The King We Need: Martin Luther King Jr., Moral Philosopher

He was even more than the civil rights leader he is remembered as today. Charles R. Johnson looks at how Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of America’s greatest moral philosophers.

Charles R. Johnson
15 January 2024
Martin Luther King Buddhism Charles R Johnson Philosophy Moral Political
By Yoichi R. Okamoto, White House Press Office (WHPO) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“The great problem facing modern man is that the means by which we live have outdistanced the spiritual ends for which we live.”  — Martin Luther King, Jr.

Have we misunderstood Martin Luther King, Jr.?

When most of us think about that American apostle of nonviolence and peace, Martin Luther King, Jr., even some who marched beside him in demonstrations nearly fifty years ago, we do so with an almost deliberate forgetfulness and precious little understanding of the specific “content of character” (to borrow one of King’s most famous phrases) displayed by a man who insisted in his sermon “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life” that, “Somewhere along the way, we must learn that there is nothing greater than to do something for others.”

Despite the overwhelming presence of this man in our lives, King in his magnificent fullness—as this nation’s Socratic “gadfly of the state” and our most prominent moral philosopher of the second half of the twentieth century—is strangely absent. Too many of us, especially those born after his assassination thirty-seven years ago, see him only in the oversimplified terms of race-as an eloquent, segregation-era “voice of his people,” frequently and falsely compared in political conversations with his very different (and philosophically antithetical) contemporary, Malcolm X, whose daughter’s observation in the 1980’s about her father’s popularity applies equally as well to King: “He’s getting attention, but I think he’s misunderstood… Young people are inspired by pieces of him instead of the entire man.”

King once stated: “We shall have to create leaders who embody virtues we can respect,” and also counseled, “We must be sure that our hands are clean in the struggle.”

In other words, these two iconic and long-dead Americans suffer from the curse of canonization, which progressively over four decades has airbrushed away the sweat and scars, the pores and imperfections, and the polyvalence both men exhibited during their highly influential journeys among us. This is tragic, for it is in such personal minutiae that we find the very foundations from which a memorable public life arises. Moreover, this forgetfulness is a tragedy for all of us as Americans, because not only questions about race relations are at stake in the Martin Luther King, Jr., story but also deeper issues, older conundrums, about what it means to be civilized in the political and social world, about how one confronts social evil without creating further evil, division and enmity, even questions about what Buddhists call pratityasamutpada (dependent origination) that resonate beneath the surface of King’s remarkable and too brief thirty-nine years of life.

Clearly, these are matters of urgency—especially the demand for civility—when in our spiritually bankrupt world awash in pop culture vulgarity and terrorist acts (consider the Russian children of Middle School 1 killed by Chechen rebels and radical Muslim beheadings of noncombatants like Egyptian Mohammed Abdel Aal in 2004), our leaders during the last presidential campaign, on both the left and the right, shamelessly employed such dirty tactics as mud-slinging and character assassination in their desire to “win.” (Prescient, King once stated: “We shall have to create leaders who embody virtues we can respect,” and also counseled, “We must be sure that our hands are clean in the struggle.”) Would that today’s arrogant, Thersitical, ankle-biting and so often short-sighted politicians, with their red-meat rhetoric, might remember what King told the Freedom Riders in 1960: “Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.”

King, Religion, and Moral Consistency

Sadly, today few if any of King’s admirers can list all his campaigns through the South and North, each a drama in itself. (Most only recall Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma, but what about the battles for equality and justice he led in Albany, Chicago and St. Augustine, Florida?) Nor can they sketch the complex yet ethically coherent philosophy—part social gospel, part Personalism (the belief that God is infinite and personal), and part Gandhian satyagraha—that led him triumphantly from the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 to the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and produced that breathtaking fusion of scholarship and idealism known as “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” one of the great political documents in American history, which King composed in a darkened cell without a single note or textbook to refer to, writing first on the margins of a newspaper, then on toilet paper, and finally on a legal pad from his lawyers.

Fewer still know anything about the role religion played in his family’s lineage (his father, Daddy King, was a prominent Atlanta minister and activist, of course, but his grandfather Adam Daniel Williams was known to preach at the “funerals of snakes, cats, dogs, horses or anything that moved”); or his childhood and parents (“It is quite easy for me to think of the universe as basically friendly,” King wrote in 1950, “mainly because of my uplifting hereditary and environmental circumstances”); or his education that culminated in a Ph.D. from Boston University when he was twenty-five (he began his freshman year at Morehouse College when he was fifteen years old and was a disciplined, star student at Crozer Theological Seminary); or his personal regimens, eccentricities, spiritual goals or even the name of his favorite sermon-the one he believed captured the essence of his message-among all the speeches he gave during his 14-year public ministry. It was not, as so many believe, the impromptu speech King delivered on August 28, 1963, during the March on Washington, when he tossed aside the words he’d worked on until 4 a.m. that day, but rather “The Drum Major Instinct,” a powerful sermon his lifelong friend Rev. Ralph Abernathy played at King’s funeral. Taking his text from Mark 10:35, where James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approach Jesus with their desire to sit beside him in Glory, King said:

“There is, deep down within all of us, an instinct. It’s a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs a whole gamut of life….We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade. Alfred Adler, the great psychoanalyst, contends that this is the dominant impulse…this desire for attention…. Now in adult life, we still have it, and we really never get by it. We like to do something good. And you know, we like to be praised for it…. But there comes a time when the drum major instinct can become destructive. And that’s where I want to move now…. Do you know that a lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct? A need that some people have to feel superior. Nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. I must be first. I must be supreme. Our nation must rule the world…but let me rush on to my conclusion… . Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That’s what I want you to do….”

