Dr. Martin Luther King’s visit to Cornell College
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in King Chapel at Cornell College, Mount Vernon, Iowa, on Oct. 15, 1962. In a speech that inspired a generation of Cornellians, he concluded with the words “… I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.”
The full transcript is below.
An Address by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Cornell College, Mount Vernon, Iowa
October 15, 1962
Mr. West, members of the faculty and members of the student body of Cornell College, ladies and gentlemen; I need not pause to say how very delighted I am to have the privilege of being on the campus of this historic institution of learning and to be a part of this lecture series. I’ve looked forward to being with you for a long, long time now with great and eager anticipation. My dear friend, Miss Lillian Smith, was here a few years ago, and she had such glowing things to say about this college community, that when I accepted the invitation, I began that day looking forward to a rich fellowship here at Cornell. So it is a great pleasure to be here with you and it is always a rewarding opportunity to take a brief break from the day to day demands of our struggle in the South and talk with college and university students about some of the vital issues of our day. So again I say I am very delighted to be here, and it’s good to see you.
I would like to discuss with you tonight a question that is on the lips of thousands and millions of people, not only in our nation, but all over the world. People are asking the question, are we making any real progress in the area of race relations? This is a desperate question on the lips of many, many people. There are at least three attitudes that can be taken toward the question of progress in race relations. The first is the attitude of extreme optimism. Now the extreme optimist would point proudly to the strides that have been made in the area of civil rights over the last few decades. From this he would conclude that the problem is just about solved now, and that we can sit down comfortable by the wayside and wait on the coming of the inevitable. The second attitude that can be taken is that of extreme pessimism. The extreme pessimist would contend that we have made only minor strides in the area of race relations. He would argue that the deep rumblings of discontent from the South, the presence of federal troops in Oxford, Mississippi, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the birth of White Citizen’s Councils, are all indicative of the fact that we have done more to create new problems than solving old problems. He would contend that we are retrogressing, instead of progressing. From this the extreme pessimist would conclude that there can be no real progress in race relations.
Now it is interesting to notice that the extreme pessimist and the extreme optimist agree on at least one point. They both feel that we must sit down and do nothing in the area of race relations. The extreme optimist says do nothing because integration is inevitable. The extreme pessimist says do nothing because integration is impossible. But there is a third attitude that can be taken, namely the realistic position. The realist in this area seeks to combine the truths of two opposites, while avoiding the extremes of both, and so the realist would agree with the optimist that we have come a long, long way in grappling with this problem, but he would balance that by agreeing with the pessimist that we have a long, long way to go before the problem is solved in the United States. And it is this realistic position that I would like to use as a basis for our thinking together as we think of progress and as we think of the future of integration.
Now let us notice that we have come a long, long way. And I think I should say first at this point that the Negro himself has come a long, long way in reevaluating his own intrinsic worth. In order to prove this contention, a little history is necessary. You will remember that it was in the year 1619 that the first Negro slaves landed on the shores of this nation. They were brought here form the shores of Africa. Unlike the pilgrim fathers who landed at Plymouth a year later, there were brought here against their will. Throughout slavery, the Negro was treated in a very inhuman fashion. He was a thing that was used, not a person to be respected. He was little more than a depersonalized cog in a vast plantation machine. The famous Dred Scott decision of 1857 well illustrated the status of the Negro during slavery, for in this decision, the Supreme Court of the nation said that the Negro was not a citizen of the United States, he was merely property subject to the dictates of his owner. With the growth of slavery, it became necessary to give some justification for it. It seems to be a fact of life that human beings cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some thin rationalization to clothe the obvious wrong in the beautiful garments of righteousness. The philosopher-psychologist William James used to talk a great deal about the stream of consciousness. He says that the very interesting and unique thing about human nature is that man had the capacity temporarily to block the stream of consciousness and place anything in it that he wants to, and so we often end up justifying the rightness of the wrong. This is exactly what happened during the days of slavery. Even the Bible and religion were misused to crystallize the patterns of the status quo. And so it was argued from pulpits across the nation that the Negro was inferior by nature, because of Noah’s curse upon the children of Ham. The apostle Paul’s dictum became a watchword: Servants, be obedient to your master. And then one brother had probably studied the logic of the great philosopher Aristotle. You know Aristotle did a great deal to bring into being what we know as formal logic, and he talked about the syllogism, which had a major premise and a minor premise and a conclusion. And so this brother could put his argument in the framework of an Aristotelian syllogism. He could say, All men are made in the image of God. This was the major premise; then came the minor premise: God, as everybody knows, is not a Negro. Therefore, the Negro is not a man. This was the type of reasoning that prevailed.
