It is also fitting that while remembering his relentless fight for equality
and justice, we mull the wellsprings of his philosophy that changed the face
of this nation.
Initially, King believed that becoming a minister of the church would be
the best way to lead his people to equality and freedom.
During a period of soul-searching, he had, in his words, "despaired of the
power of love in solving social problems." At this point, he was
coincidentally introduced to the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi in a sermon by
Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University, who had just returned from a
trip to India.
King was so moved that he immediately bought a number of books on the
Indian nationalist leader. He read with fascination of the life of one who had
successfully transformed the ethic of nonviolence into a political instrument
against British colonial rule.
The impact they made on him is best described in his own words: "As I read,
I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance. As I
delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the
power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its
potency in the area of social reform."
"The 'turn-the-other-cheek' philosophy and the 'love-your-enemies'
philosophy," he went on, "were only valid when individuals were in conflict
with other individuals; when racial groups and nations were in conflict, a
more realistic approach seemed necessary. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how
utterly mistaken I was."
King came to realize that Gandhi was the first person in history to re-
invent the Christian ethic of love as a "a potent instrument for social and
collective transformation." It was a short journey thereafter to unreserved
acceptance of the Gandhian technique of nonviolence as the only viable means
to overcome the problems faced by his people.
After completion of his theological studies, it was once again by chance
that King had his first opportunity to test his newfound theories of love and
nonviolence. Following the well-known Montgomery bus incident -- in which Rosa
Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man -- King
helped organize within 24 hours a complete boycott of the buses, which lasted
for more than a year until, on Nov. 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled
that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional, vindicating his cause --
and more important, the philosophy behind it.
"The experience in Montgomery," he was to explain later, "did more to
clarify my thinking in regard to the question of nonviolence than all the
books I had read. Nonviolence became more than a method to which I gave
intellectual assent; it became a commitment to a way of life."
The Montgomery campaign had not only united his people but also stirred the
conscience of the country. From then on, the civil rights movement gained
momentum under his leadership, leading from one victory to another.
King was to explain later the rationale and evolution of his thinking. "It
was the Sermon on the Mount, rather than a doctrine of passive resistance,
that initially inspired the Negroes of Montgomery to dignified social action --
(and) to protest with the creative weapon of love."
He added: "As the days unfolded, however, the Christian doctrine of love,
operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence, was one of the most
potent weapons available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom."
Today, freedom remains in peril in many parts of the world. The anniversary
of King's birth is an occasion to reflect on the seemingly impossible
challenges he faced in his time, and whether our current condition can be
alleviated by adapting his philosophy.
This article appeared on page B - 7 of the San Francisco Chronicle