If moral authority is based on moral consistency, then the above statement, which King felt encapsulated his life’s primary work and vision, demonstrates why this liberal theologian became a leader admired by all Americans and world citizens of goodwill, for he lived his own advice in “The Drum Major Instinct,” from his childhood when Daddy King counseled Martin, who was born into the class of black Atlanta Brahmins, against feelings of class superiority, to the final days of his life when he was preparing the Poor People’s campaign for economic justice.

King embraced as a Christian much of what a Buddhist would see as the bodhisattva vow.

If I read King’s life correctly, there are three discernible stages in the public evolution of this man who was both the creator and creation of one of the most transformative moments in American history.

King’s Public Evolution: Stage One — Nonviolence as the Way

His early, pre-Montgomery years are, of course, fascinating in their own right. In her biography, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King speaks of how “If he ever did something a little wrong, or committed a selfish act, his conscience fairly devoured him. He would, throughout his life, really suffer if he felt there was some possibility that he had wronged anyone or acted thoughtlessly. He was a truly humble man and never felt he was adequate to his positions. This is why he worried so much, worked so hard, studied constantly, long after he became a world figure.” Coretta was, we should note, a graduate of Antioch College, and says that she “took to my heart the words of Horace Mann, who founded Antioch. In his address to the first graduating class he had said, ‘Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.’”

Her husband Martin believed as she did, and he says as much in “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” There, in one of his favorite sermons—the first he preached at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery—King described life’s essentials in terms of length, breadth, and height.

The first, length, concerns the development of the individual: “After we’ve discovered what God called us to do, after we’ve discovered our life’s work, we should set out to do that work so well that the living, the dead, or the unborn couldn’t do it better.” The second dimension, breadth, highlights our social relations: “Don’t forget in doing something for others that you have what you have because of others….We are tied together in life and in the world.” And finally, said King, at the center of the last dimension, height, is our relationship to the divine: “We were made for God, and we will be restless until we find rest in him.”

So, yes, he was by temperament and training prepared at age twenty-five to have thrust upon him the leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on December 1, 1955. In this first stage of his public life, the exquisitely learned young scholar who never experienced the traditional, numinous moment of religious conversion (his awakening would come later in his kitchen during the height of threats against his family) became the American symbol for the struggle against segregation, and the ideals of integration and brotherhood wore his face.

King raised one hand to quiet the crowd, and then said, “I want you to go home and put down your weapons. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence….We must meet hate with love.”

But why him? Why not other respected activists like, say, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell or the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins? The answer to that question can be found on the night of January 30, 1956, when King, who was at a meeting, learned his home had been bombed. He rushed there, found Coretta and their baby, Yolanda, unharmed, and outside an angry, armed black crowd spoiling for a showdown with white policemen at the scene. The situation was edging toward violence. King raised one hand to quiet the crowd, and then said, “I want you to go home and put down your weapons. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence….We must meet hate with love.” Later, the policemen would say King saved their lives, and his Gandhi-esque stance, his vision, was heard round the world as something uniquely redemptive in the bloody, centuries-long struggle for black liberation in America.

King’s calming words, in the heat of racial violence, were an American’s skillful adaptation of Gandhi’s observation that, “Hatred does not cease by hatred at any time. Hatred ceases by love. This is an unalterable law.” (“Christ furnished the spirit,” said King. “Gandhi showed me how it worked.”) That was the law of King’s life and political vision in the fifties and early sixties. “Power at its best,” he said, “is love implementing the demands of justice; justice, at its best, is love correcting everything that stands against love.”

Championing such wisdom resulted in his receiving fifty assassination threats, the wrath of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and the envy (and sometimes opposition) of Black Power activists. A $30,000 bounty would be placed on his head. He would be stabbed once (in Harlem by a mad black woman named Izola Curry) and arrested and jailed again and again. Despite all that, King embraced as a Christian much of what a Buddhist would see as the bodhisattva vow; he traveled to India in 1959, a guest of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, and returned to America determined to devote one day a week of his ever strangulation-tight schedule to fasting and meditation.

In this initial phase of King’s public life, his core beliefs can be expressed, as I argue in my novel Dreamer (1998), in three transcendentally profound theses. First, that nonviolence—in words and actions—must be understood not merely as a strategy for protest, but as a Way, a daily praxis people must strive to translate into each and every one of their deeds.

In its fullness, therefore, King’s moral stance implies non-injury (ahimsa) to everything that exists. Consider how this translates into the ten points of the “Commitment Blank,” a kind of Decalogue signed by members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and their followers during the electrifying Birmingham campaign:



Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
Remember always that the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation-not victory.
Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.
Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.

