Today we honor the memory and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. President Reagan spoke these words about Dr. King upon signing the bill that would establish Dr. King’s birthday as a national holiday:
In his own life’s example, he symbolized what was right about America, what was noblest and best, what human beings have pursued since the beginning of history. He loved unconditionally. He was in constant pursuit of truth, and when he discovered it, he embraced it. His nonviolent campaigns brought about redemption, reconciliation, and justice. He taught us that only peaceful means can bring about peaceful ends, that our goal was to create the love community.
Understanding the foundational beliefs behind Dr. King’s mission helps us to appreciate his work even more. What were those beliefs? In his book, Wounds That Will Not Heal: Affirmative Action and Our Continuing Racial Divide, Professor Russell K. Nieli describes the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s as a contest between two philosophies. The Southern segregationists, infected with hatred, viewed human beings not as unique persons but as depersonalized representatives of larger racial or ethnic collectives. Dr. King, and those who heroically marched and protested with him, held personalistic views. They viewed human beings as distinct and unique individuals (“persons”), who are capable of relating to, and communing with, all others of their kind on the basis of a group-unmediated, soul-to-soul relationship of mutual equality and respect.
Nieli further discusses the classical liberal and Christian roots of American Personalism. The Declaration of Independence and classical liberalism provide the notion that all human beings have equal individual rights and government exists to protect these rights.
Dr. King embodied the personalistic idea in its Christian form. He believed that each human being is loved by God and has a separate inner relationship to God irrespective of whatever social relationships such a person may have. This is evident in his writings and speeches. In Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. King wrote:
I studied personalistic philosophy–the theory that the clue to the meaning of ultimate reality is found in personality. This personal idealism remains today my basic philosophical position. Personalism’s insistence that only personality–finite and infinite–is ultimately real strengthened me in two convictions: it gave me metaphysical and philosophical grounding for the idea of a personal God, and it gave me a metaphysical basis for the dignity and worth of all human personality.
In Where Do We Go from Here, he wrote:
The image of God is universally shared in equal portions by all men . . . . Every human being has etched in his personality the indelible stamp of the Creator. Every man must be respected because God loves him. The worth of an individual does not lie in the measure of his intellect, his racial origin, or his social position. Human worth lies in relatedness to God. An individual has value because he has value to God. Whenever this is recognized, “whiteness” and blackness” pass away as determinants in a relationship and “son” and “brother” are substituted.
President Reagan said that “America is a more democratic nation, a more just nation, a more peaceful nation because Martin Luther King, Jr., became her preeminent nonviolent commander.” It is important to honor the legacy of Dr. King, and one way of doing this is understand his belief in American Personalism.