FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

What Did Dr. King Mean by Love?

As someone who regularly teaches about the political philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., I often spend time discussing with students the ways in which King’s ideas are taken out of context and turned into sound bites in order to support positions he would not himself have taken. The most obvious example is how his most memorable line from the “I Have a Dream” speech about not judging people based on the color of their skin but the content of their character is used to justify attacks on affirmative action—a policy he definitely endorsed—or cited in a way to claim that the best path forward for racial justice is to somehow ignore race and become colorblind. The white supremacist violence in Charlottesville is proof that we cannot simply try to ignore the problems of racism now.

All across the country, marches and vigils are scheduled to honor the victims of racist violence and to stand against the surge of white nationalist groups in the United States. People are seeking guidance about how to think about the public and proud resurgence of this form of bigotry. Inevitably, the words and ideas of Dr. King are being invoked, especially his thoughts on the power of love in times of hate. One of his quotes, often bandied about, is this: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

But the hard question is what does it mean to love and not hate in the aftermath of Charlottesville? Does it mean it’s somehow wrong to feel angry or violated about people proudly brandishing neo-Nazi symbols on their weapons and shields? Does it mean the best response is to forgive the purveyors of violence like the young man who ran down protestors, killing Heather Heyer, in Charlottesville?

In the speeches in which King talked about love, he often spent time explaining what he meant; love has several meanings. In saying that supporters of racial justice had to have love in their hearts, he didn’t mean that they had to be continually positive and upbeat, or that they had to approach racists in friendship. That’s the kind of love we share with intimates or friends. King said the love that we ought to have in the struggle for justice is the kind that acknowledges all people, even the white supremacists, as human beings. And human beings are capable of making their own moral choices and being held responsible for their actions. We aren’t called upon to like or be friendly to those who are racist. It means we ought not to dehumanize or kill them as part of our fight for justice.

Someone asked me recently if, out of love, King wouldn’t have asked to sit down with a white supremacist and try to listen to their concerns and understand where they were coming from, in hopes of some kind of reconciliation and dialogue. I thought about this and realized that the answer was probably no. King never asked, for instance, to meet with Bull Connor, the rabidly racist police chief in Birmingham, Alabama who sent police dogs to attack protestors. He never called for public meetings with ordinary Black and white citizens to dialogue. Instead, he called for marches, boycotts, and urged legislation that would halt business as usual in that city, deplete the pocketbooks of segregationist business owners, and criminalize racist attacks and intimidation. He wrote in 1963: “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 is important also.”

This is not to say that fellowship and dialogue are not important, especially when friends approach one another to talk about their fears, hopes, and biases. But in thinking about responses to white supremacy in the country today, we ought to be clear that King’s emphasis on love did not mean only sticking to individual efforts and trying to change the implicit racism of our friends and relatives.

Toward the end of his life, he called for a revolution of values that would utterly transform the United States and its commitment to materialism, racism, and militarism at institutional levels. The fight against white supremacy must be tied to issues of poverty, jobs, reducing our military and nuclear weapons, curbing police brutality, and providing decent health care and education for everyone. These were all issues of concern for King; this is what he meant by love.

More articles by:

José-Antonio Orosco, Ph.D, writes for PeaceVoice and is Associate Professor of Philosophy:  School of History, Philosophy, and Religion Director, Oregon State University Peace Studies Program.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
July 18, 2019
Timothy M. Gill
Bernie Sanders, Anti-Imperialism and Venezuela
W. T. Whitney
Cuba and a New Generation of Leaders Respond to U.S. Anti-People War
Jonathan Cook
How the Goliath of the Jerusalem Settler Movement Persuaded the World It’s Really David
William Hartung
Merger Mania: the Military-Industrial Complex on Steroids
John G. Russell
The Devolution Will Be Televised: Our Body-cam President
Judith Deutsch
Psychology Stories: Children
Dean Baker
The Coal Industry is Not a Major Employer
Binoy Kampmark
Corporate Gangster: Adani’s Pursuit of Scientists
Thomas Knapp
National Polls Don’t Mean Much. Here’s Why.
Thomas Mountain
Africans Solving African Problems; Bringing Peace to Sudan
Ann Garrison
History Is Happening: WikiLeaks, the Global Fourth Estate
Elliot Sperber
Don’t Open the Door 
July 17, 2019
Manuel García, Jr.
Ye Cannot Swerve Me: Moby-Dick and Climate Change
Charles Pierson
Sofi’s Choice
Gary Leupp
Epstein, Jane Doe, and Trump
Rebecca Gordon
I Had an Abortion and Now I’m Not Ashamed
Peter Bolton
In the US and Brazil, Two Trends Underline the Creeping Fascism of Both Governments
Michael Kidder
“Go Back Where You Came From:” an Episode From Canada
Steve Early - Rand Wilson
How Big Strike 30 Years Ago Aided Fight for Single Payer
John W. Whitehead
Sexual Predators in the Power Elite
Michael Welton
Teach the Children Well: the Unrealized Vision In Teaching and Learning in the Residential Schools
Khury Petersen-Smith
Iran’s Not the Aggressor, the US Is
Russell Mokhiber
Kip Sullivan and Dr. Matthew Hahn on How Value Based Programs Are Undermining Medicare and Single Payer
George Ochenski
A Fearless and Free Press is Essential to Our Democracy
Lawrence Wittner
Billionaires and American Politics
Dean Baker
Cheap Shots at the Trump Economy
July 16, 2019
Conn Hallinan
The World Needs a Water Treaty
Kenneth Surin
Britain Grovels: the Betrayal of the British Ambassador
Christopher Ketcham
This Land Was Your Land
Gary Leupp
What Right Has Britain to Seize an Iranian Tanker Off Spain?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Democratic Virtues in Electing a President
Thomas Knapp
Free Speech Just isn’t That Complicated
Binoy Kampmark
The Resigning Ambassador
Howard Lisnoff
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Nicky Reid
Nukes For Peace?
Matt Johnson
The United States of Overreaction
Cesar Chelala
Children’s Trafficking and Exploitation is a Persistent, Dreary Phenomenon
Martin Billheimer
Sylvan Shock Theater
July 15, 2019
David Altheide
The Fear Party
Roger Harris
UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Bachelet’s Gift to the US: Justifying Regime Change in Venezuela
John Feffer
Pyongyang on the Potomac
Vincent Kelley
Jeffrey Epstein and the Collapse of Europe
Robert Fisk
Trump’s Hissy-Fit Over Darroch Will Blow a Chill Wind Across Britain’s Embassies in the Middle East
Binoy Kampmark
Juggling with the Authoritarians: Donald Trump’s Diplomatic Fake Book
Dean Baker
The June Jobs Report and the State of the Economy
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail