On December 5, 1955, to the amused annoyance of the white citizens of Montgomery, Alabama, an obscure young Baptist minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., called a city-wide Negro boycott of its segregated bus system. To their consternation, however, it was almost 100 percent successful; it lasted for 381 days and nearly bankrupted the bus line. When King’s home was bombed during the siege, thousands of enraged Negroes were ready to riot, but the soft-spoken clergyman prevailed on them to channel their anger into nonviolent protest—and became world-renowned as a champion of Gandhi’s philosophy of passive resistance. Within a year the Supreme Court had ruled Jim Crow seating unlawful on Montgomery’s buses, and King found himself, at 27, on the front lines of a nonviolent Negro revolution against racial injustice.
Moving to Atlanta, he formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an alliance of church-affiliated civil rights organizations which joined such activist groups as CORE and SNCC in a widening campaign of sit-in demonstrations and freedom rides throughout the South. Dissatisfied with the slow pace of the protest movement, King decided to create a crisis in 1963 that would “dramatize the Negro plight and galvanize the national conscience.” He was abundantly successful, for his mass nonviolent demonstration in arch-segregationist Birmingham resulted in the arrest of more than 3300 Negroes, including King himself; and millions were outraged by front-page pictures of Negro demonstrators being brutalized by the billy sticks, police dogs and fire hoses of police chief Bull Connor.
In the months that followed, mass sit-ins and demonstrations erupted in 800 Southern cities; President Kennedy proposed a Civil Rights Bill aimed at the enforcement of voting rights, equal employment opportunities, and the desegregation of public facilities, and the now-famous march on Washington, 200,000 strong, was eloquently addressed by King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. By the end of that “long hot summer,” America’s Negroes had won more tangible gains than in any year since 1865—and Martin Luther King had become their acknowledged leader and most respected spokesman. He earned it the hard way: In the course of his civil rights work he has been jailed 14 times and stabbed once in the chest; his home has been bombed three times; and his daily mail brings a steady flow of death threats and obscenities. Undeterred, he works 20 hours a day, travels 325,000 miles and makes 450 speeches a year throughout the country on behalf of the Negro cause. Inundated by calls, callers and correspondence at his S.C.L.C. office in Atlanta, he also finds time somehow to preach, visit the sick and help the poor among his congregation at the city’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, of which he and his father are the pastors.
So heavy, in fact, were his commitments when we called him last summer for an interview, that two months elapsed before he was able to accept our request for an appointment. We kept it—only to spend a week in Atlanta waiting vainly for him to find a moment for more than an apology and a hurried handshake. A bit less pressed when we returned for a second visit, King was finally able to sandwich in a series of hour and half-hour conversations with us among the other demands of a grueling week. The resultant interview is the longest he has ever granted to any publication.
Though he spoke with heartfelt and often eloquent sincerity, his tone was one of businesslike detachment. And his mood, except for one or two flickering smiles of irony, was gravely serious—never more so than the moment, during a rare evening with his family on our first night in town, when his four children chided him affectionately for “not being home enough.” After dinner, we began the interview on this personal note.
As one who grew up in the economically comfortable, socially insulated environment of a middle-income home in Atlanta, can you recall when it was that you yourself first became painfully and personally aware of racial prejudice?
Very clearly. When I was 14, I had traveled from Atlanta to Dublin, Georgia, with a dear teacher of mine, Mrs. Bradley; she’s dead now. I had participated there in an oratorical contest sponsored by the Negro Elks. It turned out to be a memorable day, for I had succeeded in winning the contest. My subject, I recall, ironically enough, was “The Negro and the Constitution.” Anyway, that night, Mrs. Bradley and I were on a bus returning to Atlanta, and at a small town along the way, some white passengers boarded the bus, and the white driver ordered us to get up and give the whites our seats. We didn’t move quickly enough to suit him, so he began cursing us, calling us “black sons of bitches.” I intended to stay right in that seat, but Mrs. Bradley finally urged me up, saying we had to obey the law. And so we stood up in the aisle for the 90 miles to Atlanta. That night will never leave my memory. It was the angriest I have ever been in my life.
Wasn’t it another such incident on a bus, years later, that thrust you into your present role as a civil rights leader?
Yes, it was — in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. E.D. Nixon, a Pullman porter long identified with the NAACP, telephoned me late one night to tell me that Mrs. Rosa Parks had been arrested around seven-thirty that evening when a bus driver demanded that she give up her seat, and she refused — because her feet hurt. Nixon had already bonded Mrs. Parks out of prison. He said, “It’s time this stops; we ought to boycott the buses.” I agreed and said, “Now.” The next night we called a meeting of Negro community leaders to discuss it, and on Saturday and Sunday we appealed to the Negro community, with leaflets and from the pulpits, to boycott the buses on Monday. We had in mind a one-day boycott, and we were banking on 60-percent success. But the boycott saw instantaneous 99-percent success. We were so pleasantly surprised and impressed that we continued, and for the next 381 days the boycott of Montgomery’s buses by Negroes was 99 9/10 successful.
Were you sure you’d win?
There was one dark moment when we doubted it. We had been struggling to make the boycott a success when the city of Montgomery successfully obtained an injunction from the court to stop our car pool. I didn’t know what to say to our people. They had backed us up, and we had let them down. It was a desolate moment. I saw, all of us saw, that the court was leaning against us. I remember telling a group of those working closest with me to spread in the Negro community the message, “We must have the faith that things will work out somehow, that God will make a way for us when there seems no way.” It was about noontime, I remember, when Rex Thomas of the Associated Press rushed over to where I was sitting and told me of the news flash that the U.S. Supreme Court had declared that bus segregation in Montgomery was unconstitutional. It had literally been the darkest hour before the dawn.
You and your followers were criticized, after your arrest for participating in the boycott, for accepting bail and leaving jail. Do you feel, in retrospect, that you did the right thing?
No; I think it was a mistake, a tactical error for me to have left jail, by accepting bail, after being indicted along with 125 others, mainly drivers of our car pool, under an old law of doubtful constitutionality, an “antiboycott” ordinance. I should have stayed in prison. It would have nationally dramatized and deepened our movement even earlier, and it would have more quickly aroused and keened America’s conscience.
Do you feel you’ve been guilty of any comparable errors in judgment since then?
Yes, I do — in Albany, Georgia, in 1962. If I had that to do again, I would guide that community’s Negro leadership differently than I did. The mistake I made there was to protest against segregation generally rather than against a single and distinct facet of it. Our protest was so vague that we got nothing, and the people were left very depressed and in despair. It would have been much better to have concentrated upon integrating the buses or the lunch counters. One victory of this kind would have been symbolic, would have galvanized support and boosted morale. But I don’t mean that our work in Albany ended in failure. The Negro people there straightened up their bent backs; you can’t ride a man’s back unless it’s bent. Also, thousands of Negroes registered to vote who never had voted before, and because of the expanded Negro vote in the next election for governor of Georgia—which pitted a moderate candidate against a rabid segregationist—Georgia elected its first governor who had pledged to respect and enforce the law impartially. And what we learned from our mistakes in Albany helped our later campaigns in other cities to be more effective. We have never since scattered our efforts in a general attack on segregation, but have focused upon specific, symbolic objectives.
Can you recall any other mistakes you’ve made in leading the movement?
Well, the most pervasive mistake I have made was in believing that because our cause was just, we could be sure that the white ministers of the South, once their Christian consciences were challenged, would rise to our aid. I felt that white ministers would take our cause to the white power structures. I ended up, of course, chastened and disillusioned. As our movement unfolded, and direct appeals were made to white ministers, most folded their hands—and some even took stands against us.
Their stated reason for refusing to help was that it was not the proper role of the church to “intervene in secular affairs.” Do you disagree with this view?
Most emphatically. The essence of the Epistles of Paul is that Christians should rejoice at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believe. The projection of a social gospel, in my opinion, is the true witness of a Christian life. This is the meaning of the true ekklesia — the inner, spiritual church. The church once changed society. It was then a thermostat of society. But today I feel that too much of the church is merely a thermometer, which measures rather than molds popular opinion.
Are you speaking of the church in general — or the white church in particular?
The white church, I’m sorry to say. Its leadership has greatly disappointed me. Let me hasten to say there are some outstanding exceptions. As one whose Christian roots go back through three generations of ministers — my father, grandfather and great-grandfather — I will remain true to the church as long as I live. But the laxity of the white church collectively has caused me to weep tears of love. There cannot be deep disappointment without deep love. Time and again in my travels, as I have seen the outward beauty of white churches, I have had to ask myself, “What kind of people worship there? Who is their God? Is their God the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and is their Savior the Savior who hung on the cross at Golgotha? Where were their voices when a black race took upon itself the cross of protest against man’s injustice to man? Where were their voices when defiance and hatred were called for by white men who sat in these very churches?”
