Friday, January 18, 2013

King’s Roadmap: ‘Stride Toward Freedom’

by Bill Doughty

Five years after the start of his career, five years before his “I Have a Dream” speech (and ten years before his tragic assassination by a gunman in Memphis), a great American gave us a roadmap to freedom and equality.

To read Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1958 "Stride Toward Freedom" is to see the birth of nonviolence as a philosophy that would continue to guide the civil rights movement.  King showed how conflict can be resolved through a rational and reasonable approach, why nonviolence does not equal pacifism, and how peace is preserved through education, cooperation and strength of purpose.

Putting the book in historical context, King’s very personal and focused account of his Birmingham, Alabama bus “protest” (he preferred not calling it a boycott) was written a century after the Civil War.  He chronicled the struggles of African Americans to fight segregation and discrimination in what was known as the “Cradle of the Confederacy.” 

Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, and dozens of other civil rights leaders -- black and white -- took a stand against white supremacists, corrupt local government officials, and people whose interpretation of the Bible justified their discrimination.  

Like Frederick Douglass, who wrote in the mid-1800s about the hypocrisy of pious slave holders, King spoke out against indifference apathy, fear and passivity of religious leaders who accepted the status quo of the segregated south.

“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate it,” King wrote.  “Justice and equality, I saw, would never come while segregation remained, because the basic purpose of segregation was to perpetuate injustice and equality.”

Ralph Abernathy with Coretta Scott King and Dr. King in Montgomery, 1956.
King credited the U.S. military for achievements in integration that had “an immense, incalculable impact.”  His social action in Montgomery received support from service members, civilians and families from nearby Maxwell and Gunter Air Force bases, he said.  After the media began covering the struggle, he and his movement received donations and support from people as far away as Tokyo and Singapore.

Despite threats, attacks and the bombings of the homes of King, Abernathy and others, Dr. King maintained his commitment to nonviolence, though he admitted to an ambivalence toward guns at the time.  In the pivotal chapter, “The Violence of Desperate Men,” he recounts how he turned away a crowd of people hungry for revenge after his home was bombed 57 years ago, Jan 30, 1956.  “If you have weapons, take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek to get them.  We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence.”

“Stride” is the a true story of the actions King and others took to end segregation of buses in Montgomery, with the strategic steps taken and roadblocks placed in the protesters’ way.  It’s a story about the triumph of the Constitution.  And it’s a behind-the-scenes look at how King’s philosophy was developed.

King said his Christian faith, along with the teaching of world thinkers, helped him develop his philosophy of nonviolence and peaceful social action.  “Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, while Gandhi furnished the method,” he wrote.

King was influenced by “Mahatma” Mohandas Gandhi, a Hindu leader for Indian independence in the early half of the 20th century.  King said he was also greatly influenced by nature philosopher and abolitionist Henry David Thoreau, author of “Essay on Civil Disobedience.”  

In “Stride Toward Freedom” King discussed the views of Aristotle, Nietzsche, Georg Hegel, Reinhold Niebuhr and Karl Marx, while clearly rejecting blind pacifism and communism.  In doing so, King warned against “the dangers of false idealism.”

“While I believed in man’s potential for good, Niebuhr made me realize his potential for evil, as well.  Moreover, Niebuhr helped me to recognize the complexity of man’s social involvement and the glaring reality of collective evil,” King wrote.

King’s thoughtful, balanced and diverse approach to problem-solving involved both education and legislation:

"Through education we seek to change attitudes; through legislation and court orders we seek to regulate behavior. Through education we seek to change internal feelings (prejudice, hate, etc.); through legislation and court orders we seek to control the external effects of those feelings. Through education we seek to break down the spiritual barriers to integration; through legislation and court orders we seek to break down the physical barriers to integration. One method is not a substitute for the other, but a meaningful and necessary supplement. Anyone who starts out with the conviction that the road to racial justice is only one lane wide will inevitably create a traffic jam and make the journey infinitely longer."

This review is posted on the eve of the second inauguration of the first African American President of the United States.  President Barack Obama plans to renew his oath of office with his hand on a Bible that belonged to Dr. King.  In his proclamation for Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2013, President Obama said, “By words and example, Dr. King reminded us that ‘Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.’"

Navy poster celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day.