Lessons in Peace: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

Updated on January 15, 2018
Anna Watson profile image

Anna is a pastor, writer, and theologian who obtained her BA in religion in '06, Diploma of Ministry in '16, and Diploma of Divinity in '17.

Oppression and History

The United States has a rather checkered past in terms of race relations. As a nation, it was founded on the principle that all men were created equal. A wonderful theory, but one that was not always fully practiced. Rather ironically, the young nation has spent much of its 200+ year history withholding the torch of freedom from certain citizens.

Historically speaking, when people are oppressed for long periods of time, they tend to get a little upset. Often, they will behave in ways that match the oppressors in sheer brutality. One need only to look at the blood-stained history of France, where long periods of oppression are marked by rebellions. As far back as 104 AD, the Chinese revolted against the Han Dynasty, leading to anarchy and the eventual downfall of the Han Dynasty. Millions died in the Taiping rebellion in the mid-19th century. The Gordon Riots in England killed 400 people in less than one week in June of 1780. Indeed, if it weren’t for rebellion, the United States would still likely be part of the British commonwealth.

That the United States fought bitterly for independence while simultaneously denying that same freedom to others within its own borders is not unusual from a historical standpoint. Social Darwinism reigned at the time and if a country wasn’t the bully, then they were the bullied. The world has come a very long way in the last hundred years or so. A bloody and horrendous war put an end to slavery, but not the philosophy behind it. Wars come and go, people live and die, but ideals stick around. Christians, very incorrectly, believed that they were superior to Africans and African Americans. Some, erroneously pointed to Ham, the cursed son of Noah, as justification for their hatred and disdain of African Americans. A racist minority still teach this shameful belief to this day.

Meanwhile, those who clung to science weren’t much better. They used science to back up their claims that Africans weren’t as evolved as other humans. Science, these people claimed, showed that the brains of Africans were allegedly smaller, and “scientifically speaking” they were an inferior race. Today, racists still hold fast to these patently false claims. Charles Darwin himself often referred to South Americans and Africans as “barbarous savages,” “inferior,” or “low savages.” People genuinely believed those attitudes, they were so ingrained that nobody questioned them.

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder the hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate.

— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "Where Do We Go From Here?"

Civil Rights

Naturally, this gave rise to the unrest of the 1960s. African Americans just weren’t going to take the hatred and discrimination any longer. The black panthers, Nation of Islam, and other militant groups rose up, demanding justice by “any means necessary.” Riots erupted, and people on both sides were killed. Anybody who ever paid any attention to history had to have seen it coming. All people have a tipping point, and for African Americans, there’s had been reached.

Throughout the turmoil, came the voice of one crying in the concrete wilderness. A powerful, virile man, who came not with a sword, but with a pen. An avowed pacifist, he led marches through the streets, telling anybody who followed that they were not welcome if they didn’t come in peace. He fought for social reform, equality, and rights for the poor of all races. For his efforts, he was killed. Martyred for a just cause, he now is clothed in white and stands in heaven with another pacifist, one who was martyred for the sins of the world.

On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, "Is it safe?" Expediency asks the question "Is it politic?" And Vanity asks the question, "Is it popular?" But Conscience asks the question, "Is it right?" And there comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.

— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "Remaining Awakr Through a Great Revolution, 1968

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Born in Atlanta, in 1929, the middle son of Michael Luther King Sr. The elder King changed his first name to Martin, in reference to the famous reformer, and Junior eventually followed suit. In 1948, King Jr. earned his degree in sociology from Moorehouse College in Atlanta, and in 1951, he was named valedictorian at Crozer Theological Seminary. At the young age of 25, Martin Luther King Jr earned his Ph.D from Boston University and became Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a third generation Baptist preacher, and it was his faith that inspired him to be a warrior on the frontline of social justice. He knew that oppression, racism, and violence were an abomination in the eyes of God. The God of heaven commands justice, mercy, and love, and King gave his life to secure that for all people. Without Jesus there can be no peace. King used his pulpit to secure peace for his countrymen. And in 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.

In his acceptance speech, he wrote that “Nonviolence is the answer to the political and moral question of our time—the need for mankind to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts…sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love….”

As a pastor, King knew very well that God commanded that we love one another. For Christians, it’s not optional, nor is it optional for a nation founded on Christian principles of freedom and justice. King gave speeches, and led boycotts and marches. His energy revitalized the civil rights movement and for the everyday Americans, his vision of peace and unity was easy to swallow and less scary than the militant alternative. Though none of that means that he had free pass to speak. He was imprisoned 29 times during the course of his career. Some of the arrests were for civil disobedience, others were because the police just plain didn’t like him. Case in point: his arrest in Montgomery Alabama for driving five miles over the speed limit.

Though nonviolent himself, King was often at the mercy of those who didn’t share his philosophy. He was beaten, had firehoses turned on him, and attack dogs let loose on him. Yet through it all, King maintained his commitment to faith and pacifism. He knew that something greater awaited him, he knew that his cause was worth dying for, indeed he seemingly knew that his time was up. In his last speech just a day before his assassination he said “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you.” A fitting sentiment. Like Moses who lived thousands of years before him, he led his people through the wilderness, but died before he got there. Like Moses, he was rewarded with something even greater than he could have imagined. The Israelites made it to the promised land, though they ultimately had a fight to get there, and continued to fight once there. African Americans had to fight for equality, and continue their fight to this day. But without King, would they have come this far?

We must always fight for peace and justice, even while peace and justice are the tools with which we fight with. Come what may, we must always remember the truths that were taught by the good reverend: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” King spoke the truth of God’s word, may we always remember him.


Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality, and eats away at vital unity. Hate destroys a man's sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.

— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "Loving Your Enemies."

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Anna Watson

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      • Anna Watson profile imageAUTHOR

        Anna Watson 

        8 months ago from Atlanta, GA

        Thank you, Jay.

        He's always been my personal hero. I have often drawn inspiration from him.

      • Jay C OBrien profile image

        Jay C OBrien 

        8 months ago from Houston, TX USA

        Another great article. Love MLK.

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