Education Opinion

Martin Luther King and the Liberal Arts

By William J. Bennett — January 22, 1986 15 min read

In his landmark “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” the man whose memory we honor today, Martin Luther King, distinguished between a just and an unjust law. Citing Thomas Aquinas, Reverend King explained that “a just law is a manmade code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law . . . . Any law that uplifts the human personality is just. Any law that degrades the human personality is unjust.”

It seems to me that this distinction drawn by Reverend King in his letter has to do not only with laws but with the nature of government in general. For Reverend King was reminding us that democracy is more than a complex set of checks and balances designed to reconcile majority rule and minority rights. Democracy is also a form of government that seeks to uplift the human personality; a form of government that encourages anyone--rich and poor, black and white, male and female--to develop his or her potential to the utmost. Indeed, most broadly conceived, democracy is not simply a form of government; it is a way of life, and--if you will allow me a new phrase--a way of ideas.

Spelman College embodies many of the most important principles championed by Reverend King. Founded in the basement of Atlanta’s Friendship Baptist Church in 1881, Spelman has dedicated itself, in the 104 years of its existence, to the great task of uplifting human personality. Its cardinal assumption has always been that the daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters of slaves are no less entitled than the children of the privileged to be exposed to the very best that has been thought, written, and expressed about the human experience . . . .

In recent years, however, the philosophy which informs Spelman College has occasionally come under attack. What is so important, critics have asked, about exposing young black women to the great books of the past? With so many urgent tasks facing the black community, so many problems that cry out to be resolved, shouldn’t students pursue a more “practical,” more career- oriented course of study? Isn’t all this attention to history, philosophy, and literature-- to the humanities and the liberal arts--more of a luxury than a necessity, something which American blacks, at this point in their history, can ill afford?

I’d like to address these criticisms. Moreover, I’d like to address them not in an abstract, theoretical way, but by reference to the life and work of Reverend King--a life and work infused to a remarkable degree by our best learning. Indeed, it may seem ironic to some that one of the few men who can claim to have had a profound effect on the practices of this free society did so by training himself, immersing himself, in what some might call “dead books.”

Martin Luther King was born in Atlanta on Jan. 15, 1929, at a time when Southern black Americans lived under a state of racial siege known as Jim Crow. Much has been said about Jim Crow, and much remains to be said about it, but I will confine myself, for the moment, to one statistic. Between 1882 and 1946, 4,715 people, about three-quarters of them black, were lynched in the United States. Some of these lynchings were carried out by small groups of vigilantes, others were the work of frenzied mobs. Either way, many of these crimes enjoyed the toleration or even the approval of local authorities. That was Jim Crow.

Though much of public opinion was outraged by these crimes, little was done about them. Thus Jim Crow became an entrenched way of life throughout the South, a way of life based upon segregated schools, segregated restaurants, segregated theaters, segregated housing, segregated restrooms, segregated drinking fountains--segregated everything. Yet not all Southern blacks would accommodate themselves to this way of life, and among those very brave men and women who would not do SO was Martin Luther King Sr. In his book Stride Toward Freedom, Reverend King recalls the following story about his father:

I remembered a trip to a downtown shoestore with father when I was still small. We had sat down in the first empty seats at the I front of the store. A young white clerk came up and murmured politely: “I’ll be happy to wait on you if you’ll just move to those seats in the rear.” My father answered, “There’s nothing wrong with these seats. We’re quite comfortable here.” “Sorry,” said the clerk, “but you’ll have to move.” 'We’ll either buy shoes sitting here,” my father said, “or we won’t buy shoes at all.” Whereupon he took me by the hand and walked out of the store. This was the first time I had ever seen my father so angry. I still remember walking down the street beside him as he muttered, “I don’t care how long I have to live with this system, I will never accept it.”

With such a father, it is no wonder that young Martin Luther King also grew up determined never to accept Jim Crow. On the contrary, he desperately wanted to help change the way blacks were being treated. But how? There were so many contending philosophies within the black community, so many different points of view. Should he embrace Booker T. Washington’s gradualism? Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement? A. Philip Randolph’s direct action campaigns? The N .A.A.C.P. ‘s legal strategy? Or should he, the son of a relatively well-to-do family, take up the concept advocated by W.E.B. DuBois, that black progress could only come with the development of an educated black elite, the so-called “Talented Tenth’,? There seemed to be no firm ground on which to base a plan of life, no compass to steer one’s actions by.