My personal disillusionment with the church began when I was thrust into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery. I was confident that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would prove strong allies in our just cause. But some became open adversaries, some cautiously shrank from the issue, and others hid behind silence. My optimism about help from the white church was shattered; and on too many occasions since, my hopes for the white church have been dashed. There are many signs that the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. Unless the early sacrificial spirit is recaptured, I am very much afraid that today’s Christian church will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and we will see the Christian church dismissed as a social club with no meaning or effectiveness for our time, as a form without substance, as salt without savor. The real tragedy, though, is not Martin Luther King’s disillusionment with the church — for I am sustained by its spiritual blessings as a minister of the gospel with a lifelong commitment; the tragedy is that in my travels. I meet young people of all races whose disenchantment with the church has soured into outright disgust.
Do you feel that the Negro church has come any closer to “the projection of a social gospel” in its commitment to the cause?
I must say that when my Southern Christian Leadership Conference began its work in Birmingham, we encountered numerous Negro church reactions that had to be overcome. Negro ministers were among other Negro leaders who felt they were being pulled into something that they had not helped to organize. This is almost always a problem. Negro community unity was the first requisite if our goals were to be realized. I talked with many groups, including one group of 200 ministers, my theme to them being that a minister cannot preach the glories of heaven while ignoring social conditions in his own community that cause men an earthly hell. I stressed that the Negro minister had particular freedom and independence to provide strong, firm leadership, and I asked how the Negro would ever gain freedom without his minister’s guidance, support and inspiration. These ministers finally decided to entrust our movement with their support, and as a result, the role of the Negro church today, by and large, is a glorious example in the history of Christendom. For never in Christian history, within a Christian country, have Christian churches been on the receiving end of such naked brutality and violence as we are witnessing here in America today. Not since the days of the Christians in the catacombs has God’s house, as a symbol, weathered such attack as the Negro churches.
I shall never forget the grief and bitterness I felt on that terrible September morning when a bomb blew out the lives of those four little, innocent girls sitting in their Sunday-school class in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. I think of how a woman cried out, crunching through broken glass, “My God, we’re not even safe in church!” I think of how that explosion blew the face of Jesus Christ from a stained-glass window. It was symbolic of how sin and evil had blotted out the life of Christ. I can remember thinking that if men were this bestial, was it all worth it? Was there any hope? Was there any way out?
Do you still feel this way?
No, time has healed the wounds — and buoyed me with the inspiration of another moment which I shall never forget: when I saw with my own eyes over 3000 young Negro boys and girls, totally unarmed, leave Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church to march to a prayer meeting — ready to pit nothing but the power of their bodies and souls against Bull Connor’s police dogs, clubs and fire hoses. When they refused Connor’s bellowed order to turn back, he whirled and shouted to his men to turn on the hoses. It was one of the most fantastic events of the Birmingham story that these Negroes, many of them on their knees, stared, unafraid and unmoving, at Connor’s men with the hose nozzles in their hands. Then, slowly the Negroes stood up and advanced, and Connor’s men fell back as though hypnotized, as the Negroes marched on past to hold their prayer meeting. I saw there, I felt there, for the first time, the pride and the power of nonviolence.
Your detractors in the Negro community often refer to you snidely as “De Lawd” and “Booker T. King.” What’s your reaction to this sort of Uncle Tom label?
I hear some of those names, but my reaction to them is never emotional. I don’t think you can be in public life without being called bad names. As Lincoln said, “If I answered all criticism, I’d have time for nothing else.” But with regard to both of the names you mentioned, I’ve always tried to be what I call militantly nonviolent. I don’t believe that anyone could seriously accuse me of not being totally committed to the breakdown of segregation.
What do you mean by “militantly nonviolent”?
I mean to say that a strong man must be militant as well as moderate. He must be a realist as well as an idealist. If I am to merit the trust invested in me by some of my race, I must be both of these things. This is why nonviolence is a powerful as well as a just weapon. If you confront a man who has long been cruelly misusing you, and say, “Punish me, if you will; I do not deserve it, but I will accept it, so that the world will know I am right and you are wrong,” then you wield a powerful and a just weapon. This man, your oppressor, is automatically morally defeated, and if he has any conscience, he is ashamed. Wherever this weapon is used in a manner that stirs a community’s, or a nation’s, anguished conscience, then the pressure of public opinion becomes an ally in your just cause.
Another of the major strengths of the nonviolent weapon is its strange power to transform and transmute the individuals who subordinate themselves to its disciplines, investing them with a cause that is larger than themselves. They become, for the first time, somebody, and they have, for the first time, the courage to be free. When the Negro finds the courage to be free, he faces dogs and guns and clubs and fire hoses totally unafraid, and the white men with those dogs, guns, clubs and fire hoses see that the Negro they have traditionally called “boy” has become a man.
We should not forget that, although nonviolent direct action did not originate in America, it found a natural home where it has been a revered tradition to rebel against injustice. This great weapon, which we first tried out in Montgomery during the bus boycott, has been further developed throughout the South over the past decade, until by today it has become instrumental in the greatest mass-action crusade for freedom that has occurred in America since the Revolutionary War. The effectiveness of this weapon’s ability to dramatize, in the world’s eyes, an oppressed peoples’ struggle for justice is evident in the fact that of 1963’s top ten news stories after the assassination of President Kennedy and the events immediately connected with it, nine stories dealt with one aspect or another of the Negro struggle.
Several of those stories dealt with your own nonviolent campaigns against segregation in various Southern cities, where you and your followers have been branded “rabble-rousers” and “outside agitators.” Do you feel you’ve earned these labels?
Wherever the early Christians appeared, spreading Christ’s doctrine of love, the resident power structure accused them of being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the small Christian band continued to teach and exemplify love, convinced that they were “a colony of heaven” on this earth who were missioned to obey not man but God. If those of us who employ nonviolent direct action today are dismissed by our white brothers as “rabble-rousers” and “outside agitators,” if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts and goals, we can be assured that the summer of 1965 will be no less long and hot than the summer of 1964.
Our white brothers must be made to understand that nonviolence is a weapon fabricated of love. It is a sword that heals. Our nonviolent direct-action program has as its objective not the creation of tensions, but the surfacing of tensions already present. We set out to precipitate a crisis situation that must open the door to negotiation. I am not afraid of the words “crisis” and “tension.” I deeply oppose violence, but constructive crisis and tension are necessary for growth. Innate in all life, and all growth, is tension. Only in death is there an absence of tension. To cure injustices, you must expose them before the light of human conscience and the bar of public opinion, regardless of whatever tensions that exposure generates. Injustices to the Negro must be brought out into the open where they cannot be evaded.
Your celebrated “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”—written during one of your jail terms for civil disobedience — is an eloquent reply to eight Protestant, Catholic and Jewish clergymen who had criticized your activities in Birmingham. Do you feel that subsequent events have justified the sentiments expressed in your letter?
I would say yes. Two or three important and constructive things have happened which can be at least partially attributed to that letter. By now, nearly a million copies of the letter have been widely circulated in churches of most of the major denominations. It helped to focus greater international attention upon what was happening in Birmingham. And I am sure that without Birmingham, the march on Washington wouldn’t have been called—which in my mind was one of the most creative steps the Negro struggle has taken. The march on Washington spurred and galvanized the consciences of millions. It gave the American Negro a new national and international stature. The press of the world recorded the story as nearly a quarter of a million Americans, white and black, assembled in grandeur as a testimonial to the Negro’s determination to achieve freedom in this generation.
It was also the image of Birmingham which, to a great extent, helped to bring the Civil Rights Bill into being in 1963. Previously, President Kennedy had decided not to propose it that year, feeling that it would so arouse the South that it would meet a bottleneck. But Birmingham, and subsequent developments, caused him to reorder his legislative priorities.
One of these decisive developments was our last major campaign before the enactment of the Civil Rights Act — in St. Augustine, Florida. We received a plea for help from Dr. Robert Hayling, the leader of the St. Augustine movement. St. Augustine, America’s oldest city, and one of the most segregated cities in America, was a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society. Such things had happened as Klansmen abducting four Negroes and beating them unconscious with clubs, brass knuckles, ax handles and pistol butts. Dr. Hayling’s home had been shot up with buckshot, three Negro homes had been bombed and several Negro night clubs shotgunned. A Negro’s car had been destroyed by fire because his child was one of the six Negro children permitted to attend white schools. And the homes of two of the Negro children in the white schools had been burned down. Many Negroes had been fired from jobs that some had worked on for 28 years because they were somehow connected with the demonstrations. Police had beaten and arrested Negroes for picketing, marching and singing freedom songs. Many Negroes had served up to 90 days in jail for demonstrating against segregation, and four teenagers had spent six months in jail for picketing. Then, on February seventh of last year, Dr. Hayling’s home was shotgunned a second time, with his pregnant wife and two children barely escaping death; the family dog was killed while standing behind the living-room door. So S.C.L.C. decided to join in last year’s celebration of St. Augustine’s gala 400th birthday as America’s oldest city — by converting it into a nonviolent battleground. This is just what we did.
But isn’t it true, Dr. King, that during this and other “nonviolent” demonstrations, violence has occurred — sometimes resulting in hundreds of casualties on both sides?
Yes, in part that is true. But what is always overlooked is how few people, in ratio to the numbers involved, have been casualties. An army on maneuvers, against no enemy, suffers casualties, even fatalities. A minimum of whites have been casualties in demonstrations solely because our teaching of nonviolence disciplines our followers not to fight even if attacked. A minimum of Negroes are casualties for two reasons: Their white oppressors know that the world watches their actions, and for the first time they are being faced by Negroes who display no fear.
Your dissatisfaction with the Civil Rights Act reflects that of most other Negro spokesmen. According to recent polls, however, many whites resent this attitude, calling the Negro “ungrateful” and “unrealistic” to press his demands for more.
This is a litany to those of us in this field. “What more will the Negro want?” “What will it take to make these demonstrations end?” Well, I would like to reply with another rhetorical question: Why do white people seem to find it so difficult to understand that the Negro is sick and tired of having reluctantly parceled out to him those rights and privileges which all others receive upon birth or entry in America? I never cease to wonder at the amazing presumption of much of white society, assuming that they have the right to bargain with the Negro for his freedom. This continued arrogant ladling out of pieces of the rights of citizenship has begun to generate a fury in the Negro. Even so, he is not pressing for revenge, or for conquest, or to gain spoils, or to enslave, or even to marry the sisters of those who have injured him. What the Negro wants — and will not stop until he gets — is absolute and unqualified freedom and equality here in this land of his birth, and not in Africa or in some imaginary state. The Negro no longer will be tolerant of anything less than his due right and heritage. He is pursuing only that which he knows is honorably his. He knows that he is right.
But every Negro leader since the turn of the century has been saying this in one form or another. It is because we have been so long and so conscientiously ignored by the dominant white society that the situation has now reached such crisis proportions. Few white people, even today, will face the clear fact that the very future and destiny of this country are tied up in what answer will be given to the Negro. And that answer must be given soon.
Relatively few dispute the justness of the struggle to eradicate racial injustice, but many whites feel that the Negro should be more patient, that only the passage of time — perhaps generations — will bring about the sweeping changes he demands in traditional attitudes and customs. Do you think this is true?
No, I do not. I feel that the time is always right to do what is right. Where progress for the Negro in America is concerned, there is a tragic misconception of time among whites. They seem to cherish a strange, irrational notion that something in the very flow of time will cure all ills. In truth, time itself is only neutral. Increasingly, I feel that time has been used destructively by people of ill will much more than it has been used constructively by those of good will.
If I were to select a timetable for the equalization of human rights, it would be the intent of the “all deliberate speed” specified in the historic 1954 Supreme Court decision. But what has happened? A Supreme Court decision was met, and balked, with utter defiance. Ten years later, in most areas of the South, less than one percent of the Negro children have been integrated in schools, and in some of the deepest South, not even one tenth of one percent. Approximately 25 percent of employable Negro youth, for another example, are presently unemployed. Though many would prefer not to, we must face the fact that progress for the Negro — to which white “moderates” like to point in justifying gradualism — has been relatively insignificant, particularly in terms of the Negro masses. What little progress has been made — and that includes the Civil Rights Act — has applied primarily to the middle-class Negro. Among the masses, especially in the Northern ghettos, the situation remains about the same, and for some it is worse.
It would seem that much could be done at the local, state and Federal levels to remedy these inequities. In your own contact with them, have you found Government officials—in the North, if not in the South—to be generally sympathetic, understanding, and receptive to appeals for reform?
On the contrary, I have been dismayed at the degree to which abysmal ignorance seems to prevail among many state, city and even Federal officials on the whole question of racial justice and injustice. Particularly, I have found that these men seriously — and dangerously — underestimate the explosive mood of the Negro and the gravity of the crisis. Even among those whom I would consider to be both sympathetic and sincerely intellectually committed, there is a lamentable lack of understanding. But this white failure to comprehend the depth and dimension of the Negro problem is far from being peculiar to Government officials. Apart from bigots and backlashers, it seems to be a malady even among those whites who like to regard themselves as “enlightened.” I would especially refer to those who counsel, “Wait!” and to those who say that they sympathize with our goals but cannot condone our methods of direct-action pursuit of those goals. I wonder at men who dare to feel that they have some paternalistic right to set the timetable for another man’s liberation. Over the past several years, I must say, I have been gravely disappointed with such white “moderates.” I am often inclined to think that they are more of a stumbling block to the Negro’s progress than the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner.
Haven’t both of these segregationist societies been implicated in connection with plots against your life?
