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.

Weekend Edition
August 14, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Lights! Camera! Kill! Hollywood, the Pentagon and Imperial Ambitions.
Joseph Grosso
Bloody Chicken: Inside the American Poultry Industry During the Time of COVID
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: It Had to be You
H. Bruce Franklin
August 12-22, 1945: Washington Starts the Korean and Vietnam Wars
Pete Dolack
Business as Usual Equals Many Extra Deaths from Global Warming
Paul Street
Whispers in the Asylum (Seven Days in August)
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Predatory Capitalism and the Nuclear Threat in the Age of Trump
Paul Fitzgerald - Elizabeth Gould
‘Magical Thinking’ has Always Guided the US Role in Afghanistan
Ramzy Baroud
The Politics of War: What is Israel’s Endgame in Lebanon and Syria?
Ron Jacobs
It’s a Sick Country
Eve Ottenberg
Trump’s Plan: Gut Social Security, Bankrupt the States
Richard C. Gross
Trump’s Fake News
Jonathan Cook
How the Guardian Betrayed Not Only Corbyn But the Last Vestiges of British Democracy
Joseph Natoli
What Trump and the Republican Party Teach Us
Robert Fisk
Can Lebanon be Saved?
Brian Cloughley
Will Biden be Less Belligerent Than Trump?
Kenn Orphan
We Do Not Live in the World of Before
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Compromise & the Status Quo
Andrew Bacevich
Biden Wins, Then What?
Thomas Klikauer – Nadine Campbell
The Criminology of Global Warming
Michael Welton
Toppled Monuments and the Struggle For Symbolic Space
Prabir Purkayastha
Why 5G is the First Stage of a Tech War Between the U.S. and China
Daniel Beaumont
The Reign of Error
Adrian Treves – John Laundré
Science Does Not Support the Claims About Grizzly Hunting, Lethal Removal
David Rosen
A Moment of Social Crisis: Recalling the 1970s
Maximilian Werner
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf: Textual Manipulations in Anti-wolf Rhetoric
Pritha Chandra
Online Education and the Struggle over Disposable Time
Robert Koehler
Learning from the Hibakushas
Seth Sandronsky
Teaching in a Pandemic: an Interview With Mercedes K. Schneider
Dean Baker
Financing Drug Development: What the Pandemic Has Taught Us
Greta Anderson
Blaming Mexican Wolves for Livestock Kills
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Meaning of the Battle of Salamis
Mel Gurtov
The World Bank’s Poverty Illusion
Paul Gilk
The Great Question
Rev. Susan K. Williams Smith
Trump Doesn’t Want Law and Order
Martin Cherniack
Neo-conservatism: The Seductive Lure of Lying About History
Nicky Reid
Pick a Cold War, Any Cold War!
George Wuerthner
Zombie Legislation: the Latest Misguided Wildfire Bill
Lee Camp
The Execution of Elephants and Americans
Christopher Brauchli
I Read the News Today, Oh Boy…
Tony McKenna
The Truth About Prince Philip
Louis Proyect
MarxMail 2.0
Sidney Miralao
Get Military Recruiters Out of Our High Schools
Jon Hochschartner
Okra of Time
David Yearsley
Bringing Landscapes to Life: the Music of Johann Christian Bach
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail