Martin Luther King's Trumpet of Conscience
The 50th anniversary on April 4, 2018, of Martin Luther King's assassination together with a new book, "To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr." (ed. Shelby and Terry) has prompted me to read or reread some of King's own writings. King's "The Trumpet of Conscience" (1967) was the last of five books King published during his life. It is a short work and consists of five lectures that King delivered in November and December, 1967 fro the Massey Lecture Series of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Thus, these lectures offer an insight into King's thinking near the end of his life.
These lectures show a more radicalized King than some will remember. When he gave these lectures, King had already spoken out strongly against the Vietnam War, a position which alienated some of his followers. His opposition to the war is repeated in no uncertain terms in the second lecture of this series. Then too, King gave these lectures in the aftermath of riots in American cities that followed King's efforts in the South and the enactment of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1963 and 1964. There were some leaders in the civil rights movement that thought King's philosophy of nonviolence inadequate to address the continuing needs of African Americans for economic justice. On the other side, the riots were producing a backlash which impacted King as well as more radical elements. In the five lectures in this book, King addresses both the Vietnam War and the riots.
In "The Trumpet of Conscience", King adheres to his philosophy of nonviolence. However, he pointedly expands its scope. King argues that his movement was never limited to securing voting rights and the end of segregation in the South. Rather, King advocates for an aggressive broader-based non-violent approach to protest poverty, slum housing, militarism, and continued discrimination in the North as well as in the South. The approach would encompass marginal members of American society, not merely African Americans, and in would reach out to similar efforts world-wide. King says in this book that "justice is indivisible" and cannot be limited to ending segregation in the South.
The lectures are interrelated but each has a different focus. The opening lecture examines the Civil Rights Movement from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s and argues for the continued need for non-violent activity to address economic inequality. He argues that the rioting in the cities was the result of oppressive and unjust activity by the power structure. The second lecture examines the United States' involvement in Vietnam and critiques it as an unjust war which took attention and resources away from domestic needs. The third lecture, "Youth and Social Action" is one of the more interesting in this collection. It examines what King finds to be the lack of spiritual direction in the United States of his day, and it argues that American young people have been adopting a variety of approaches from adaptation to protest, to the hippie lifestyle, to counter a spiritual lack. King wanted to channel youth into the direction of social action. The fourth lecture covers the riots. King continues to disapprove of violence and he argues that his method of non-violence, enhanced to include the issues of economic injustice and militarism, is a better way to gain results than violence. The final lecture, "A Christmas Sermon on Peace" is the most overtly religious of the five. It reminded me that King's vision was basically spiritual and religious. King stresses how human beings are connected with one another and that the human personality is sacred. He writes: "when we truly believe in the sacredness of human personality, we won't exploit people, we won't trample over people with the iron feet of oppression, we won't kill anybody." Perhaps even more fundamentally, King writes:
"If there is to be peace on earth and goodwill toward men, we must finally believe in the ultimate morality of the universe, and believe that all reality hinges on moral foundations."
For those, such as myself, who lived through the tumult of the late 1960s with the Vietnam War, the protests, and the riots, this book will bring back memories and a sense of discomfort. King's book brings that era with all its problems back to life. I found it valuable to look back it this book with the passage of fifty years and to consider King's words calmly and with the passage of time. There is much of value in this book expressed articulately and with passion. Looking back, many readers may properly be skeptical of the call to social revolution, even nonviolent social revolution. I found the strongest part of King's book was his appeal to the transcendent and to spirituality. It remains difficult and controversial about how spirituality is to be applied to the fallen world of daily life.
King is receiving a great deal of deserved attention this year. I am finding that the best way to revere and to learn from King is to read him for oneself with an open mind. Human love, the transcendent, attempts to improve one's society, and reflective, critical thought never go out-of-date.