It’s difficult to trace the authorship of these death threats. I seldom go through a day without one. Some are telephoned anonymously to my office; others are sent — unsigned, of course — through the mails. Drew Pearson wrote not long ago about one group of unknown affiliation that was committed to assassinate not only me but also Chief Justice Warren and President Johnson. And not long ago, when I was about to visit in Mississippi, I received some very urgent calls from Negro leaders in Mobile, who had been told by a very reliable source that a sort of guerrilla group led by a retired major in the area of Lucyville, Mississippi, was plotting to take my life during the visit. I was strongly urged to cancel the trip, but when I thought about it, I decided that I had no alternative but to go on into Mississippi.
Because I have a job to do. If I were constantly worried about death, I couldn’t function. After a while, if your life is more or less constantly in peril, you come to a point where you accept the possibility philosophically. I must face the fact, as all others in positions of leadership must do, that America today is an extremely sick nation, and that something could well happen to me at any time. I feel, though, that my cause is so right, so moral, that if I should lose my life, in some way it would aid the cause.
That statement exemplifies the total dedication to the civil rights movement for which you are so widely admired — but also denounced as an “extremist” by such segregationist spokesmen as Alabama’s Governor Wallace. Do you accept this identification?
It disturbed me when I first heard it. But when I began to consider the true meaning of the word, I decided that perhaps I would like to think of myself as an extremist — in the light of the spirit which made Jesus an extremist for love. If it sounds as though I am comparing myself to the Savior, let me remind you that all who honor themselves with the claim of being “Christians” should compare themselves to Jesus. Thus I consider myself an extremist for that brotherhood of man which Paul so nobly expressed: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Love is the only force on earth that can be dispensed or received in an extreme manner, without any qualifications, without any harm to the giver or to the receiver.
Perhaps. But the kind of extremism for which you’ve been criticized has to do not with love, but with your advocacy of willful disobedience of what you consider to be “unjust laws.” Do you feel you have the right to pass judgment on and defy the law — nonviolently or otherwise?
Yes — morally, if not legally. For there are two kinds of laws: man’s and God’s. A man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God, is a just law. But a man-made code that is inharmonious with the moral law is an unjust law. And an unjust law, as St. Augustine said, is no law at all. Thus a law that is unjust is morally null and void, and must be defied until it is legally null and void as well. Let us not forget, in the memories of 6,000,000 who died, that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal,” and that everything the Freedom Fighters in Hungary did was “illegal.” In spite of that, I am sure that I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers if I had lived in Germany during Hitler’s reign, as some Christian priests and ministers did do, often at the cost of their lives. And if I lived now in a Communist country where principles dear to the Christian’s faith are suppressed, I know that I would openly advocate defiance of that country’s antireligious laws — again, just as some Christian priests and ministers are doing today behind the Iron Curtain. Right here in America today there are white ministers, priests and rabbis who have shed blood in the support of our struggle against a web of human injustice, much of which is supported by immoral man-made laws.
Many Southern whites, supported by the “research” of several Southern anthropologists, vow that white racial superiority — and Negro inferiority — are a biological fact.
You may remember that during the rise of Nazi Germany, a rash of books by respected German scientists appeared, supporting the master-race theory. This utterly ignorant fallacy has been so thoroughly refuted by the social scientists, as well as by medical science, that any individual who goes on believing it is standing in an absolutely misguided and diminishing circle. The American Anthropological Association has unanimously adopted a resolution repudiating statements that Negroes are biologically, in innate mental ability or in any other way inferior to whites. The collective weight and authority of world scientists are embodied in a Unesco report on races which flatly refutes the theory of innate superiority among any ethnic group. And as far as Negro “blood” is concerned, medical science finds the same four blood types in all race groups.
When the Southern white finally accepts this simple fact — as he eventually must — beautiful results will follow, for we will have come a long way toward transforming his master-servant perspective into a person-to-person perspective. The Southern white man, discovering the “nonmyth” Negro, exhibits all the passion of the new convert, seeing the black man as a man among men for the first time. The South, if it is to survive economically, must make dramatic changes, and these must include the Negro. People of good will in the South, who are the vast majority, have the challenge to be open and honest, and to turn a deaf ear to the shrill cries of the irresponsible few on the lunatic fringe. I think and pray they will.
Whom do you include among “the irresponsible few”?
I include those who preach racism and commit violence; and those who, in various cities where we have sought to peacefully demonstrate, have sought to goad Negroes into violence as an excuse for violent mass reprisal. In Birmingham, for example, on the day it was flashed about the world that a “peace pact” had been signed between the moderate whites and the Negroes, Birmingham’s segregationist forces reacted with fury, swearing vengeance against the white businessmen who had “betrayed” them by negotiating with Negroes. On Saturday night, just outside of Birmingham, a Ku Klux Klan meeting was held, and that same night, as I mentioned earlier, a bomb ripped the home of my brother, the Reverend A. D. King, and another bomb was planted where it would have killed or seriously wounded anyone in the motel room which I had been occupying. Both bombings had been timed just as Birmingham’s bars closed on Saturday midnight, as the streets filled with thousands of Negroes who were not trained in nonviolence, and who had been drinking. Just as whoever planted the bombs had wanted to happen, fighting began, policemen were stoned by Negroes, cars were overturned and fires started.
Were none of your S.C.L.C. workers involved?
If they had been, there would have been no riot, for we believe that only just means may be used in seeking a just end. We believe that lasting gains can be made — and they have been made — only by practicing what we preach: a policy of nonviolent, peaceful protest. The riots, North and South, have involved mobs — not the disciplined, nonviolent, direct-action demonstrators with whom I identify. We do not condone lawlessness, looting and violence committed by the racist or the reckless of any color.
I must say, however, that riots such as have occurred do achieve at least one partially positive effect: They dramatically focus national attention upon the Negro’s discontent. Unfortunately, they also give the white majority an excuse, a provocation, to look away from the cause of the riots — the poverty and the deprivation and the degradation of the Negro, especially in the slums and ghettos where the riots occur — and to talk instead of looting, and of the breakdown of law and order. It is never circulated that some of the looters have been white people, similarly motivated by their own poverty. In one riot in a Northern city, aside from the Negroes and Puerto Ricans who were arrested, there were also 158 white people — including mothers stealing food, children’s shoes and other necessity items. The poor, white and black, were rebelling together against the establishment.
Whom do you mean by “the establishment”?
I mean the white leadership — which I hold as responsible as anyone for the riots, for not removing the conditions that cause them. The deep frustration, the seething desperation of the Negro today is a product of slum housing, chronic poverty, woefully inadequate education and substandard schools. The Negro is trapped in a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign, caught in a vicious socioeconomic vise. And he is ostracized as is no other minority group in America by the evil of oppressive and constricting prejudice based solely upon his color. A righteous man has no alternative but to resist such an evil system. If he does not have the courage to resist nonviolently, then he runs the risk of a violent emotional explosion. As much as I deplore violence, there is one evil that is worse than violence, and that’s cowardice. It is still my basic article of faith that social justice can be achieved and democracy advanced only to the degree that there is firm adherence to nonviolent action and resistance in the pursuit of social justice. But America will be faced with the ever-present threat of violence, rioting and senseless crime as long as Negroes by the hundreds of thousands are packed into malodorous, rat-plagued ghettos; as long as Negroes remain smothered by poverty in the midst of an affluent society; as long as Negroes are made to feel like exiles in their own land; as long as Negroes continue to be dehumanized; as long as Negroes see their freedom endlessly delayed and diminished by the head winds of tokenism and small handouts from the white power structure. No nation can suffer any greater tragedy than to cause millions of its citizens to feel that they have no stake in their own society.
Understand that I am trying only to explain the reasons for violence and the threat of violence. Let me say again that by no means and under no circumstance do I condone outbreaks of looting and lawlessness. I feel that every responsible Negro leader must point out, with all possible vigor, that anyone who perpetrates and participates in a riot is immoral as well as impractical — that the use of immoral means will not achieve the moral end of racial justice.
Still, doesn’t the very fact that riots have occurred tend to indicate that many Negroes are no longer heeding the counsels of nonviolence?
Not the majority, by any means. But it is true that some Negroes subscribe to a deep feeling that the tactic of nonviolence is not producing enough concrete victories. We have seen, in our experience, that nonviolence thrives best in a climate of justice. Violence grows to the degree that injustice prevails; the more injustice in a given community, the more violence, or potential violence, smolders in that community. I can give you a clear example. If you will notice, there have been fewer riots in the South. The reason for this is that the Negro in the South can see some visible, concrete victories in civil rights. Last year, the police would have been called if he sat down at a community lunch counter. This year, if he chooses to sit at that counter, he is served. More riots have occurred in the North because the fellow in Harlem, to name one Northern ghetto, can’t see any victories. He remains throttled, as he has always been, by vague, intangible economic and social deprivations. Until the concerned power structures begin to grapple creatively with these fundamental inequities, it will be difficult for violence to be eliminated. The longer our people see no progress, or halting progress, the easier it will be for them to yield to the counsels of hatred and demagoguery.
You categorically reject violence as a tactical technique for social change. Can it not be argued, however, that violence, historically, has effected massive and sometimes constructive social change in some countries?