Living with the conditions of slavery, and then later segregation, many Negroes lost faith in themselves. Many came to feel that perhaps they were less than human. But then something happened to the Negro. Circumstances made it possible and necessary for him to travel more: the coming of the automobile, the upheavals of two world wars, the Great Depression. And so his rural plantation background gradually gave way to urban industrial life. Even his economic life was rising through the growth of industry, the influence of organized labor, expanding educational opportunities, and even his cultural life was rising through the steady decline of crippling illiteracy. All of these forces conjoined to cause the Negro to take a new look at himself. Negro masses all over began to reevaluate themselves, and the Negro came to feel that he was somebody. His religion revealed to him that God loves all of his children, and that all men are made in His image, and that the basic thing about a man is not his specificity, but his fundamentum, not the texture of his hair or the color of his skin, but his internal dignity and worth. And so the Negro could now unconsciously cry out with the eloquent poet: “Fleecy locks and black complexion cannot forfeit Nature’s claim. Skin may differ, but affection dwells in back and white the same. And were I so tall as to reach the pole, or to grasp the ocean at a span, I must be measured by my soul. The mind is the standard of the man.” And with this new sense of dignity, and this new sense of self-respect, a new Negro came into being with a new determination: to struggle, suffer, and sacrifice, in order to be free. So in a real sense, we’ve come a long, long way since 1619.
But not only that, the whole nation has come a long, long way in extending the frontiers of civil rights. If we are true to the facts, we must admit this. Twenty-five years ago, a year hardly passed when numerous Negroes were not brutally lynched by some vicious mob in the South. Today lynchings have about ceased. Twenty-five years ago, most of the states in the South had what was known as a poll-tax. The poll-tax system was cleverly contrived to keep many, many Negroes from becoming registered voters. Today the poll-tax has been eliminated in all but four states. And just a few weeks ago, Congress unanimously passed a bill amending the Constitution calling for an end to the poll-tax in all federal elections. At the turn of the century, there were very few Negro registered voters in the South. By 1948 that number had leaped to 750,000, and today it stands at about 1,500,000—far from what it ought to be, but it does reveal some progress. In the area of economic justice, we’ve seen some developments. The average Negro wage-earner of today makes fifteen times more than the average Negro wage-earner of ten years ago. The annual income of the Negro is now at about twenty-seven billion dollars a year, which is more than all of the exports of the United States and the national budget of Canada. This reveals that some strides have been made.
But probably more than anything else, we have seen the walls of racial segregation gradually crumble. We all know the legal history of the system of segregation. It had its beginnings in 1896, when the Supreme Court rendered a decision known as the Plessy versus Ferguson decision, which established the doctrine of separate but equa as the law of the land. Of course, there was always a strict enforcement of the separate, without the slightest intention to abide by the equal. As a result of the Plessy doctrine, the Negro ended up being plunged into the abyss of exploitation, where he experienced the bleakness of nagging injustice. The something else happened. In May of 1954 the Supreme Court of the nation examined the legal body of segregation, and pronounced it constitutionally dead. It said in substance that the old Plessy doctrine must go, that separate facilities are inherently unequal, that to segregate a child on the basis of his race is to deny that child equal protection of the law. We’ve seen many developments since that decision was rendered. As a result of the freedom rides, racial segregation in public transportation is about dead all over the South. As a result of the sit-in movement, which started in 1960, more than 150 cities in the South have integrated their lunch counters. When the decision was rendered in 1954, 17 states and the District of Columbia practiced absolute segregation in the public schools. Now 14 of these states and the District of Columbia have made some move toward integrating the public schools. Many of them have only been token moves, but there is some movement. There are only three states now that are standing out in terms of massive resistance: the state of South Carolina, the state of Alabama, and the great, sovereign state of Mississippi. There has been some movement, and so this reveals that the old order of segregation is gradually passing away. To put it figuratively and in Biblical language, we’ve broken loose from the Egypt of slavery, and we have moved through the wilderness of racial segregation, and now we stand on the border of the promised land of integration. There can be no gainsaying of the fact that the system of segregation is on its deathbed today, and the only thing uncertain about it is how costly the South will make the funeral. This reveals that we’ve come a long, long way since 1896.
