A version of this article was first published, originally in Spanish, on Jan 15th here. This version was first translated by the author, and then edited with his consent.
In 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr.’s book The Trumpet of Conscience was published in Spanish. It includes five lectures given in 1967 through the Canadian Radio Society, in which I find a particularly good summary of his thought. Because it would be wrong to reduce the message of this prophet of human dignity to a few pages, I will try to avoid such an unforgivable abridgment. However, it is important, particularly in our national and global context, and in the context of Black History Month, to highlight some of what I consider essential elements of his legacy.
Among these is the recognition that freedom is a fundamental element of society’s ethical and social provision. At the beginning of his first radio lecture, which concerned the safe space that Canada represented for black slaves, he declared, “The black slave, who was denied any education, who became dehumanized, imprisoned in cruelly organized plantations, knew that, in the distance, towards the North, there was a country—Canada—where, if he [or she] managed to survive the horrors of journey, I could find freedom.”
In a sense, Martin Luther King, Jr. embodied the right to resist the world when its oppressive configuration depredates integrity and human dignity.
Freedom emerged at its legitimate and preferential social starting point, as the foundation of human dignity, through liberation thought and practice. In a sense, Martin Luther King, Jr. embodied the right to resist the world when its oppressive configuration depredates integrity and human dignity. He offers us in his thought the possibility of considering freedom in all its complexity and its challenges. His vision continues to inspire confidence when he says: “Currently, the problem is not knowing whether we will be free, but how we will gain freedom.”
It is very relevant to recognize that before engaging in the “ups and downs” of the struggle for freedom, it is imperative to read with acute attentiveness the “signs of the times. That is why King warns us of the fact, which is still extremely valid, by highlighting the ongoing question of “in what way we will win our freedom.” This constitutes the great current challenge for our national and global historical conjuncture. It takes deep and humble reflection to identify the paths to freedom when others think the paths have already been charted or are blocked.
In an eloquent, self-reflective note that still serves as an existential and historical warning, Dr. King said:
“The time of goodwill and the desire to help blacks – a time on the other hand, of short duration – is quickly over. As the immediate hopes were lost, the blacks were realizing with increasing certainty, that the final goal, freedom, was still far away; and our life became an agony that is not over yet.”
Aware of the dilemma of facing a cultural profile marked by the “social sins” of racism, economic inequality, the structural perpetuity of a “white warmongering” economy, and a legal system plagued by iniquity, the black prophet warned clearly that the road to freedom is long. King warned of illusory solutions to the problems of colonialism, discrimination, and prejudice. The vices of power, class arrogance, and imperial over-reach can disempower and even enslave the social conscience and make the road to freedom even longer.
For a long time, King said in 1967, the dominant sectors have financially blackmailed large social sectors, thus imploding the revolutionary will. So, we must be aware that there are no magic solutions on this liberationist pilgrimage. It will require a prophetic patience and a wise strategy.
For Dr. King, the tactic of non-violent resistance, helps validate the quest for a new and better world. It ensures that means are consistent with the ends of social change. In fact, that movement of non-violence was King’s biggest struggle in a world that did not want to pay attention:
“Despite its elements of constructionism, the years of 1955 through 1965 gave a false vision of our struggle. Nobody seemed to notice the great amount of anger and violence that blacks tried to avoid, nor the great amount of intolerance that white people tried to disguise.”
Even today, this reality is perpetuated within our global and local society. Some repress, and others rationalize. Such a reality generates levels of visible and invisible violence in hostility, indifference, crime, widespread discrimination, religious obsession, and ethical exhaustion, among many other perversions of the human soul. Islamophobia, xenophobia, and racism, among others, particularly undermine human solidarity.
Each historical moment must identify its most pertinent strategies for change.
And yet the strategies for which King opted were non-violence and peaceful resistance. Both options should be considered transformative action strategies to achieve political efficacy and historical validity. In that perspective, King affirmed:
“Currently, the protest based on non-violence must mature until it reaches a higher level that balances the angry impatience of the blacks and the powerful resistance of the whites. This highest level is represented by civil disobedience in a massive degree.”
Each historical moment must identify its most pertinent strategies for change. What King bequeathed us was the idea that an active praxis of non-violence can constitute the concrete element of the discourse oriented towards societal transformation. The construction of a new human reality represents the ethical foundation of configuring a radical action of change. The abstract and theoretical elaboration of ideas or readings of reality is not enough to achieve the consolidation of what in the evangelical perspective is called “the Kingdom of God and its justice.”
Creativity can offer us new ways of conceiving nonviolence and peaceful resistance. It is urgent to avoid, as King also illustrated for us, dualistic splits between religion and politics or spirituality and material needs. It will be necessarily a political spirituality that gives virtue to a holistic vision of reality and incorporates new contents to the praxis of peaceful resistance, civil disobedience, and non-violence.
At the end of his book is included a sermon offered by Dr. King in Atlanta on Christmas Eve,1967. That sermon includes the following text, which I consider profoundly prophetic and vitally encouraging:
“All of us are trapped in an inevitable network of reciprocity, tied to the threads of destiny. What directly affects an individual, indirectly affects others. The structure of reality, which is formed by a process of interrelations, forces us to live together.”
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered on April 4, 1968 in the city of Memphis, Tennessee. Long past his death, the hope endures that one day all will be one, in great universal solidarity. That will be the day we achieve a global and political ecumenism on the long road to FREEDOM.
[We note that the National Council of Churches of Christ is organizing a remembrance of King right after Easter, on the 50th Anniversary of King’s death. As with those organizing a new Poor People’s Campaign, King’s mantle itself almost exercises a calling to take on the forces of inequality. As various state-based groups are invited to develop their particular emphases and “asks,” we read Professor Collazo’s reflection both as a respectful memorial and as a determination that many places have a rightful place in today’s ongoing struggle for justice.]
Author Bio: Dr. Luis G. Collazo is a retired professor of ethics and religion at InterAmerican University of Puerto Rico. He is a former member of the Hunger Committee of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and a PC(USA) ruling elder. He is also a member of the Gabriel Garcia Márquez Journalist Association and a volunteer for Democracy Now Media. He holds a D.Min. as well as a PhD in Theology.