The year was 1963. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist minister, found himself confined like a common criminal in the city jail of Birmingham Alabama. At the forefront of the civil rights movement, jailed and abandoned by mainstream Christian leaders, King had the strength of his faith and the foresight to realize the time for Christian action was now, and that to continue to accept the status quo would mean to forever surrender the strength of Christian leadership.
Americans in the early 1960s had lost faith in their country, especially in those who held leadership positions. The people were tired and worn down by many years of war, economic depression, fear of foreign ideologies and the threat of nuclear annihilation. America was yet again at war, the military draft was in full force and the news media beamed pictures of dead American boys directly into their living rooms.
Dead American soldiers were killed in a far off land known as Vietnam. Only the wealthiest of Americans seemed to have a voice; the rest went unheard and unseen. The government propaganda machine, well oiled from years of use, instilled fear, division and hatred at every turn. Protests against the war, as well as demonstrations demanding basic human equality, were met not by an understanding government, but rather by force. Riot police, National Guard troops, guns, dogs and jail awaited anyone foolish enough to complain of the government’s actions or inactions.
King realized that at long last conditions were right for major change. He could see what Marx must have seen, a country sick of being ignored, forgotten and forced to the will of the wealthiest. The time was right to gather those who had been unseen and unheard, to raise them up in one clear voice and demand to be heard, demand change. But to do so without violence would require a leader with strong ethics and a talent for uniting people. Americans were disappointed, disgusted, disillusioned, confused and lost. The people were ignored by their government, and religious leaders failed to respond to the needs of a questioning society desperately seeking direction.
When fear clouds your vision, it becomes easy to overlook even the most grotesque, as Viktor Frankl noted from his time in the concentration camps.
Americans were so lost, so hungry for change that anyone willing to bring a new agenda would be followed blindly. The Black Panther Party, Elijah Muhammad and even an ex-con named Charles Manson had no problem recruiting followers who where willing to kill or die for the ideology presented to them. King realized that the only way to save the African-American people and lead them up from the depths of despair was through the nonviolent leadership and teachings of Christian ethics.
Religious leaders had long ago bent to the will of politics, but King knew the time was right for religious leaders to unite a society that had gone unseen for too long. He knew there was a whole population, yearning for direction, deep in crisis, trying to deal with all the emotions that come during the adolescent stage of religious development. King found himself alone.
Like Friedrich Nietzsche’s condemnation of organized religion, King’s letter condemned the moderate white religious leaders for failing to unite the people, regardless of race or religion, under a banner of Christian love and ethics.
King spoke of a time “when the church was very powerful,” and the church was “a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”
Even without the aid of the white moderate Christian leadership, he was able to galvanize the Southern Black community, Christian and non-Christian, under a banner of Christian love and ethics under the belief that all men, regardless of color or religion, were created by one God and all equal. With this basic principle, King gathered his lost and discontented people and started a movement that continues to this day.
In today’s America, once again we find a discontented population, a vast sea of homeless, unseen and unheard people ignored by their government. A population questioning, demanding answers, seeking change. But most of all, seeking leadership.
The time is once again ripe for change, a time for action. But we have to be very careful in who we follow. Just as frustration, fear, discontentment and confusion helped rally so many to King, so too did masses rally to Hitler, Marx and Lenin. Our country needs guidance, direction and openness. Our citizens need time to heal both mentally and physically, to care for the sick and homeless. Who will step up? Who will LEAD?
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.