Now this would be a wonderful place for me to end my speech. Number one, it would mean making a short speech, and that would be a magnificent accomplishment for a Baptist preacher. Second, it would mean that the problem is about solved, and it would be a marvelous thing for every speaker in our nation to get up and talk about the problem in terms of a problem that once existed, that is now solved. But if I stopped at this point, I would be merely stating a fact, and not telling the truth. You see, a fact is merely the absence of contradiction, but truth is the presence of coherence. Truth is the relatedness of facts. Now it is a fact that we’ve come a long, long way, but it isn’t the whole truth. In order to tell the truth, it would be necessary to add the other part, and I’m afraid that if I stopped at this point, I would leave you the victims of a dangerous optimism. If I stopped here, I would leave you the victims of an illusion wrapped in superficialities. So in order to tell the truth, it is necessary to move on and not only say that we’ve come a long, long way, but that we’ve a long, long way to go before the American dream is a reality, before this problem is solved.
Now we do not have to look very far to see this. It is one of the strange ironies of history, that in a nation founded on the principle that all men are created equal, men are still arguing over whether the color of a man’s skin determines the content of his character. It is one of the tragedies of history that in a nation founded on the principle that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that is takes twelve thousand troops to make it possible for one Negro to go to a university supported the tax money of that particular state. This reveals that we have a long, long way to go. The legislative halls of some our states ring loud with such words as interposition, and nullification.
I mentioned the fact that we had made some strides in voter registration. We must see the other side. There are still more than ten million Negroes living in the South. Almost six million of the Negroes living in the South are eligible to vote; at least they are of voting age—and yet only a million, five hundred thousand are registered. Many of these people are not registered to vote not because they don’t desire to, not because they are apathetic, but because of external resistance. All types of conniving methods are still being used to keep Negroes from becoming registered voters. Complex literacy tests are often given, with questions that a Ph. D. in any field or a person with a law degree from any great law university in the world could not answer to the even more difficult question of, how many bubbles do you find on a bar of soap? They tell me that occasionally they will ask that question in Mississippi and Alabama. And there are still millions of Negroes who are not registered to vote because of these methods being used. And then at times when people seek to register and vote, they are the victims of physical violence. Homes are being shot in; churches are being burned. I will never forget just a few weeks ago when I stood there at the smoldering ruins of a church in Lee County, Georgia. It had been burned down simply because citizenship classes had been held in that church and classes to prepare Negroes to register and become voting citizens. This reveals that we have a great deal to do in America before this problem in solved, and in the last session of Congress that just adjourned it was not even possible to get a bill to do away with the literacy tests for all persons that have at least finished the sixth grade. This reveals that we must continue to move on and struggle to solve this problem.
I mentioned economic justice, and the fact that some strides have been made here, and I guess it looks pretty big to say that the Negro collectively earns twenty-seven billion dollars. Then there is the other side: 42% of the Negro families of American still earn less that two thousand dollars a year. Twenty per cent of the Negro families in American still earn less than a thousand dollars. Eighty-eight per cent of the Negro families still earn less than five thousand dollars a year, while just 58% of the white families earn less than five thousand dollars a year. This reveals that we still have a long, long way to go.
