“A Single Garment of Destiny”: Martin Luther King Jr and Our World
“A Single Garment of Destiny”: Martin Luther King Jr and Our World
Mary Elizabeth King, Public Lecture: Martin Luther King, Jr., Foundation, De Boskant, The Hague, May 24, 2013
50 years ago this spring, the Christian Century published the most important document to emerge from the U.S. civil rights movement: Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” 45 years ago last month, he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Our focus tonight is on how Dr. King learned the theories and methods of nonviolent action, how his global vision was important in sustaining the civil rights movement, and what this means for us today.
Why did I join the movement?
(I am white; and despite my name I have no relation to Dr. King)
I had little to offer the movement when I joined it at age 22 other than passionate belief, but I could use words – reading, writing, and speaking. The big question for me at age 22 was: Is this important enough to me to die? My four years working in the civil rights movement, at times, was the closest I shall ever be to real democracy. I wanted to be involved in something larger than myself. Given its dangers, setbacks, and failures, it seems to me that nonviolent campaigns are strengthened by having a sense that what is at stake is bigger than what brought you into the movement. This larger vision has helped people-power movements to take on the major powers of their times.
We were working in a 20th century manifestation of semi-slavery. On some Alabama plantations the U.S. dollar was not used. Tenant farmers were paid in tin tokens disbursed by the foremen, to be traded at the plantation store. Or they used scrip. Under this system, they were to pay the landowner back from whatever produce sold, but they could never work their way out of debt. The landowner could toss them and their families off the land if they registered to vote
Random violence was rampant. Hatred was tangible.
Collusion between law officers and terror groups and vigilantes were widespread.
The rest of the nation was quiescent, anesthetized.
1919-55: A great interchange occurred between African Americans and Indians struggling for independence
Until the 20th century, nonviolent action was generally viewed as a way for individuals to express their personal witness and take a stand against an injustice. Often makeshift, it lacked deep understanding of the dynamics or history of nonviolent action as a form of struggle. Leaders were unequipped to guide. Little awareness of how the technique could be employed for effecting results. Yet civil resistance movements compiled impressive records of achievements, often by improvising.
Early in the 20th century, the pattern of improvisation began to change.
For nearly 4 decades, the thinking of Gandhi traveled 12,000 miles by extended ocean voyages to establish historical links between two freedom movements — one in full throttle, the other nascent. Historian Sudarshan Kapur’s research in 12 respected black-owned newspapers and journals in the United States reveals avid reporting on Indian strategies of resistance, which could be applied in the U.S. context. The research also shows a steady flow of black leaders traveling to India, where they studied the basics of mass struggle with nonviolent means prior to World War II. Prominent Indians also visited the United States for lecture tours.
In February 1936 near Bardoli, in the state of Gujarat, for example, African American educators and clergy met with Gandhi under a mango tree. A black Methodist bishop from the Baltimore-Washington, a friend of my parents whom I knew when growing up, later reported: “Gandhi wanted to know why we hadn’t tried civil disobedience. He asked why all the black people in America didn’t stay home from work on a certain day.” Once home, this particular group of leaders did not enact Gandhi’s proposal for a huge, national stay-at-home action, but they become part of a decades-long process of preparing the way for a Gandhi-type leader.
The travelers — heads of universities or seminaries, ministers of influential congregations, and university professors — spread word of Gandhi’s successes in essays, lectures, sermons, and public debates, while using news coverage and networks of relationships in church, academic, and social service organizations. Dr Benjamin Mays, Morehouse College president, 10 years after meeting with Gandhi in India in 1936, would in his chapel lectures in Atlanta open the eyes of a student named Martin King.
By the 1950s, pockets of the black community were aware of the Indian strategies and had promoted an informal policy supporting nonviolent struggle in the United States. Even before the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, these leaders had laid the groundwork for the emergence of an adult Martin Luther King, Jr., who had the year before become pastor of the Alabama capital city’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. One woman quoted by Kapur in his 1992 book said they were “raising up a prophet,” the source of his title.
Eventually, King became the person most responsible for popularizing Gandhi’s ideas in the United States and for persuading many black Americans that these ideas could be effective in ending white racial domination. Yet he was not the first. For 30 years or more, leaders in the black community had been talking about “a black Gandhi” for America.
How did Dr. King himself learn about nonviolent action?
As a student at Morehouse College, aged 15 years when he started in autumn 1944, King had to attend campus-wide Tuesday-morning lectures where Dr. Mays, with his commanding courtly presence and international outlook, often discussed the Indian struggles encountered in India in 1936. In college, King was assigned to read On Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau. Later, recalling this first exposure to Thoreau’s thinking, he wrote that he was “fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system.” Deeply moved, he re-read the work several times, and called it his “first intellectual contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance.”
Gandhi was assassinated on 30 January 1948, the year that King finished at Morehouse. Aged 19 years, he entered Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. One Sunday afternoon, he heard a sermon by the president of Howard University, Dr. Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, who for 20 years been calling for African Americans to learn about Gandhi. King found the message “so profound and electrifying” that afterward he went out and bought 6 books about Gandhi. In 1949, Johnson had spent 40 days in India with people who had worked with Gandhi.
As black newspapers for decades reported on Gandhi’s fights against imperialism, struggles against poverty, efforts to reconcile Hindus and Muslims, and lifelong battles against cruelty toward women, Kapur says that “Gandhi’s very strong stand against untouchability was one of the key reasons who so many African-Americans were drawn to him.”
A black community subjected to legal segregation was especially sensitive to the issue of untouchability as an internal contradiction of the Indian struggle. Certain sections of the African-American press . . . [concentrated] on the workings of India’s caste system . . . . They highlighted the similarities between the two situations—that of segregation in the United States and that of untouchability in the Indian subcontinent.
Among those invited to India by mid-century were three who would become the tutors of King. By 1948 Bayard Rustin had been invited. By the 1950s, James Farmer and James Lawson would go. I’ll say more shortly.
When King bought the 6 books in 1950-51, what fascinated him most was the 1930 Salt March. The Salt Laws of the British Empire in India taxed something essential for life, which is a natural resource. Gandhi made the removal of these laws the basis for a national civil-disobedience movement. The Salt March started with 79 adherents, one of whom was Krishnalal Shridharani, whose 1939 book War without Violence would be studied by King later in Montgomery. After training for months, they walked for 24 days, 241 miles, their numbers swelling to thousands. Reaching the sea, surrounded by international reporters, Gandhi filled a container with sea-water and made salt. The next day, in many of India’s 600,000 villages, people took out their pots and pans and disobeyed the Salt Laws by evaporating sea water, in a militantly nonviolent campaign. Reading about it 20 years later, King was enthralled. Implanted deeply in his mind was the idea that one can refuse to cooperate with a government, laws, or customs that treat a group as inferior.
Upon moving to Montgomery, the Kings kept a pistol in the parsonage. Floodlights illuminated the grounds at night and sentries carried pistols and shotguns, because the church’s trustees insisted on armed guards. Two months into the boycott, visitors reported that the guards had an “arsenal.” King applied to the county sheriff for a permit to carry a pistol. He depicted these initiatives as a matter of self-defense. Asked whether such a policy was compatible with a nonviolent movement, he responded that there was no intention to harm anyone unless he and the security teams were first attacked with violence. Later on, he would come to see the contradiction in permitting the use of arms to protect himself and his family.
After the Montgomery bus boycott began in 1955, Bayard Rustin, a professional trainer in nonviolent struggle who had been to India in 1948, tutored King on a nightly basis about the Indian struggles. Plying him with books, Bayard introduced him to Shridharani and other sources, such as Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, translated into English in 1940. King’s nightly tutorials with Bayard Rustin, and Glenn Smiley who followed Bayard, gave King a deep grounding in strategy, theory, and practice. Once the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was set up in 1957, the Reverend James M. Lawson, Jr., at King’s instigation, would lead workshops at every meeting. Local SCLC affiliates tended to emphasize demonstrations, marches, and rallies—methods of protest and persuasion—although they also held voter registration drives.
In Montgomery in 1956, having only just learned the rudiments of nonviolent direct action, King was already thinking globally. He insisted that nonviolent resistance was “an important method,” “a method that all of the oppressed peoples of the world must use if justice is to be achieved in a proper sense.” The “technique of nonviolence,” he said, is “not a method of submission or surrender,” but “a method that is very active in seeking to change conditions . . .”
The foundation for the U.S. civil rights movement as one of strategic nonviolent action was framed by the Montgomery bus boycott, and these contours were derived from India. “While the Montgomery boycott was going on,” King said, “India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.”
Also in 1956, James Morris Lawson Jr. returned after 3 years in India. In 1957 he met King, and by 1959 Jim was running regular workshops in Nashville, Tennessee, for student activists from the city’s institutions of higher learning. On February 1, 1960, word reached Nashville that Ezell Blair, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Rich—four black students attending North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, North Carolina—had sought service at a “whites only” lunch counter. When refused or asked to leave, they stayed. News of their “sit-in,” a term they did not use, circled a world in which movements for self-determination were shaking off colonialism and its inherent inequities. Across the South, black students, and also white, moved into action. The Nashville group would become the largest contingent of the southern student sit-in movement that would later in 1960 gave rise to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), pron. snick.
Both Lawson and Rustin tutored the staffs of SCLC and SNCC, the two main southern civil rights organizations. It is vital to recognize that the CRM had extremely localized purposes in its constituent local movements—it was a movement of movements. These tutors’ direct exposure to the strategic thinking of the Indian struggles let them apply lessons from India to local priorities, as they explained in nightly mass meetings of southern black congregations. They prepared staff, neighborhood leaders, and local people, many of whom were illiterate or semi-literate, on the logic and practice of civil resistance. They emphasized how any introduction of violence would destroy the benefits of nonviolent resistance, and the need to withhold any pretext for ruthless reprisals. After warming up with the singing of freedom songs in packed churches, the local people and staff would discuss objectives and strategies, while preparing themselves for arrests, beatings, injuries, prison — or worse.
Let me make 2 observations: The butcher, baker, and candlestick maker cannot be expected to read history and theory. In every contemporary civil-resistance campaign that I have studied, I have found interpreters who acted as intermediaries between the aggrieved and those who were doing the organizing. The interaction between audacious visionaries who could interpret and those whose hearts ached from oppression but had little systematic understanding is extremely important in nonviolent action. Scholar-practitioners often play crucial roles as interpreters. They can understand timing, discerning when deep-rooted grievances have newly become actionable. The Montgomery bus boycott 1955-56 and the 1960 student sit-in movement catalytically provided for the preparation of local visionaries, joined by professional tutors. Insufficient recognition has been given to how both Gandhi and King possessed exceptional abilities to interpret for their often semi-literate audiences that they had the right to participate politically, and how they could do it.
Secondly, comprehension and preparation are essential elements in explaining the emergence of effective nonviolent mobilizations, up to this very minute. Word of mouth and a developing literature were then and remain today the primary channels for educating groups and societies about nonviolent action. Only the means of transmission have changed. Nonviolent mobilizations always appropriate the most advanced technologies available. The focus on Twitter and Facebook in current nonviolent campaigns usually fails to establish this context.
In fact, King was not original in creating the nonviolent strategies that he promoted, but he was able to absorb, study, learn, modify, and teach his understanding of the technique, which would ultimately encourage other movements across world in decades to come.
Nor was he the generative force in Montgomery. For 3 years prior to anyone hearing of Rosa Parks, the city’s black Women’s Political Council had been planning a city-wide action. Jo Ann Robinson and others thought economic resistance might work against the city’s racially segregated bus system. On Thursday December 1, 1955, the 42-year-old Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. Seizing the moment, Robinson overnight mimeographed 37,000 flyers announcing a one-day boycott for the coming Monday, figuring that the flyers had to go home with schoolchildren on Friday. Parks’s action had nothing to do with tired feet. The previous summer she had attended Highlander Folk School, a training institute for labor-union organizers in Monteagle, Tennessee, which for more than 20 years had provided a unique forum for interracial dialogue. There, she had learned the intricacies of nonviolent direct action. Hers was a deliberate act of political cognizance.
King had to be dragooned into leading the boycott organization, which also reflected the uncertainty of other pastors. With the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the focal point of the action switched from the women’s council to the churches, and the ministers came into the vanguard. The speed with which the direction shifted to King on December 5 was astounding. Still a reluctant leader, in his remarks that night in the mass meeting at the Holt Street Baptist Church, although he declared that “we are not here advocating violence,” he did not mention the words nonviolence or speak of nonviolent action. Yet the whole world would soon learn about King and be hearing these terms.
On January 30, 1956, the parsonage of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was bombed. The grandson of slaves peered into dense Alabama darkness from the porch of his bombed-out home. Seeing that many of his neighbors were armed, he held up his hand and spoke: “I want you to go home and put down your weapons”; “We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence.” He also said, “[I]f I am stopped this movement will not end. For what we are doing is right”; “Remember, if I am stopped our work will not stop.” It was, if not his finest oration, his finest hour, as the spirit of the mass mobilization yet to unfold became visible world over. His remarks solidified the consensus that had been building in the black community for 4 decades. To the extent that there is a precise instant when the nonviolent parameters for the decade-long struggle became visible, it was this moment. His words were carried worldwide about how to fight for social justice and they had global historical significance.
The boycott’s success—acknowledged when the Supreme Court ruled in November 1956 that local laws requiring segregation on buses were unconstitutional—raised hopes for similar eradication of other terrible practices. Within one decade, the legal supports for the racial caste system in the United States would be taken down.
