is a tricky thing in a place like this.  The modern academy bristles at claims to final and universal truth, even as its daily endeavors seek closer and closer approximations of reality through research and criticism, scholarship and instruction.  So, I want to reassure my academic colleagues with some precision about the kind of truth I mean.  I take my meaning from what has been called the only truly American school of philosophy that emerged in the late 19th century and is most closely associated with the famous psychologist-philosopher, William James.  It is a philosophy called pragmatism.  And here I beg my philosophy colleagues’ collective pardon with this oversimplification of its chief insight; namely, that those ideas are true which have shown themselves to work.  Or as James put it, in question form, “What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true?” (James 1975, p. 28).

I can think of no better philosophical frame for reflections on the meaning of Dr. King for our current moment, when we have so little use for things that are not evidence-based and tested by experience.  What can King teach us that makes a practical difference and is, therefore, true?  It turns out, quite a lot.  But three truths drawn from his life and work seem to me most useful for us at this time of uncommon change and opportunity here in St. Louis and throughout the nation.  They are not only truths, they are virtues.  I know that virtue is a dusty, aged concept, ancient as Aristotle, but I would argue it is more necessary now than ever.

One might think I would refer to that iconic workhouse of Kingian oratory, the “I Have a Dream” speech as the source of these truths, these virtues, and while they are certainly to be found most congenially comingled there, that is not my point of departure.  That speech, one of the best, not just in American history, but in the history of the world, sets King in a light and on a stage to which most of us mere mortals would not dare aspire.  That speech is King at the height of his powers.  But it is King at his most vulnerable where the first of these virtues is best found for me—where we can connect with King as the very human being that he was.  In a sermon delivered several years after he appeared on the national stage as the leader of the Montgomery bus boycott, King reflects on the first 25 years of his life.  He recalls that they were happy and comfortable years in which he enjoyed the love and support of his mother and father and had all of his needs met.  But King’s involvement in the boycott changed all of that.  He was under intense pressure and scrutiny and receiving more than 40 phone calls a day threatening his life and the lives of his wife and young daughter.

And one night in particular, around this time of year in January 1956—and meaningfully for King, around midnight—he got just such a call during which the caller said, “…if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.”  It shook King to his core for reasons he could not fully comprehend.  The 27-year-old King was thinking about giving up.  And he couldn’t fall back on what he calls the “inherited religion” he had grown up with as the son, grandson, and great-grandson of preachers.  The philosophy and theology he had learned in graduate school and seminary weren’t much help either.  Even his parents in Atlanta couldn’t help him now.  He had to call on inner resources and have an authentic encounter with a deeper truth.  He sat at his kitchen table and prayed aloud for strength.  “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right.  I think I’m right.  I think the cause that we represent is right.  But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now.  I’m faltering.  I’m losing my courage.”  And he heard an inner voice saying to him, “…stand up for righteousness.  Stand up for justice.  Stand up for truth.  And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.”  That was a turning point for King, and it illustrates the truth and the virtue of faith.

In a world that allows our children to die, whether immediately by bullets or beatings or bombings or more slowly by poverty and neglect, we must believe in something.  Black lives do matter.  I cannot fully tell you how dearly they do, though I have been trying to, not just for the sake of black folks but for the sake of us all.  But slogans alone will not sustain us in these times.  It is faith which must support our work.  And I am not talking exclusively of Christian faith or even religious faith, though if you attempt to wash away the centrality of Judeo-Christian ethics from the story of King and the ordinary women and men and children who propelled the Civil Rights Movement, you will have missed the mark by an exceedingly wide margin.  What I mean is faith in something.  Even King had more than Christian faith.  He believed in the founding principles of this country, however seemingly elusive, in freedom, equality, justice, and democracy.  It was not mere rhetorical flourish that had him so often referencing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution or songs like “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”  After a Christian, King was an American, a black American, with all the tortured tension of that status, but an American fundamentally.  And it was faith that allowed a 27-year-old—not much older than the young people arrayed on West Florissant some months ago—to continue to lead the people of Montgomery in a boycott that lasted 381 days.  And as we observe this 527th day after August 9, 2014 brought the death of another one of our children, Michael Brown, as we are still working to make St. Louis a place of equity and justice, we would do well to rely on faith.  For the dark past has most certainly shown us that it works.

But not only faith.  The next virtue is highlighted in another of King’s most vulnerable moments, the night before his death.  In what has become known as the “Mountaintop” speech, King reflects with eerie prescience on his mortality and the meaning of his life.  It is the final lines that have stuck with me since I was a young boy:

We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it really doesn’t matter with me now.  Because I’ve been to the mountaintop…Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.  Longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.  And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountaintop.  And I’ve looked over.  And I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.  So, I’m happy tonight.  I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing any man.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

And here, in poignant allusion to the conclusion of the biblical Exodus story, we see through King the virtue of hope.  Hope, in this sense, is not merely wishing that things will turn out well.  It is believing as King said elsewhere, that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” or that “unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”  Hope is a certainty about the ultimate prevailing of the just, the right, and the good.  And without it, we humans can find very little reason to go on.  It is no coincidence that hopelessness is one of the prime characteristics of clinical depression, for despair is the polar opposite of hope.  And so we must have hope, especially in what may seem like desperate times.  We, too, must summon up the mountaintop.  We must articulate its heights and describe with detail the wide expanse and lush abundance of the vistas we can see when we picture ourselves perched atop a world of true peace, justice, equality and freedom.  There is too little talk of the world we hope for amid the justified complaints about the world we have.  We fall too easily into cynicism and the deadening inertia that attends it.  Righteous indignation may set the initial spark among a few, but enduring flames of change burn on hope.  If we wish our efforts to be joined by more than just the preached-to choir, it falls on us to say and to show just how much better things can be if we give every person in our community the opportunity to flourish, if we truly lived as if every life mattered.  That story must be told vividly and repeatedly.  We know with certainty the difference in practical terms that hope has made in the world.

The final virtue isn’t encapsulated in a single sermon or speech of King’s.  It is shot through his entire public life and ministry.  It is, of course, love.  King says in his eulogy to the young girls killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that the kind of radical love called for by Jesus Christ in his Sermon on the Mount is the hardest admonition of his to follow.  It is an admonition that will be familiar to many: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you.”  As much as the inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi, these are the words that undergirded King’s consistent commitment to nonviolence.  Love is what our moment calls for, and there is ample evidence that love in action works.  It is important to distinguish the kind of love we’re talking about here from the love of romance or friendship.  This love, captured by the Greek word agape, is a kind of all-encompassing, non-discriminating love, and at its heart is the recognition of our fundamental connection to one another and to all that exists in the world.  If that sounds like so much soft-headed nonsense to some of us in 2016, rest assured that it did not enjoy universal appeal in 1956 or 1967 or two millennia ago either.  But then consider the alternative:  If you bomb our nation, we will invade yours, inspiring the next group of people who will bomb our nation, whom we will vow to wipe off the face of the earth, and the cycle goes on and on and on.  Violent retaliation, however justified it may seem, has never solved a thing—it has at best postponed the inevitable suffering of the retaliator, even as it inflicts immediate suffering on the one retaliated against.  This is as true in the streets of St. Louis as it is on the global stage.  Love is the only thing that interrupts this cycle of insanity.  “Darkness cannot drive out darkness,” King quite famously said.  “Only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate,” he continues, “only love can do that.”  If that is not the truth, if it does not make the most practical difference of all, I do not know what does.  What we do in hate and anger, however righteous, however justified, cannot ultimately live; it will not fix what was broken, but only add to the brokenness and give strength to the darkness.  For our work to work, we must have love.

The perceptive listener will have already guessed my method here.  You see, I wracked my brain for something new to say about Martin Luther King, Jr. and what he means for us today, and I landed on something as old as Paul of Tarsus—who summed up a truth even more ancient than that: “Faith, hope, and love, remain, these three.  But the greatest of these is love.”  I don’t intend this message as proselytization, for I share the broad ecumenical stance of the Baptist preacher who marched with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose call to march was answered by rabbis, Catholic priests and nuns like Sister Mary Antona Ebo from our very own region, and who nominated his friend, the Buddhist monk, Thich Naht Hahn, for the Nobel Peace Prize.  I ask us rather to consider whether it has not always been the case that a belief in something beyond ourselves, a vision of a better and more just world, and an orientation towards love, even of those who seem most unlovable, have not throughout the course of human history been among the truths that remain true for all time.  That is what the beloved son of Martin and Alberta King of Auburn Avenue, born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, GA, helped to teach the world.  We would do well to follow his example.  So, stand up for righteousness.  Stand up for justice.  Stand up for truth, knowing that we all will be free one day.

Thank you.