Martin Luther King graduated from Morehouse College in June 1948 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology. Initially, studying sociology had seemed to him a way of sorting through the dilemmas he was wrestling with, but he soon grew disillusioned with it. He particularly objected to sociology’s tendency to reduce people to mere numbers, and he complained about the “apathetic fallacy of statistics.” Moreover, while at Morehouse College he came under the influence of a remarkable educator, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, who inspired him to change his area of study.

And so, when he entered Crozer Theological Seminary the following September, he began to immerse himself in the writings of the great political philosophers, “from Plato to Aristotle,” as he wrote later, “down to Rousseau, Hobbes, Bentham, Mill, and Locke.” Here, with these teachers, was planted the seed not of a contemplative life, but of a life of action--a life of thoughtful devotion to political reform, a life devoted to the pursuit of justice.

What do the writings of Plato and Aristotle, Greek philosophers who lived and taught nearly two and a half thousand years ago, have to do with the plight of a young black American growing up under Jim Crow in the middle of the 20th century? Why did Martin Luther King immerse himself in what some call “esoteric” and “irrelevant” writings when there were so many urgent problems which he himself was determined to confront? Was his study of philosophy a form of escapism, perhaps--a means of evading the problems of real life ?

Of course not. On the contrary, Martin Luther King turned to the great philosophers because he needed to know the answers to certain questions. Questions like: What is justice? What should be loved? What deserves to be defended? What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope for? What is man? These questions are not simply diversions for intellectuals or playthings for the idle. These questions face thoughtful human beings in all places and in all ages. As a result of the ways in which these questions have been answered, civilizations have emerged, nations have developed, wars have been fought, and people have lived contentedly or miserably. And as a result of the way in which Martin Luther King eventually answered these questions, Jim Crow was destroyed and American history was transformed.

Three figures in American history fascinate me--James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King. I have studied their lives fairly closely. Each profoundly affected a different century in our nation’s life. Each exercised political leadership. Each exercised moral leadership. And each exercised intellectual leadership. And each of these men demonstrated that it is ideas which ultimately move society--ideas contained in the great works of Western civilization, ideas encountered through education.

A great Italian philosopher and historian, Benedetto Croce, once observed that “all history is contemporary history.” By this he meant that since history deals with the actions of human beings, and since human beings haven’t changed much over the years, all of history illuminates our current dilemmas and perplexities. For much the same reasons, I think it can be said that all of philosophy is contemporary philosophy, all of literature is contemporary literature, and all of art is contemporary art. Indeed, all the great writers, thinkers, and artists of the past are our contemporaries, in the sense that they all have much to teach us, if only we allow them to.

And so, the young Martin Luther King went with his problems and perplexities and the palpable passions of his time to the great teachers of mankind--and they did not disappoint him. Just as, 200 years before him, the young James Madison had gone with his problems to the great teachers of mankind. Just as, 100 years before him, the young Abraham Lincoln had gone with his problems to the great teachers of mankind. And just as James Madison (with Thomas Jefferson) became the greatest exponent of the American dream in the 18th century, just as Abraham Lincoln became the greatest exponent of the American dream in the 19th century, so Martin Luther King became its greatest advocate and articulator in our time.

How did Martin Luther King come to understand the American dream? Let me read you a passage from a commencement address delivered by Dr. King at Lincoln University on June 6, 1961:

One of the first things we notice in this dream is an amazing universalism. It does not say some men [are created equal], but it says all men. It does not say all white men, but it says all men, which includes black men. It does not say all Gentiles, but it says all men, which includes Jews. It does not say all Protestants, but it says all men, which includes Catholics.

And there is another thing we see in this dream that ultimately distinguishes democracy and our form of government from all of the totalitarian regimes that emerge in history. It says that each individual has certain basic rights that are neither conferred by nor derived from the state. To discover where they came from, it is necessary to move back behind the dim mist of eternity, for they are God-given. Very seldom, if ever, in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profoundly eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of the human personality. The American dream reminds us that every man is heir to the legacy of worthiness.

These words speak from the past to the present; and they do so, of course, most eloquently. Others speak merely to the present from the present. Martin Luther King’s education imbued his words with historical perspective and intellectual power.

“Every man is heir to the legacy of worthiness.” The Southern blacks who had been oppressed for decades--indeed, for centuries-- Dr. King’s message, expressed, like the Declaration of Independence, in “profoundly eloquent and unequivocal language,” brought a renewed sense of dignity and self-worth. Thanks to what a close aide to Dr. King, Bayard Rustin, has called a “tremendous facility for giving people the feeling that they could be bigger and stronger and more courageous than they thought they could be,” Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Council succeeded in creating a disciplined mass movement of Southern blacks to protest Jim Crow.