When King initially had encountered Thoreau at college, aged perhaps 16, it was his first exposure to the idea that you can refuse to be governed by those who dominate you, even if in bondage or servitude. For Gandhi, this insight meant that no government can exist if the people cease to obey it. Yet it was after the Montgomery bus boycott that Gandhian thinking and an absolute commitment to nonviolent struggle would win King’s wholehearted deep-seated conviction.
He would become one of history’s most influential agents for propagating knowledge of the potential for constructive social change without resorting to violence. How he himself learned the theory and practice of nonviolent civil resistance is a reminder that this method is neither intuitive nor spontaneous. The scholar Gene Sharp stresses, “. . . . it is crucial to understand that the basic dichotomy of social and political behavior is between action and inaction, rather than between nonviolence and violence.” It is a logical system that must be learned.
“Letter from Birmingham City Jail”
In 1963 in Birmingham, major demonstrations and boycotts were aimed at desegregating the restaurants in downtown department stores. With more than 60 unsolved bombings when I first went there, we called the city “Bombingham.” During a small march on April 12, authorities arrested King and others for violating a court injunction forbidding civil rights demonstrations in the city.
In solitary confinement, King intended the letter as a response to eight clergy who argued that the movement’s goals should be litigation and negotiations. With no books, he penned his letter in the margins of the newspaper where the criticism had been published. A black trusty in the jail brought writing-paper scraps. Lawyers stealthily carried yellow notepads to his cell. In the letter, which was never sent, King explains that nonviolent action can produce negotiations: “You may well ask, ‘Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, etc.? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” He was released eight days later, hence April 16 is the date placed on the letter. King’s 1963 letter from the Birmingham city jail is permeated by the idea that cooperation can be withheld from a unjust government, laws, or customs. It would become the most important document produced by the civil rights movement and the most forceful defense of civil disobedience and the right to resist nonviolently to that point in history.
Global Vision: A “World House”
King was both a forerunner and a critic of what goes under the rubric of globalization. Propelled by powerful international corporations that financially benefit from the transfer of products, capital, and technology across borders, globalization is often described with the word integration. Globalization also alludes to transnational flows of concepts, languages, and popular culture. In examining globalization theory and praxis today one hears strong echoes of what King had in mind when he spoke of the “world house,” the “worldwide neighborhood,” or the “new world order” as “the great new problem of mankind.”  Listen to how he expresses a communitarian ideal by confronting a poignant reality of his time: “However deeply American Negroes are caught in the struggle to be at last at home in our homeland of the United States, we cannot ignore the larger world house in which we are also dwellers.” 
In his final two books, King directly addresses the challenge of global citizenship and of survival in what he perceived as an increasingly globalized world. In The Trumpet of Conscience (1967) he described his own pursuit for human equality, justice, and peace in global vocabularies, declaring, “I speak as a citizen of the world.”  In Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967), he describes the peoples of the earth as part of a “world house,” a “worldwide neighborhood,” “a single neighborhood,” or a “human family,” which was in critical need of more wholesome ways of being globally linked. Grasping with clarity and depth how international systems create and exploit differences, within the “world house” all humanity would be valued and interconnected. As King expressed it, the full realization of the world house would require a global nonviolent strategy of resistance to eradicate the triple evils of racism, poverty, militarism — as well as other manifestations of oppression.
Although the world is now interconnected in ways that King could only have imagined, I believe that his “world house” vision is still significant, particularly in a context in which globalization theoreticians and campaigners are calling for global justice, the spread of democratic freedoms and human rights, and the intercontinental conversations underway on the ideas, values, norms, and material goods that would address the treasured cultural, economic, intellectual, social, political, and religious wellbeing of the entire human family.  Some today see his thinking as the basis for a positive global ethic. Any serious study of globalization should include King’s formulations, which remind us how some modes of thinking about life, humanity, and the world might extend across generations and geographical and cultural boundaries.
King portended contemporary globalization theorists and activists in calling for a fresh core of globally shared values. How to speak to the question of global justice? How to tackle threats to democratic freedoms and human rights worldwide? What is our responsibility in the face of the globalization of racism and sexism? Can there be a global response to the sexual predation and murderous assault of women and other marginalized groups in our global age? How to confront the dilemmas of conventional war, nuclear proliferation, and human destruction? What is the responsible answer to the racing degradation of the environment?
Lewis V. Baldwin, editor of a new book, notes that King did not see globalization as a threat. Rather, “King wanted a radical reconstruction of global society with an accent on the highest human values—values that would draw on the very best qualities of people from every part of the globe.” 
King enunciated his global vision in his 1967 Christmas Eve sermon:
“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality. . . . We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.” 
