Dr. King, Self-Transcendence, and Social Justice

Martin Luther King Jr by Sirin Thada
Artwork courtesy Sirin Thada @sirinthada

More than 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sat in a city jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, and wrote an extraordinary defense of a self-transcendent social activism. King wrote this defense, his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” just two weeks before Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, infamously turned fire hoses and police dogs on over 1000 children and teenagers marching against inequality in the city, forcing the larger American public to acknowledge the cruelty of segregation and the moral imperative of a growing Civil Rights movement. King had been arrested for demonstrating without a permit, and wrote the letter in response to criticism in the local paper by eight religious leaders who objected to his methods and what they perceived as his status as an outside agitator.


As much as any of his speeches or other writings, the Letter is preoccupied with justice. One of the many fascinating things about the Letter is the nature of justice he defines as a kind of step-by-step method of self-transcendence, whereby a person who cares about social justice to any degree comes to engage with it more fully, to the point of complete presence, self-sacrifice, and commitment to the greater good of the world.


King begins by responding to a statement by Southern religious leaders calling his actions in Birmingham, “unwise and untimely.” In answer to this, King sketches out his rationale for advocating the necessity of nonviolent direct action, outlining an approach with roots in a rational empiricism:


“In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action. We have gone through all of these steps in Birmingham.”


King’s answer to the charge of unwisdom is to show the wisdom of direct nonviolent action in the face of racial injustice. How he does this is to show the response to injustice as an extremely rational moral act, one where the sign of a moral being is his or her necessary perception of and response to the presence of injustice. The presence of injustice demands action from the moral person. A moral person cannot stand by and do nothing. In King’s letter, a moral person acts as a rational-even scientific-agent of justice, gathering facts, evaluating evidence, and taking action when justice demands that action be taken.


Having gone through the process of gathering data, King reports his findings:

“There can be no gainsaying of the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of police brutality is known in every section of this country. Its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts is a notorious reality. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in this nation. These are the hard, brutal, and unbelievable facts.”


Having approached the problem rationally and applied the method of inquiry, the findings are that injustice exists. What is the nature of this injustice? Segregation, police brutality, unequal treatment in the courts according to skin color, unsolved bombings of black homes and churches. The common theme here is race; here we are dealing with racial injustice. Thus racial injustice becomes a particular subgenre of injustice, one that demands redress from those who profit from racial discrimination. Do you know this kind of injustice? He asks his readers. Have you seen it? What have you done? What ought you to have done?


By the time King says, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here,” he has already shown that injustice is indeed present, that we have ways of measuring it, and that we have a duty as moral people to go and be present at the site of injustice in order to remedy it. King uses his presence as a yardstick measuring the extent of injustice in Birmingham at the time; injustice is so great at this point that he needs to physically travel there and work, even to the point of undergoing arrest and imprisonment.


As we remember the legacy of Dr. King’s work this week, we also think about the call to action and presence that injustice demands of the moral person. “We will win our freedom,” he wrote, “because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.” Where is there injustice in our communities, homes, workplaces? How do we know it is there? How does it call us to be where it is, to move beyond ourselves and our comforts and everyday concerns, and to work to change it? If we truly want to be good, how can we hear the call injustice makes to us, asking our natures to respond to others as we already know we should?

Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.