And as Mr. Rustin has further noted, the black people mobilized by the S.C.L.C. were not hard-core political activists, but “ordinary people--church women, workers, and students. There had been nothing in the annals of American social struggle equal to this phenomenon,” and, let me add, there may never be again.

But Reverend King did more than mobilize black people to confront the injustice of Jim Crow. By his personal example, by the power of his words and his actions, he succeeded in mobilizing the majority of white Americans behind a national consensus to destroy Jim Crow. And once this national consensus of blacks and whites had been forged, Jim Crow was doomed, its authority, in a phrase of St. Augustine borrowed from Cicero, no more than that of a “den of robbers,” sustained by physical intimidation alone.

Having very briefly reviewed some of Reverend King’s great accomplishments, let me return to the question with which I began my remarks. In light of the grave and urgent problems confronting the black community, why should black women acquire a liberal-arts education? Why should they not pursue a more “practical” course of study? This is a question I ask today, and I have been asked it before. I remember it being asked of me by black students at another of Martin Luther King’s alma maters, Boston University. What I said then, I say now.

As I see it, the answer to this question emerges very clearly from a study of Martin Luther King’s life. For what such a study reveals is a young man deeply committed to helping his people, but unsure of how to do so. It shows us a young man thoroughly familiar with the writings of black leaders and intellectuals, yet uncertain whether any of these leaders and intellectuals had hit upon the “solution” to Jim Crow. It shows us a courageous, intellectually independent young man, someone who had to work things out for himself. And finally, it shows us a blessed young man, blessed in his parents, blessed in his choice of college, blessed in his teachers, and blessed in finding older mentors to help ease his way.

Here was an extraordinary combination of talent, will, mind, heart, and grace. That such a young man ultimately found his way to the great thinkers and teachers of humanity seems, in retrospect, almost inevitable. For what is philosophy, what are the liberal arts in general, if not the means by which civilized human beings talk to each other about the things that matter most? And what are the things that matter most, I if not the things that preoccupied Martin Luther King: justice, human rights, freedom, and the brotherhood of man under God?

Martin Luther King turned to the liberal arts because he was in search not only of knowledge, but of wisdom. He understood that the purpose of an education is not merely to prepare us for a job, but to prepare us for life--for the eminently practical tasks of living well, thinking wisely, and acting sensibly. It is in approaching these tasks that the humanities become an invaluable companion. Dr. King’s mentor, Benjamin Mays, put it very well. At Morehouse, Dr. Mays used to say, he was not turning out doctor or lawyers or preachers; he was turning out men . . . .

We are, as Walt Whitman observed, “a nation of nations.” Diversity is a fundamental element of our culture, and one that we rightly celebrate. But we must remember that the “E Pluribus Unum” that defines us as a nation denote~ unity as well as plurality. There is a time for noting what makes us different, and a time for recognizing what we share.

It was to the common code of American culture--the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, with their roots in the Judaeo-Christian tradition--that Martin Luther King appealed when he declared, “I have a dream.” Common culture--common values, common knowledge, and a common language--are essential to sharing dreams and to discussing differences. There are some things that we must all learn and learn together. The humanities can help us in this.

Of course, most of us cannot hope to accomplish even a fraction of what Martin Luther King achieved. But all of us do have an obligation, to ourselves if to no one else, to acquaint ourselves with our civilization’s highest ideals and aspirations. The old soldier and Civil War veteran, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, put it well: “Life is action and passion; therefore it is required of a man that he should share the action and passion of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.”

Reverend King himself lived less than 40 years--not a very long time. On April 3, 1968--the day before he was shot--he spoke at a meeting in Memphis, Tenn. This is what he said:

I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But! want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.

No, we haven’t reached the promised land yet, but thanks to Reverend King, thanks to great institutions of learning like Spelman and Morehouse, we can all see it now. And with God’s help, the day is coming when we Americans, as a people, will surely get there.

The Lorraine Motel, a modest building in Memphis, is the place where Martin Luther King was shot. Not so widely known is the plaque put there after. It bears a simple inscription from the Book of Genesis: “And they said one to another, ‘Behold, this dreamer cometh. Come now therefore, and let us slay him . . . and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’ “Note the tentative nature of the final clause--"and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” What will become of his dreams is up to the rest of us. It is not yet determined. I am here today to say that our dreams will be determined in no small part by how we choose to educate our children. For education is about skills and standards and know-how and jobs--yes, all of these--but it is also about dreams and about dreamers. I close with a line of Wordsworth: “What we have loved, others will love, and we will teach them how.” And I say, what Martin Luther King did dream, others may dream, but we must teach them how.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 22, 1986 edition of Education Week