The Negro is still the last hired, and the first fired. There are still industries getting billions of dollars in government contracts in both North and South, where discrimination against Negroes and members of other minority groups stands as a notorious reality. Then in these days of automation, the problem is compounded even more. The Negro through discrimination has often been limited to unskilled and semi-skilled labor, and now the force called automation comes into being and takes away the very jobs that he could once do. Because the Negro has often been denied apprenticeship training, often being excluded educationally and otherwise, it often becomes even more difficult. Now one can easily see what this means. When an individual is deprived of economic necessities, that individual cannot educate his children; that individual cannot have livable housing conditions; that individual cannot have proper health facilities. And it can lead to many, many social problems. It is so easy for one to say that the Negro has lagging standards. Occasionally we hear this, that the Negro is a criminal, and these are the problems that must be solved. And if there are lagging standards, they are here because of discrimination, because of economic deprivation and social isolation. These things are not racial; they are environmental, and poverty and ignorance breed crime whatever the racial group may be. And it is a tortuous logic to use the tragic results of segregation and discrimination as an argument for the continuation of them. It is necessary to move back to the cause and source, and so in the area of economic progress, we have a great deal of work to do.
But even in terms of breaking down the barriers of segregation, there is still much to be done. It may be true, as I just said, figuratively speaking that old man segregation is on his deathbed. But history has proven that social systems have a great last-minute breathing power, and the guardians of the status quo are always on hand with their oxygen tents to keep the old order alive. And so segregation is still with us. We still confront it in the South in its glaring and conspicuous forms. We still confront it in every other section of this country in its hidden and subtle forms. But is democracy is to live, segregation must die, for racial segregation is a cancer in the body politic. Segregation must be removed before our moral and democratic health can be realized. And I’m convinced that America does not have long to solve this problem. I know that there are those that are saying to the individuals who are involved in the freedom struggle, slow up for a while; you’re pushing things too fast. Or they may say, adopt a policy of moderation. Well, if moderation means moving on toward the goal of justice, with wise restraint and calm reasonableness, then moderation is a great virtue, which all men of good will must seek to achieve during this tense period of transition. But if moderation means slowing up in the move for freedom, capitulating to the undemocratic practices of the guardians of a deadening status quo, then moderation is a tragic vice which all men of good will must condemn. The fact is, we can’t afford to slow up. We have our self-respect to maintain, but even more than that, because of our love for democracy and because of our love for America, we can’t afford to slow up. There are approximately three billion people in our world. The vast majority of these people live in Asia and in Africa. For many, many years, these people have been dominated politically, exploited economically, segregated and humiliated by some foreign power. Today they are gaining their independence. More than one billion, seven hundred million of the former colonial subjects have gained their independence, and they are saying in no uncertain terms that racism and colonialism must go. Prime Minister Macmillan was right: the wind of change is blowing in Africa, and what a mighty wind it is. Just thirty years ago there were only three independent countries in the whole of Africa. I remember when I first went to Africa to attend the independence celebration of the new nation of Ghana in 1957, there were only eight independent countries in the whole of Africa. Now there are some thirty-three independent countries in Africa. More than twenty-four new nations have come into being in Africa in the last four years. As they observe conditions in America, as they look about in the world, men and women in Asia and Africa are saying that they will not respect any nation that will subject a segment of its citizenry on the basis of race or color. And so in a real sense, the hour is late, the clock of destiny is ticking out, and we must act in American before it is too late.
I must hasten to say that we must not seek to solve this problem merely to meet the communist challenge. We must not seek to solve this problem merely to appeal to Asian and African peoples. In the final analysis, racial discrimination must be uprooted from American society because it is morally wrong. In the final analysis, this problem must be solved because it stands against all of the noble precepts of our Judeo-Christian heritage. Racial segregation substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship, and relegates persons not merely because it is diplomatically expedient, but because it is morally compelling.
Now if this problem is to be solved, if we are to go this additional distance, many forces and many agencies must work together. The forces of good will must be mobilized in order to go the additional distance and make integration and the brotherhood of man a reality. First, the federal government must use all of its constitutional authority to enforce the law of the land. As we look back over the years, we must honestly admit that only one branch of the government has given consistent, forthright, vigorous leadership, namely the judicial branch of the government, but the executive and legislative branches of the government have been all too apathetic, all too silent, and sometimes hypocritical. The time has come for all of the branches of the federal government to work in a vigorous manner to make integration a reality.