I’d be the first to say that some historical victories have been won by violence; the U.S. Revolution is certainly one of the foremost. But the Negro revolution is seeking integration, not independence. Those fighting for independence have the purpose to drive out the oppressors. But here in America, we’ve got to live together. We’ve got to find a way to reconcile ourselves to living in community, one group with the other. The struggle of the Negro in America, to be successful, must be waged with resolute efforts, but efforts that are kept strictly within the framework of our democratic society. This means reaching, educating and moving large enough groups of people of both races to stir the conscience of the nation.
In well-earned recognition of your dedication to and leadership of the struggle to achieve these goals, you became, in October of last year, the youngest man ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. What was your reaction to the news?
It made me feel very humble indeed. But I would like to think that the award is not a personal tribute, but a tribute to the entire freedom movement, and to the gallant people of both races who surround me in the drive for civil rights which will make the American dream a reality. I think that this internationally known award will call even more attention to our struggle, gain even greater sympathy and understanding for our cause, from people all over the world. I like to think that the award recognizes symbolically the gallantry, the courage and the amazing discipline of the Negro in America, for these things are to his eternal credit. Though we have had riots, the bloodshed that we would have known without the discipline of nonviolence would have been truly frightening. I know that many whites feel the civil rights movement is getting out of hand; this may reassure them. It may let them see that basically this is a disciplined struggle, let them appreciate the meaning of our struggle, let them see that a great struggle for human freedom can occur within the framework of a democratic society.
Do you feel that this goal will be achieved within your lifetime?
I confess that I do not believe this day is around the corner. The concept of supremacy is so imbedded in the white society that it will take many years for color to cease to be a judgmental factor. But it is certainly my hope and dream. Indeed, it is the keystone of my faith in the future that we will someday achieve a thoroughly integrated society. I believe that before the turn of the century, if trends continue to move and develop as presently, we will have moved a long, long way toward such a society.
Do you intend to dedicate the rest of your life, then, to the Negro cause?
If need be, yes. But I dream of the day when the demands presently cast upon me will be greatly diminished. I would say that in the next five years, though, I can’t hope for much letup — either in the South or in the North. After that time, it is my hope that things will taper off a bit.
If they do, what are your plans?
Well, at one time I dreamed of pastoring for a few years, and then of going to a university to teach theology. But I gave that up when I became deeply involved in the civil rights struggle. Perhaps, in five years or so, if the demands on me have lightened, I will have the chance to make that dream come true.
In the meanwhile, you are now the universally acknowledged leader of the American civil rights movement, and chief spokesman for the nation’s 20,000,000 Negroes. Are there ever moments when you feel awed by this burden of responsibility, or inadequate to its demands?
One cannot be in my position, looked to by some for guidance, without being constantly reminded of the awesomeness of its responsibility. I live with one deep concern: Am I making the right decisions? Sometimes I am uncertain, and I must look to God for guidance. There was one morning I recall, when I was in the Birmingham jail, in solitary, with not even my lawyers permitted to visit, and I was in a nightmare of despair. The very future of our movement hung in the balance, depending upon capricious turns of events over which I could have no control there, incommunicado, in an utterly dark dungeon. This was about ten days after our Birmingham demonstrations began. Over 400 of our followers had gone to jail; some had been bailed out, but we had used up all of our money for bail, and about 300 remained in jail, and I felt personally responsible. It was then that President Kennedy telephoned my wife, Coretta. After that, my jail conditions were relaxed, and the following Sunday afternoon — it was Easter Sunday — two S.C.L.C. attorneys were permitted to visit me. The next day, word came to me from New York that Harry Belafonte had raised $50,000 that was available immediately for bail bonds, and if more was needed, he would raise that. I cannot express what I felt, but I knew at that moment that God’s presence had never left me, that He had been with me there in solitary.
I subject myself to self-purification and to endless self-analysis; I question and soul-search constantly into myself to be as certain as I can that I am fulfilling the true meaning of my work, that I am maintaining my sense of purpose, that I am holding fast to my ideals, that I am guiding my people in the right direction. But whatever my doubts, however heavy the burden, I feel that I must accept the task of helping to make this nation and this world a better place to live in — for all men, black and white alike.
I never will forget a moment in Birmingham when a white policeman accosted a little Negro girl, seven or eight years old, who was walking in a demonstration with her mother. “What do you want?” the policeman asked her gruffly, and the little girl looked him straight in the eye and answered, “Fee-dom.” She couldn’t even pronounce it, but she knew. It was beautiful! Many times when I have been in sorely trying situations, the memory of that little one has come into my mind, and has buoyed me.
This Interview originally ran in the January 1965 issue.