King’s urging of study and serious experimentation is still not underway
Martin Luther King, Jr., was in St. Joseph’s Infirmary, Atlanta, for exhaustion and a viral infection—costs apparently exacted by intelligence surveillance efforts and pressures from learning that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had formally approved wiretaps by the Federal Bureau of Investigation—when news came that King would receive the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.  His remarks in Oslo that December tied the nonviolent struggle in the United States to the whole planet’s need for disarmament. He said that the most exceptional characteristic of the movement was the direct participation of masses of people in it. King’s remarks were also his toughest bid for the use of nonviolent resistance on issues other than racial injustice. International nonviolent action, he said, might be utilized to let global leaders know that beyond racial and economic justice, individuals across the world were concerned about world peace:
I venture to suggest [above all] . . . that . . . nonviolence become immediately a subject for study and for serious experimentation in every field of human conflict, by no means excluding relations between nations . . . which [ultimately] make war. . . .
Advising journalists that he would donate the prize money to the movement, he returned home to engross himself in plans for the 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, which would be the last major surge of direct action for this movement. After this major event, the movement would turn to political and economic organizing, the development of alternative political parties and social institutions—among the most advanced methods of nonviolent struggle.
Please note carefully that in the half century since King spoke in Oslo, nonviolent civil resistance has never been allocated even a minute fraction of the resources for study that have been dedicated to the fields of democratization, development, the environment, human rights, and aspects of national security. Many, many questions beg for research, starting with intensive interrogation of failed nonviolent struggles.
Persuaded that “there is no basic difference between colonialism and segregation,” King saw them each as part of “the same tragic doctrine of white supremacy.” His articulation of this linkage fortified the connections between the descendants of Africans in the Americas and those who were attempting to throw off the last vestiges of colonial rule across the world. His trips to Africa in 1957 and India in 1959 boosted his influence with the rest of the world.
Having concluded that nonviolent struggle was a technique that could be taught, King became its most potent propagator, speeding knowledge of nonviolent action across cultures and peoples— illuminating, propounding, representing, and imparting knowledge that had often come from East to West.
© Mary Elizabeth King
 Sudarshan Kapur, Raising Up a Prophet: The African-American Encounter with Gandhi (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992).
 John Habner, “Faith, Hope and Bishop Carroll,” Boston Phoenix, May 13, 1980, 10.
 Kapur, Raising Up A Prophet, 60
 Martin Luther King, Jr, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1958), 141; Glenn E. Smiley to John Swomley and Alfred Hassler, February 29, 1956, as cited in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson et al., vol. 3, Birth of a New Age, December 1955-December 1956 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 14 n60.
 King, Jr., “Non-Aggression Procedures to Interracial Harmony,” address delivered to executives of the Home Mission Societies of Christian Friends, Green Lake, Wisconsin, July 23, 1956, in Papers, vol. 3, 321-28.
 King Jr., “My Trip to the Land of Gandhi,” from Ebony, July 1959, in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1986), 23.
 Joe Azbell, “Blast Rocks Residence of Bus Boycott Leader” (January 31, 1956), as cited in Carson, et. al., eds., Papers, vol. 3, 115.
 Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, in 3 vols. (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973), vol. I, 65.
 King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here?, 167–91; idem, “Desirability of Being Maladjusted,” unpublished version of sermon (January 13, 1958), King Center Library and Archives, Atlanta, 1.
 King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 167.
 King, Jr., The Trumpet of Conscience (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1967), 31.
 Hak Joon Lee, The Great World House: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Global Ethics (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2011), 15.
 Lewis V. Baldwin, “Living in the ‘World House’: Martin Luther King. Jr. and Globalization as Theory and Praxis,” in “In an Inescapable Network of Mutuality”: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Globalization of an Ethical Ideal, ed. Lewis V. Bladwin and Paul R. Dekar (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2013), 7.
 King Jr., “A Christmas Sermon on Peace.” (On Christmas Eve 1967, the Canadian Broadcast Corporation aired this sermon as part of its seventh annual Massey Lectures.)
 Gary M. Pomerantz, Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn: The Saga of Two Families and the Making of Atlanta (New York: Lisa Drew/Scribner, 1996), 334–35.
 King, Jr, “The Quest for Peace and Justice,” in Nobel Lectures, Peace, 1951–1970, vol. 3, address of December 11, 1964, upon receiving the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize (Nobelstiftelsen), copyright the Nobel Foundation, 1964, Frederick Haberman, ed. (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1972), 338–43.
 David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1986), 118.
All Photographs in this post are (c) Copyright 2013 Martine Sprangers Fotografie.