Martin Luther King and the Compassionate Revolution

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses group of Watts residents following the summer riots of 1965Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses group of Watts residents following the summer riots of 1965. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Fifty years ago, the Civil Rights Movement forced Americans to have serious and difficult conversations about race. Dr. Martin Luther King argued, “returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.” In the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, it is worth remembering that at the heart of the original Civil Rights Movement was not rioting or looting, but compassion.

In the beginning, the 1963 Birmingham campaign was not going well. There was little consensus among the African American community about the direction of the movement. Furthermore, the national media, as well as those watching it, frowned upon the protestors. King explained, “virtually all the coverage in the national press at first had been negative, picturing us as irresponsible hotheads who had plunged into a situation just when Birmingham was getting ready to change….” Institutional change, it seemed, took time and patience, especially when dealing with racial tension.

King aligned his first public campaign to a far more radical notion: that finding compassion for others was the only way to change society. Americans watched on “a thousand brightly lighted stages” the horrors of brutality: citizens stood passive and took beatings, dog attacks, and water pressure from fire hoses so powerful it can take the bark off trees. The sights horrified viewers and stimulated compassion across the country. King noted that because of this, “sympathy and support from white and Negro sources accelerated in geometric proportions.” From the Birmingham Campaign came the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In the summer of 1963, King reminded Americans that the “heritage of freedom is ultimately more powerful than our traditions of cruelty and injustice.” Love for America and its lofty ideals could unite different groups of people. King concluded, “it was an army without guns…it had adherents of every faith, members of every class, every profession, united by a single idea…its most powerful weapon was love.”

Fifty years later, King’s idea still matters: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

About the Author

Steven Cromack

Historian. Teacher. James Madison Fellow. Steven Cromack teaches high school social studies in the Boston suburbs, lives for the moment, and pursues Life itself.

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1 Comment

  1. Great article. King was but one leader of many, but his ability to redefine Civil Rights as a moral issue set him apart, and you capture part of that legacy here. Of course, there are still questions about how to best honor his legacy. For instance, how do we discuss his compassion and restraint without losing sight of his critiques of Vietnam and capitalism? There are also questions about how to best understand Civil Rights. Was it defined by a handful of great leaders, or by the thousands of people on the ground? And where does all of this fit into today’s troubling context? No matter how you answer these difficult questions, thank you for writing this interesting piece.

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