Martin Luther King, Jr.’s approach to racial equality in Why We Can’t Wait is rooted in his religious and moral beliefs. As a Christian minister, he thinks about racial inequality as a problem that the Christian church has an obligation to address. Because the Christian gospel preaches the value of kindness, love, and brotherhood, Dr. King sees it as an ideal basis for navigating issues of oppression and inequality. In fact, it is most likely because of his strong religious beliefs that he was able to maintain an unflappable sense of moral conviction. When the Birmingham government filed an injunction ordering the movement to stop demonstrating until their case was argued in court, Dr. King decided to break the law—a difficult decision, given that a major point of the campaign was to convince people to follow the law (by adhering to the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling on segregation). Faced with this conundrum, Dr. King called on his strong moral compass, which told him that breaking an unjust law is not only permissible, but a moral responsibility. He explains his thinking in a letter to white clergymen about the church’s duty to support equality; the simple fact that he expresses these ideas in a letter about the church suggests that his moral beliefs are directly tied to his religious beliefs. To that end, the connection between religion and morality is most likely why Dr. King was able to maintain such a strong sense of hope in the face of violence and oppression. It becomes clear, then, that religion—or at least a strong moral code—often motivates and emotionally sustains people by helping them stick to their convictions.
Dr. King’s religious beliefs gave him the strength to face adversity because they allowed him to squarely face the ugliness of the world without completely losing heart. His entire approach to activism was rooted in his Christian values, as he believed that the United States is a place where compassion and “Christian forgiveness” have been “written into the minds and hearts of good men.” The idea of “Christian forgiveness” has to do with empathy and the ability to show kindness, but it also implies that there are wrongs that need to be forgiven in the first place. In other words, U.S. history is full of some serious moral failures—like, for instance, the entire institution of slavery. But Dr. King thinks it’s within the nation’s ability to move on from such ugliness, believing that inherently religious values like love, kindness, and forgiveness are even more deeply rooted than the country’s racist and tragic history. He’s therefore able to view things like racial equality as inevitable, even if it seems like a distant reality. To put it another way, his religious and moral values make it easier for him to embody hope. And yet, his belief in the nation’s Christian values doesn’t mean that he overlooks the roiling hatred and bigotry that plagues the nation—instead, he views these values as resources that can be used to actively resist unjust laws. He acknowledges the country’s problems and chooses to believe they aren’t what define the United States. Rather, he thinks the nation is great precisely because it’s well-positioned to challenge such hatred and division.
To that end, Dr. King believes there’s a moral responsibility to resist injustice at all costs, especially for Christians. When he went to jail for practicing civil disobedience, eight white clergymen criticized him and the direct-action campaign in Birmingham. Dr. King defended himself by writing a letter in which he points out that there’s a huge moral difference between breaking a just law and breaking an unjust law. To break a just law is to act immorally, since it’s obviously indefensible to disobey any rule rooted in fairness. Conversely, it’s actually moral to break an unjust law. A law is unjust if it “degrades human personality”—in other words, if a law has a negative impact on a population’s ability to move through life, it’s unjust. To obey such a law therefore means reinforcing something that is actively harmful, so it would be wrong to unquestioningly follow it. Accordingly, Dr. King suggests that his decision to practice civil disobedience is not just permissible, but also something of a moral imperative—something he was compelled to do out of a sense of honor and integrity. Instead of admonishing him and the civil rights movement for creating disorder, then, the white clergymen (who presumably had the same religious devotion to justice as Dr. King himself) should have felt a moral responsibility to stand up against oppression.
Furthermore, Dr. King’s religious beliefs don’t just reinforce his moral outlook—they also give him faith that true change will someday come. His ability to work so tirelessly toward equality is directly related to his overall faith in the goodness of humankind. For instance, when white supremacists bombed his brother’s house, Dr. King spoke to his brother on the phone, and even though the circumstances were emotionally strenuous and discouraging, there was a moment of hope and optimism when a group started singing the gospel song “We Shall Overcome” in the background of the call. Despite his sorrow in this moment, Dr. King felt uplifted by hearing the song, which has spiritual overtones and is said to have developed from a church hymn. Instead of despairing, then, Dr. King was reminded of the power of responding to hate “with hope and with faith,” therefore illustrating how helpful it can be for leaders to have a strong sense of faith—a sense of faith that can, in many cases, help people remain resilient and hopeful.
