MLK and the Content of Character

Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington August 28, 1963, at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)

Great figures in history are rarely remembered for the full scope of their thinking. The writings or speeches of a Thomas Jefferson or an Abraham Lincoln are reduced to merely a few of their phrases: “all men are created equal,” for example, a line that Lincoln repeated “four score and seven years” later. The seeming simplicity of these words makes it easy to both flatter or slander the memories of the men who conveyed them.

So it is with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Sixty years ago at the 1963 March on Washington, King built on Jefferson and Lincoln’s foundational American insight in his “I Have a Dream Speech.” In it, he spoke of a hope that his children would one day live in a nation where they would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” 

Our modern controversies over race and identity have somewhat denuded these words of their power. But within a deeper understanding of King’s philosophy lies a powerful appreciation of virtue—one that gives new life to our understanding of what the “content of one’s character” means for us today.

King’s most famous words, so foundational to our understanding of a just society, are somewhat controversial today not because of what he meant then but because of how they are used and perceived now. Our discourse over race largely centers on whether racism is mainly systemic and present or interpersonal and past. Some on the American left worry King’s words are misused to characterize debates about race as merely about personal prejudice. To them, the tendency ignores the systemic realities of modern day racism and how, in the words of Ibram X. Kendi, “the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.” Policies like reparations for slavery or affirmative action may discriminate based on race, but since their goal is to create greater equality in outcomes, Kendi and other activists in the vanguard of the anti-racist left hold they are not in fact racist. 

For most traditional liberals and conservatives, such thinking plainly contradicts King’s values. As Republican presidential candidate and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott wrote in 2021, “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life to the noble cause of challenging a nation to call on our better angels, guiding us toward an America where we’re not judged by race, gender, or where we were born.”

With respect to interpersonal relations, Scott is surely correct. But as a matter of policy, it is quite possible that King would have found common cause with the modern left on some issues deemed racially discriminatory by the mainstream right. King supported reparations for the untouchables in India, for example, whom he likened to the American Negro. Though his career preceded our contemporary reparations debate, there is ample reason to suspect he would have favored them here as well.

On the other hand, traditional liberals and conservatives are certainly right to highlight differences between King’s understanding of race and that of present-day anti-racists. A sense of defying and transcending the anemic categories of race permeates his language. While identity politics and anti-racism encourage us more and more to cast quick judgements of one another on the basis of our racial identity, King viewed man as made in the image of God, and situated the locus of human value on that claim. Just a few years after the March on Washington, King said: “Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout ‘White Power!’ when nobody will shout ‘Black Power!’ but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.”

Yet even identifying King’s main philosophical legacy with the idea of transcending race in social judgments falls short of fully appreciating the core power of his teachings. King did not merely teach us not to judge one another on the basis of our skin color; he offered a rich account of the content of character, one grounded in the virtues of self-control, humility, courage, and love.

Self-control, for example, was necessary to refrain from violence in the face of it, be it from dogs, fire hoses, or billy clubs. A virtue highly prized in works from the Hebrew Bible to the writings of the ancient Stoics and foundational American conservatives like Russell Kirk (there is no real conservatism that does not value a restraining of the passions), self-control was deeply cultivated in the nonviolent movement that King led. That movement requires not only refraining from physical violence, but even from “violence of the spirit.” Nonviolence demands internal self-control, whereby we refuse to even think hateful thoughts about our opponents. This philosophical nonviolence demands sincerity in our feelings of goodwill toward those who would spitefully use us. True nonviolence, therefore, can never be merely tactical: It has to come from the heart.

King’s philosophical nonviolence was also deeply rooted in the virtue of humility. It was only through humility that both civil disobedience and social reconciliation were possible. King taught his followers to “let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him, or even to pay him back for injustices that he has heaped upon you. Let him know that you are merely seeking justice for him as well as yourself.” He insisted on understanding opponents, hoping for mutual reconciliation in the beloved community—a state of society in which all human-beings are honored for their innate value and dignity, where material deprivation has been defeated, and all are included in the decision making culture of self-governance.

That courage is a virtue of philosophical nonviolence almost goes without saying. The courage of nonviolence runs contrary to the notion that physical courage requires a willingness to engage in physical violence. At the same time, King was not in fact an uncompromising pacifist. King agreed with Mahatma Gandhi that if one were forced to choose between violence and cowardice, it would be better to choose violence. Nevertheless, there is a degree of courage requisite to the practice of nonviolence that made it the bravest path one could choose to pursue the morally revolutionary changes that King fought for. 

“Courage, the determination not to be overwhelmed by any object, however frightful, enables us to stand up to any fear,” King wrote. Courage can help overcome a fear of violence, making the moral power of love possible even when physical peril looms.

Most importantly, King taught us to love our enemies, for they too are made in the image of God and possess innate dignity on the basis of their humanity. One can eschew racism (and race) and still fall woefully short of the high moral standard that this conviction demands. Informed by the teachings of Gandhi and the gospels, among other sources, King’s philosophy of nonviolence begins with a belief that love (“agape love” which can be understood as “goodwill”) holds a spiritual power that can effect social transformation. Through love, we enter the conscience of our opponents and make it possible to change minds by first changing hearts. Love in this way is not merely a sentiment: It is a way of being. 

So what is the character of a person shaped by King’s ideas of nonviolence? It is the character of a person who strives to live according to the high moral standards set forth in the gospels, and in more recent history by figures such as Gandhi and King himself. It is the embodiment of the virtues of self-control, humility, courage, and ultimately love, by which human hearts and all human history have occasionally found themselves transformed.

As we reflect on 60 years since the 1963 March on Washington and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, we should undoubtedly hope to be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our characters. But this anniversary also provides an opportunity to reflect on the deeper culture of character contained within King’s timeless teachings.

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