Now if the federal government is to do its job, we must get rid of two myths that tend to circulate and get around in our society. One is the myth of time. You have heard this. The federal government cannot solve this problem, according to the people who hold with this myth, because only time can solve this problem. They would go on to say that if the individuals who are struggling now, the individuals who are victims of oppression will just be patient and wait a hundred or two years, time will solve this problem. This is a myth that is circulated over and over again. There is only one answer to it, it seems to me, and that is that time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively, and I’m convinced that in many points the people of ill will in the United States have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. Something must come to remind us that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability; evolution may be true in the biological realm—at that point Darwin is right; but when a Herbert Spencer seeks to apply it to the whole of society, there is very little evidence for it. Human progress comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. Without this hard work, time itself becomes the ally of the primitive forces of irrational emotionalism and social stagnation. And so we must help time, and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.
There is another myth that has circulated a great deal. I call it, for lack of a better phrase, the myth of educational determinism. I am sure you have heard this: “Legislation can’t solve this problem, only education can solve it.” Judicial decrees can’t solve it, executive orders from the President can’t solve it. Only with education and changing attitudes through education will we be able to come to a solution to this problem. Now there is a partial truth here, for education does have a great role to play in this period of transition. But it is not either education or legislation; it is both education and legislation. It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless, and this is what we often so and we have to do in society through legislation. We must depend on religion and education to change bad internal attitudes, but we need legislation to control the external effects of those bad internal attitudes. And so there is a need for meaningful civil right legislation. There is a need for legislation on a national scale, as well as on a local and state scale, to make it clear that there can be no discrimination on the basis or race and religion in housing for as long as there is housing discrimination, there will be de facto segregation in every other area, whether it is in the public schools, whether it’s in recreational facilities, whether it’s in the Christian church, or anywhere else. There should be legislation making it clear that people should be hired on the basis of merit, not on the basis of color of skin. And so the federal government and the state government must work vigorously to solve this problem that we face in our nation today.
There is also need for leadership from the people of good will in the white South. I would not have you believe for one minute tonight that there are not white persons of good will in the South. I am absolutely convinced that there are hundred and thousands, nay millions of white people of good will in the South, but most of them are silent today because of fear—fear of political, social and economic reprisal. God grant that the people of good will will rise up with courage, take over the leadership, and open channels of communication between races, for I think that one of the tragedies of our whole struggle is that the South is still trying to live in monologue, rather than dialogue, and I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because that don’t know each other and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other. And God grant that something will happen to open channels of communication, that something will happen because men of good will will rise to the level of leadership. There is also need for leadership and concern on the part of white people of good will in the North, is this problem is to be solved. Genuine liberalism on the question of race. And what we too often find in the North is a sort of quasi-liberalism based on the principle of looking objectively at all sides, and it is a liberalism that gets so involved in looking at all sides, that it doesn’t get committed to either side. It is a liberalism that is so objectively analytical that it fails to get subjectively committed. It is a liberalism that is neither hot nor cold but lukewarm. And we must come to see that his problem in the United States is not a sectional problem, but a national problem. No section of our country can boast of clean hands in the area of brotherhood. It is one thing for a white person of good will in the North to rise up with righteous indignation when a bus is burned in Anniston, Alabama, with freedom riders, or when a nasty mob assembles around a University of Mississippi, and even goes to the point of killing and injuring people to keep one Negro out of the university, or when a Negro is lynched or churches burned in the South; but that same person of good will must rise up with the same righteous indignation when a Negro in his state or in his city cannot live in a particular neighborhood because of the color of his skin, or cannot join a particular academic society or fraternal order or sorority because of the color of his or her skin, or cannot get a particular job in a particular firm because her happens to be a Negro. In other words, a genuine liberalism will see that the problem can exist even in one’s front and back yard, and injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
I rush on to say that religious bodies over this country must play a role and a significant role if we are to go this additional distance. And I must say—I must say in rather shameful terms—that the Christian church has failed Christ miserably in the whole area of racial integration. We must face the shameful fact that when we stand on Sunday morning at eleven o’clock to sing “In Christ There is No East or West,” we stand in the most segregated hour of America. There is more integration in sports arenas and nightclubs and other secular agencies that there is in the Christian church. The most segregated school of the week is the Sunday school. And so we often end it up with the high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. But thank God we are beginning to shake the lethargy from our souls, and religious bodies are coming to see that it is necessary to take a stand in a forthright, creative way on this issue if the church is to be true to its basic principles. And there are those who are willing to stand up, and I believe that as the church takes a stand and continues to take a stand, the transition from a segregated to a desegregated and finally an integrated society will be much smoother.