Religion, Morality, and Hope ThemeTracker
Religion, Morality, and Hope Quotes in Why We Can’t Wait
While the Negro is not so selfish as to stand isolated in concern for his own dilemma, ignoring the ebb and flow of events around the world, there is a certain bitter irony in the picture of his country championing freedom in foreign lands and failing to ensure that freedom to twenty million of its own.
Nonviolent direct action did not originate in America, but it found its natural home in this land, where refusal to cooperate with injustice was an ancient and honorable tradition and where Christian forgiveness was written into the minds and hearts of good men.
When, for decades, you have been able to make a man compromise his manhood by threatening him with a cruel and unjust punishment, and when suddenly he turns upon you and says: “Punish me. I do not deserve it. But because I do not deserve it, I will accept it so that the world will know that I am right and you are wrong," you hardly know what to do. You feel defeated and secretly ashamed. You know that this man is as good a man as you are; that from some mysterious source he has found the courage and the conviction to meet physical force with soul force.
Perhaps even more vital in the Negro's resistance to violence was the force of his deeply rooted spiritual beliefs. In Montgomery after a courageous woman, Rosa Parks, had refused to move to the back of the bus, and so began the revolt that led to the boycott of 1955-56, the Negro's developing campaign against that city's racial injustice was based in the churches of the community. Throughout the South, for some years prior to Montgomery, the Negro church had emerged with increasing impact in the civil-rights struggle. Negro ministers, with a growing awareness that the true witness of a Christian life is the projection of a social gospel, had accepted leadership in the fight for racial justice […].
The eye-for-an-eye philosophy, the impulse to defend oneself when attacked, has always been held as the highest measure of American manhood. We are a nation that worships the frontier tradition, and our heroes are those who champion justice through violent retaliation against injustice. It is not simple to adopt the credo that moral force has as much strength and virtue as the capacity to return a physical blow; or that to refrain from hitting back requires more will and bravery than the automatic reflexes of defense.
In a sense the freedom songs are the soul of the movement. They are more than just incantations of clever phrases designed to invigorate a campaign; they are as old as the history of the Negro in America. They are adaptations of the songs the slaves sang—the sorrow songs, the shouts for joy, the battle hymns and the anthems of our movement. […] We sing the freedom songs today for the same reason the slaves sang them, because we too are in bondage and the songs add hope to our determination that “We shall overcome, Black and white together, We shall overcome someday.”
The amazing aftermath of Birmingham, the sweeping Negro Revolution, revealed to people all over the land that there are no outsiders in all these fifty states of America. When a police dog buried his fangs in the ankle of a small child in Birmingham, he buried his fangs in the ankle of every American. The bell of man's inhumanity to man does not toll for any one man. It tolls for you, for me, for all of us.
I sat in the midst of the deepest quiet I have ever felt, with two dozen others in the room. There comes a time in the atmosphere of leadership when a man surrounded by loyal friends and allies realizes he has come face to face with himself. I was alone in that crowded room.
You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.
One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.
Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the star of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles over racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade.
It was upon this massive base of racism that the prejudice toward the nonwhite was readily built, and found rapid growth.
We can, of course, try to temporize, negotiate small, inadequate changes and prolong the timetable of freedom in the hope that the narcotics of delay will dull the pain of progress. We can try, but we shall certainly fail. The shape of the world will not permit us the luxury of gradualism and procrastination. Not only is it immoral, it will not work. It will not work because Negroes know they have the right to be free. It will not work because Negroes have discovered, in nonviolent direct action, an irresistible force to propel what has been for so long an immovable object. It will not work because it retards the progress not only of the Negro, but of the nation as a whole.