12 Powerful Ideas from the Autobiography of MLK

"The president said nothing could be done. But we started a movement."

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Few people seem to understand that to solve the problems that we’ve created for ourselves, we need to work from a basis of human solidarity.

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And even fewer people understood this as well as Martin Luther King Jr.

Celebrating differences is fine, but each of us needs to recognize that we are human beings first, and race/color/orientation/nationality/etc second.

What King kept bringing up is that he didn’t want to create a movement that was going to enslave white people in return for all the humiliations of slavery. Instead, he wanted to inspire some pride in the fact that black people were in no way inferior.

Nonviolence was his most potent weapon.

"Let us march on poverty until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may eat eat"
“Let us march on poverty until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may eat eat”

The people whom he trained to use nonviolence withstood bricks, bottles, water hoses, police dogs, bombs, and much more. All so that we could enjoy freedom and equal rights in our own nations.

No longer would black people have to stand, while empty “white” seats on the bus were free.

No longer would black children have to stop seeing their white friends because their white parents didn’t approve of their friendship.

In his autobiography, King lays out some major ideas and principles, and we could all benefit from spending a few minutes reminding ourselves what they are:

#1: “Man is not made for the state; the state is made for man.”

Society needs to serve the interest of ALL people who call that place their home. Freedom is indivisible, and King knew this. Conformity seeks to crush us on all sides, and make us like everybody else. We are told what to want, who to hate, who to envy, and what to think. If we don’t actively counteract this conformist force, it will overwhelm us. We are individuals, but how many of us actually own ourselves?

#2: “It is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflictor of violence.”

The nonviolent movement attracted all elements, including a surprisingly large number of black gang members. Reading the autobiography, I was taken by the fact that King was able to keep these marches nonviolent, and even prevent these same gang members from retaliating.

"We seek an integration based on mutual respect."
“We seek an integration based on mutual respect.”

We’re not just talking insults being thrown at the protesters. These were gang members being split open by bricks and bottles, and attacked by police dogs and fire hoses. King was able to stop these people from retaliating with violence of any kind. I don’t know about you, but I find that incredibly impressive.

And it’s something we could all take to heart.

#3: “Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.”

 The equality of all men and women is a real truth and it would not go away. MLK made sure of that, but even if he didn’t…it would not have died. The right to happiness for all, the supreme importance of every single human being on the earth…these are all truths that may be hidden, but will never disappear forever.

 #4: “The destiny of our country is tied up with the destiny of every other nation.”

 The world just isn’t that big any more, especially when you consider the 900 septillion other planets thought to exist in the known universe (real word, real number, real big universe). When you look at the interdependence of all things and how much we actually need each other, you start to realize that isolationist policies and suspicious attitudes will not grant us the future that we seek.

 #5: “The ultimate tragedy of Birmingham was not the brutality of the bad people, but the silence of the good people.”

 When good people do nothing, the evils that they allow to co-exist with them will have free reign. This is a real danger, and when people begin to think that the actions of one individual can’t make a difference, that’s when good becomes overwhelmed.

"Occasionally in life one develops a conviction so precious and meaningful that he will stand on it till the end. This is what I have found in nonviolence."
“Occasionally in life one develops a conviction so precious and meaningful that he will stand on it till the end. This is what I have found in nonviolence.”

Never think that you can’t make a difference somewhere. Whether you think it will happen without your intervention or you think that you’re powerless as an individual, your silence is detrimental to the cause. Your silence costs lives.

 #6: “No one is an outsider when he goes to any community to aid the cause of freedom and justice.”

 Martin Luther King traveled all over the South and all over the North, even renting a slum apartment in Chicago while he was fighting for the rights of his fellow Americans there. He was never an outsider, because he went in a spirit of brotherhood and good will.

Not everyone appreciated his presence, especially since he was there to disrupt the established order. There were people who were attached to the benefits that segregation gave them and didn’t want to listen to anyone who was trying to take away their privileges.

