My recent visit to the newly opened Martin Luther King Jr. memorial here in D.C. prompted me to pick up Harvard Sitkoff’s 2008 biography, King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop. To my embarrassment, I actually don’t know a lot about the details of the Civil Rights movement or King’s life in particular. Sitkoff’s relatively brief (under 300 pages) and very readable book is helping fill in some of those gaps. In contrast to the dominant picture of King as a rather unthreatening and universally beloved American icon, he emphasizes both King’s political radicalism and his rootedness in a profoundly Christian religious vision that sustained him in the struggle for justice and equality.
I’ve just finished the chapter on the astonishingly successful boycott of the segregated buses in Montgomery in 1955-56. This, at least in Sitkoff’s telling, was the time during which King went from being a somewhat reluctant leader of the boycott to the head of a new kind of social movement and a convinced principled exponent of Gandhian-Christian nonviolence. One thing that strikes me is how the nonviolent means King adopted were intended to effect change in both the oppressor and the oppressed. King was a canny political strategist who recognized that nonviolence had great potential to win allies to the anti-segregationist cause. But at the same time, it was a way for African-Americans suffering under the yoke of Jim Crow to assert their own inherent dignity as persons created in the image of God. King’s advocacy of nonviolence was neither pure pragmatism nor pure principle indifferent to consequences, but a stance that grew, in part, from the “personalist” philosophy he imbibed as a graduate student at Boston University. The ends and the means were fused in an inseparable unity. By refusing to treat their oppressors as less than fully personal beings, the participants in the movement were simultaneously demonstrating and affirming their own personhood.