And after all of these agencies work together, the Negro in himself must take a forthright, determined stand against the conditions that surround him, against his own plight. He cannot stand by waiting for others to stand up for his rights while he stands as an observer. And I have said so often that freedom is not some lavish dish that the federal government or the white man will pass out on a silver platter while the Negro merely furnishes the appetite. If integration is to be a reality, the Negro must struggle for it. And so the Negro must continue to work through legislation; he must continue to work to double the number of registered voters, so that he political climate can be changed; he must continue to work through the courts, and get the law clarified and the Constitution clear on this issue. Then even after working in these areas, he must understand that a court order can only declare rights; it can never thoroughly deliver them. And only when people themselves begin to act, are rights which are on thin paper given life blood. And so the Negro must supplement all that is done through legislation, through voting, and through the courts with non-violent direct action.
Now there is a great deal that can be said about this method, and I would like to say just a few things about it, as I move toward my conclusion. First, it has a way of disarming the opponent. It exposes his moral defenses. It weakens his morale, and at the same time, it works on his conscience, and so he just doesn’t know how to deal with it. If he doesn’t beat you, that’s wonderful. If he beats you, you develop the power of accepting blows without retaliating. If he doesn’t put you in jail—wonderful, nobody with any sense wants to go to jail. If he puts you in jail, you willingly go in there, and transform the jail from a dungeon of shame to a haven of human freedom and dignity. Even if he tries to kill you, you develop the quiet courage of dying, if necessary, without killing. And he just doesn’t know how to handle it. It leaves an opponent frustrated, and disarmed, and his is finally glutted with his own barbarity. This is the power of non-violence. But not only that; it has great moral attributes in that it makes it possible for the individual to struggle to secure moral ends through moral means. One of the great philosophical debates of the centuries has been over the whole question of ends and means. There have been those individuals from Machiavelli on down who argued that the end justifies the means. Sometimes systems of government have followed this theory. Listen to Lenin as he says “Lying, deceit, violence, concealing and withholding the truth are all justifiable means to bring about the end of the classless society.” This is the great weakness and tragedy of communism and any other system that argues that the end justifies the means, for in a real sense, the end is pre-existent in the means; the means represent the ideal in the making, and the end in process. In the long run of history, immoral means cannot bring about moral ends. Destructive means cannot bring about constructive goals. The beauty of non-violence is that is makes it possible for the individual to struggle to secure moral ends through moral means. Another thing about it is that is makes it possible for the individual to apply the love-ethic in the struggle for freedom and justice. It makes it possible for the individual to place love at the center of his life, and thereby transform a social situation. This is the beauty of non-violence, because hate is always injurious. It is as injurious to the hater as it is to the hated. Psychiatrists are telling us now of many of the strange things that have happened in the subconscious. Many of the inner conflicts are rooted in hate, and so they are saying now, love or perish. And the beauty of non-violence is that it is possible to fight war without violence, and it is possible to struggle for that which is right with love in one’s heart.
Now when I talk about love, I’m not talking about emotional bosh; I’m not talking about some weak, sentimental something; I’m talking about something strong and powerful. I’m talking about something that is active good will, not just a passive, dead something. People always raise the question, how can you love those who are oppressing you, those who are seeking to defeat you, those who are trampling over you with the iron feet of oppression—how can you love such people? And I always have to answer that question by going back to the Greek language, there I think it helps up in dealing with this question. There are three words in the Greek language for love. One is the word eros. Eros is a sort of aesthetic love. Plato used to talk about it a great deal in his Dialogues, “the yearning of the soul for the realm of the divine.” It has come to us to be in a sense, romantic love, and so we all know about eros. In this sense, we have experienced it and read about it in all of the beauties of literature. In a sense, Edgar Allen Poe was talking about eros when he talked about his beautiful Annabel Lee, “with a love surrounded by the halo of eternity.” In a sense, Shakespeare was talking about eros when he said, “Love is not love whish alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove. It is an ever fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken. It is a star to every wandering bark?” You know, I can remember that because I used to quote it to my wife when we were courting. That’s eros.
Then the Greek language talks about philio, which is another level of love. It is a sort of intimate affection between personal friends. On this level, you love because you are loved. You love those people that you like to be with, to talk with, that you have things in common with. In other words, this is friendship.
The Greek language comes out with another word. It is the word agape. Agape is more than aesthetic or romantic love. Agape is more than friendship. Agape is creative, redemptive good for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. Theologians would say that it is the love of God operating in the human heart, and when one rises to love on this level, he loves every man, not because he likes that particular person, but because God loves him, and he rises to the level of loving the person who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does. And I think that this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Love your enemies,” and I’m happy that he didn’t say “Like you enemies,” because it’s pretty difficult to like some people. “Like” is affectionate, “like” is sentimental at points, and it’s pretty difficult to like somebody bombing your home or threatening your children, or seeking to destroy you. It’s pretty difficult to like them, but Jesus says, love them, and “love” is greater than “like.” “Love” is understanding, creative good will, for all men, and I believe firmly that it is this kind of love that will lead us on through this period of transition, and make it possible for us to achieve the real society of brotherhood.
This is what we try to teach in the struggle for freedom and justice in the non-violent movement in the South. We have come to the point where we are able to say to those who will even use violence to block us, we will match you capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet you physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. And so throw us in jail, and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities after midnight hours, and drag us out onto some wayside road, and beat us and leave us half-dead, and we will still love you. Be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to you heart and you conscience that we will win you in the process.
This is our message, and this is what we are trying to get across, and this is that I believe in, and I believe it will take us to a glorious new day. It will save the Negro from going into the new age bitter. It will save us from going into the new age seeking to retaliate and get even with those who have inflicted oppression and injustice upon him for years. It will save him from seeking to rise from a position of disadvantage to one of advantage, thereby subverting justice and substituting one tyranny for another. This is why I said, black supremacy is as dangerous as white supremacy. God is not interested merely in the freedom of black men and brown men and any other men. God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race and the creation of a society where all men will live together as brothers and where every man will respect the dignity and the worth of human personality. This is what we work for and this is the good society which we must seek in America. But it will not come until enough people are willing to stand up and mobilize forces of good will, to seek to implement that which is just and right.
There are certain words in every academic discipline that become a part of the technical nomenclature of that particular discipline. Every academic had its technical vocabulary. Modern psychology has a word that is probably used more than any other word in modern psychology. It is the word “maladjusted.” This word is the ringing cry of modern child psychology. And certainly we all want to live the well adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But I say to you in very honest terms that there are some things in our social order and in the world to which I’m proud to be maladjusted, and I would hope the men of good will will be maladjusted to these same things until the good society is realized. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating effects of physical violence. For in a day when Sputniks and Explorers are dashing through outer space, and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can win a war. It is no longer a choice between violence and non-violence; it is either non-violence or non-existence. The alternative to disarmament, the alternative to suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and disarming the whole world may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation. I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism, and maybe the great need of our nation and our world today is for a society of the creative maladjusted, men and women who will be as maladjusted as the prophet Amos, who in the midst of the injustices of his day, could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” As maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln, who had the vision to see that this nation could not exist half slave and half free. As maladjusted as Thomas Jefferson, who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery could cry out in words lifted to cosmic proportions, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’’ As maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth, who in the midst of the fascinating and intricate military machinery of the Roman Empire could cry out, “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword,” and also, “Love your enemies; bless them that curse you, pray for them that do spitefully use you.” And I believe that such maladjustment will help us emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice. And then we will be able to go that additional distance, and we will speed up the day when all of God’s children, white men and black men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands right here in America and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, free at last! Thank God Almighty we are free at last!”