But the people who knew what he was all about understood that he wasn’t there to take away anyone’s privileges. He simply wanted equal rights for all people, and of all colors. The right people welcomed him as their friend and leader.

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 #7: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

 This is one of my favorite lines of the entire book. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. How true is this! As long as there is SOMEONE who is not free, nobody is free. Free to live, free to work, free to love, free from oppression…all these things are the preconditions for real freedom, and when they’re not present, we have failed these people.

 #8: “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

 I’ll be a police officer before too long, but I’m fortunate to live in Canada. I can’t think of any unjust laws worth disobeying! It’s interesting however, that less than sixty days after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King found himself back in prison for protesting against racial discrimination.

"We must not go back on the buses and push people around unnecessarily, boasting of our rights. We must simply sit where there is a vacant seat."
“We must not go back on the buses and push people around unnecessarily, boasting of our rights. We must simply sit where there is a vacant seat.”

I think that’s worth going to prison for, don’t you?

It’s right up there with my hero Carl Sagan getting arrested for jumping the fence at a nuclear weapons testing facility and trying to stop it.

Or Henry David Thoreau refusing to pay taxes to the same American government who was brutalizing the Native Americans.

Whenever there are laws preventing the full development of mankind, these must be disobeyed. The reward is nothing less than our collective freedom.

 #9: “Freedom is never voluntarily granted by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed.”

 People with power over others rarely give up those privileges without a fight. Why would they? They’re probably used to how things are, benefit in some way from the current arrangement, and have no real incentive to change.

That’s why people like Martin Luther King are so important to the rights movement. They can move people, and that mass of people can move the mountains of injustice that lay before them. Asking politely won’t work…you’ve got to make some goddamn noise.

 #10: “Power without love is reckless and abusive, while love without power is sentimental and anemic.”

 Often, people want one answer for everything. They think love is the answer to all their problems and they couldn’t be bothered to cultivate their power.

And still others focus so much on attaining power that they find they have no time for love.

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here”
“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here”

Well the two are inseparable and each reinforces the other. Just like you can’t have a front without a back, love and power support each other. Black and White create each other, and unity is where real, lasting power lies.

 #11: “A genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus but a molder of consensus.”

 How often do you sense the fact that American politicians are just trying to “appeal” to as many people as they possibly can? They say they stand for something, but it’s what they believe the majority want to hear, so that they can be lifted to power by the masses.

They are not great leaders.

Great leaders build consensus.

Great leaders take a stand for something meaningful and rally others to their side. They don’t wait to see which way the wind is blowing before they commit to action. You can be this kind of leader, if only you marshal people around what you believe in, personally.

 #12: “The choice now is between nonviolence and nonexistence.”

This statement has simply grown in truth during the decades since King’s death. Our weapons have the capability of destroying everything that we’ve worked so hard to build, and everything that we’d like to see survive into the future.

"The president said nothing could be done. But we started a movement."
“The president said nothing could be done. But we started a movement.”

If we continue to improve our weapons and not our relationships, then we shall be the forces of our own destruction. It’s as simple as that.

It’s a stark choice, but it is ultimately ours to make. Nonviolence will insure our survival, but nonexistence will be the costly result of our mistakes.

Right there are some of my favorite notes from the autobiography of Martin Luther King. It was the 302nd book that I’ve read, all-time, and I highly recommend it. But as always, all of my notes are available upon request.

There’s also a fantastic website that I’ve just begun to support, called Movements.org.

You can post your services to help out with current human rights campaigns, or you can request help from others who may have skills that you lack. Their tagline is “crowd-sourcing human rights”. Cool!

Reading an article is fine and good, but if you’ve found something useful here today, please write it down in a place where you can review it later. Even if you never share this article (hint hint hint), you will have your own notes to fall back on. It’s important.

All the best,

Matt Karamazov

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