In December 1964, Southern Christian Leadership Conference president Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a gathering of the Methodist Student Movement in Lincoln, Neb.
Speaking about the “Christian responsibility” to affirm that racial segregation “is morally wrong and sinful,” King described nonviolence as “the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and human dignity.”
The SCLC president also declared that the “God that we worship is not some Aristotelian ‘unmoved mover’ [but] an other-loving God working through history for the salvation of his children.”
Excerpts from King’s address are below, followed by a portion of the audio.
It is always a rich and rewarding experience for me to take a brief break from the day-to-day demands of our struggle for freedom and human dignity and discuss the issues involved in that struggle with college and university students and concerned people of goodwill….
And by and through the grace of God and continued work we will be able, I’m sure, to solve this great problem which is the chief moral dilemma of our nation….
[W]e have a Christian responsibility — in this racial crisis, in this revolution — to reaffirm the essential immorality of racial segregation….
[W]e, as Christians, must come to see not only the unconstitutionality of segregation, but we must reaffirm over and over again that racial segregation is sinful and immoral, whether it’s in the public schools, whether it’s in housing, whether it is in the Christian church, or any other area of life. Segregation is morally wrong and sinful….
Christian responsibility means that it is necessary to engage in creative and massive action programs to get rid of segregation and discrimination in our nation, and racial injustice wherever it exists in the world…..
[C]ertainly some strides have been made that make us all very happy — you’ve done things in the Methodist church that are most significant in this area, and we’re all inspired by it.
I just talked with my good friend Bishop [James] Thomas, who has just been appointed to serve in an area where the Negro Bishop has never served and most of the congregations that fall under his jurisdiction happen to be white congregations. This happens to be a marvelous step forward, and it is always great to see the Church moving on to remove the shackles of segregation from its own body….
[I]t is my hope that we will move on to get rid of segregation in all of its dimensions within the Church. That not only means the Church itself, but church institutions such as hospitals, such as colleges and universities….
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I would like to say just a few words about the philosophy and the method of nonviolence, since it has been so basic in our struggle across these years….
I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and human dignity…. This way of nonviolence has a way of disarming the opponent. It exposes his moral defenses. It weakens his morale and at the same time it works on his conscience and he does not know how to handle it….
[I]f he puts you in jail, you go in that jail and transform it from a dungeon of shame to a haven of freedom and human dignity. Even if he tries to kill you, you develop the inner conviction that there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they’re worth dying for; and if a man has not discovered something that he would die for, he isn’t fit to live. And this is what the nonviolent movement does.
So, there is power in this way because it has a way of disarming the opponent. But not only this: It gives individuals engaged in a struggle a way of seeking to secure moral ends through moral means….
Another thing about this philosophy is that it insists that it is possible to struggle against an unjust and evil system and yet maintain an attitude of active goodwill for the perpetrators of that unjust system.
In points, this is the most misunderstood aspect of nonviolence when one seeks to live it as a creed and not merely use it as a strategy. It says that you somehow place the love ethic at the center of your struggle.
People begin to say what do you mean? How can you love those who are oppressing you? How can you love those who are using violence to destroy ever move you make?…
Fortunately, the Greek language comes to our aid in trying to determine the meaning of love at this point…. [It speaks of agape love.] Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.
Theologians would say that it is the love of God operating in the human heart. And so when one rises to love on this level, he loves every man, not because he likes him, not because his ways appeal to him, but he loves every man because God loves him, and he rises to the level of loving the person who does an evil deed while hating the deed that the person does….
And I believe that it is this kind of love that can take us through this period of transition and we can come to that brighter day….
The thing that must always console us is that as we struggle, we do not struggle alone. And there is something in our Christian faith to remind us of this: The God that we worship is not some Aristotelian “unmoved mover” who merely contemplates upon Himself. He’s not merely a self-knowing God, but He’s an other-loving God working through history for the salvation of His children.
And there is an event at the center of our faith which reminds us that Good Friday may occupy the throne for a day, but ultimately it must give way to the triumphant beat of the drums of Easter. There is something in our faith which reminds us that evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy the palace and Christ the cross, but one day that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by His name.
There is something in this universe which justifies [Thomas] Carlyle in saying, “no lie can live forever.” There is something in this universe which justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying, “Truth, crushed to earth, [will] rise again.”
There is something in the very structure of the cosmos which justifies James Russell Lowell in saying,
Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne,—
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
and, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
keeping watch above his own.
This is our faith, and this is what will carry us through.
Use the audio player below (or click here) to listen to excerpts from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 address to the Methodist Student Movement (9 minutes).
According to an article in the Fall 1995 Journal of Ecumenical Studies, the Methodist Student Movement was organized in 1937 and continued until 1965.
This post was first published in January 2009.