When SCLC’s activists operated on the basis of these vows, they could not fail in winning the hearts and minds of their opponents, for clearly they approached their “enemy” as themselves.

Secondly, he urged us to practice agape, the ability to unconditionally love something not for what it currently is (for at a particular moment it might be quite unlovable, like segregationist George Wallace in the early sixties) but instead for what it could become, a teleological love that recognizes everything as process, not product, and sees beneath the surface to a thing’s potential for positive change-the kind of love every mother has for her (at times) wayward child.

King understood integration and interdependence to be the life’s blood of our being.

And finally, he understood integration and interdependence to be the life’s blood of our being, proclaiming, “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” In effect, King understood that our lives are already tissued, ontologically, with the presence of others in a we-relation, the recognition of which moves us to feel a profound indebtedness to our fellow men and women, predecessors and ancestors.

“When we get up in the morning,” he said, “we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge provided for us by a Pacific Islander. The towel is provided by a Turk. We reach for soap created by a Frenchman. In the kitchen, you drink coffee provided by a South American, or tea by a Chinese, or cocoa by a West African, and you butter toast from an English-speaking farmer. And before you’ve finished breakfast, you’ve depended on more than half the world….This is the way our universe is structured. This is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of the universe.” And if our destinies are so intertwined, it follows that “Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”

Little wonder, then, that when King entered Stage Two of his evolution, which I date from the day he received the Nobel Peace Prize, he envisioned himself not merely as a Southern civil rights leader, but instead as a man obligated to promote his belief in the “beloved community” and peace on the world stage-a stance that would make him the first international celebrity to oppose the Vietnam War (and a comrade of a young monk named Thich Nhat Hanh, whom King nominated for that prize).

King’s Public Evolution: Stage Two — “What can I do now?”

In 1964, at age thirty-four, he was the youngest person to receive the Peace Prize. The money came to $54,000, and King kept none of it for himself. He divided the prize money evenly among five organizations devoted to civil rights and peace. Forty years ago, in his acceptance speech for the award, he told his audience:

“Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial and moral question of our time….The foundation of such a method is love…. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”

But it was inevitable that King, after seeing so many victories for humanity, from Montgomery to the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and Voting Rights Act in 1965, would question what he should do next. Those closest to him said he experienced bouts of depression. His critics wanted to see him retire permanently to his church in Atlanta, or take a quiet job as president of a black college. He said to his friend Bayard Rustin, “I sometimes wonder where I can go from here. I’ve accomplished so much. What can I do now?”

It was this question after 1965—what now?—that propelled King into Stage Three of his development, returning him to a conclusion he noted about our economic life as early as 1951: “It is a well-known fact that no social institution can survive when it has outlived its usefulness. This capitalism has done. It has failed to meet the needs of the masses.”

King’s Public Evolution: Stage Three — His last and greatest dream

This last and greatest “dream” called for reforming capitalism to end poverty once and for all. For King, that goal translated, specifically, into an Economic Bill of Rights, the redistribution of wealth and a guaranteed income for all Americans. The superb historian Stephen B. Oates wrote eloquently of this final phase in Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“This hardly made King a Marxist. He meant it when he told his staff that Marx ‘got messed up’ when he failed to ‘see the spiritual undergirding of reality’ and embraced an odious ‘ethical relativism’ which led him to believe that the ends justified the means. And King continued to preach against the evils of Russia’s dictatorial communist state. No, somehow a better social order than communism or capitalism had to be constructed, one that creatively blended the need for community and the need for individuality. Perhaps in this, his most imaginative, desperate, and far-reaching scheme, he could take his country a step closer to the realization of an old dream: the forging of a Christian commonwealth…”

In hindsight, we know that King’s promotion of what I would call Christian Socialism influenced a generation of black American leaders, from Huey Newton of the Black Panthers to Rev. Jesse Jackson. Had he lived and realized his “Washington Project” of leading the poor of all races and ethnic backgrounds to shut down the nation’s capital, King might have become the most dangerous man in America-the one public figure, much revered, who could potentially unify in his person and through the power of his moral authority the civil rights, labor and antiwar movements.

But that was not to be. A metal-jacketed 30.06 bullet ended his life on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968, and with his death a glorious, tempestuous chapter in the history of this republic ended. That same year in one of his last sermons, “Unfulfilled Dreams,” King said, “And I guess one of the great agonies of life is that we are constantly trying to finish that which is unfinishable.” He understood, as we all must, that hard-won spiritual and political triumphs can be lost in a single generation. In her biography, Coretta also speaks about the problem of achieving a final victory for the ideals of social and economic justice in a world of change and impermanence:

“One of the failings of the Movement was that, while we taught people to fight against the system, and how to respect themselves, we didn’t teach young people that they would have to fight all over again. As long as we have a democratic system we are going to have to work to protect our freedom and self-respect. And that is for blacks or whites or whatever color. Freedom is never guaranteed forever; you have to fight for it.”

Charles R. Johnson

Charles R. Johnson

Charles Johnson won the National Book Award for Fiction for his novel Middle Passage. He’s coauthor of the new graphic novel The Eightfold Path.