(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Click here to listen to the message. See below to read it.
In almost all polls taken over the past several years, Martin Luther King, Jr. enjoys a 90% approval rating. What is surprising is that at the time of his assassination in 1968, King had a 75% disapproval rating in most major polls. He was disliked not only for his activism for racial justice, but also for his stand against the Vietnam War and for his support of the Poor People’s Campaign – a movement he began.
Dr. King perceived the underlying reason for racism in America as due to economic greed and exploitation of African-Americans. To address such exploitation, he proposed a massive 50 billion dollar fund be established by the Federal government to assist blacks and poor white people. If poor and oppressed whites were persuaded to join ranks with blacks in support of such a huge assistance fund, they could form what he called a grand alliance to once and for all realize the promise of American opportunity and justice for all.
And King’s opposition to the Vietnam war was similarly motivated. He believed the use of poor black and white young men to fight America’s wars was unjust. His advocacy was thus not just about race, but about overall justice for every marginalized person no matter their race.
These social justice views of King, which are often overlooked today, were a primary reason he had so many enemies. He threatened not just racial segregation in America, but this nation’s framework of privilege for wealthy elites – all built on taking advantage of people of color, immigrants, the poor, and even the middle class.
Based on those views of Dr. King, powerful forces of wealth in this nation – the media, corporations, and the very wealthy often portrayed King as a communist and extreme radical. By 1968 when he was killed, their efforts had been successful given the number of Americans who disliked him. Dr. King had many enemies.
President Franklin Roosevelt once said that he hoped history would judge him not by his friends, but instead by his enemies. The actor Paul Newman echoed FDR’s thinking when he said, “A man with no enemies is a man with no character.” And the novelist Victor Hugo equally once wrote, “You have enemies? Why, it is the story of every man who has done a great deed or created a new idea. It is the cloud which thunders around everything that shines.”
If these men were on to something, that having enemies is often the mark of someone who is making a difference for good, then King was truly great. Perhaps worse for King than the large number of his enemies, were the many people who acted like friends, while they secretly attacked him.
President Lyndon Johnson was one of those. He is often credited for getting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed into law and for being a friendly collaborator with Dr. King. But Johnson had a long history as a Senator from Texas opposing Civil Rights. He privately demeaned King by referring to him as that, “goddamn, ’n-word’, preacher”. Andrew Young, one of King’s closest advisors, said this about Johnson, “On the surface we were being smiled at and granted grudging support; below the surface we were distrusted, resented and undercut.” Many historians believe Johnson only supported the Civil Rights Act only because it had first been proposed by President Kennedy, and Johnson jealously wanted to outshine JFK. Historians also believe Johnson cynically believed he would win many black votes – despite his history as a racist.
It’s also been mostly forgotten that the Civil Rights Act became law because of Republican Party support. The measure would have been soundly defeated were it not for over 80% support by Republican Congresspersons and Senators. In other words, many Democrats were not truly friends of Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement – and Republicans were.
Equal to some Democrats being enemies of King, so too were many white politicians and leaders in the North. When King began his efforts to improve conditions for urban poor – particularly in Northern cities – he was hated all the more. Many people in the North criticized the segregation policies of the South. But when Dr. King rightly pointed out how many communities in the North did the same – just with more subtle and nuanced ways – he was then hated by many northerners.
When Dr. King led protests in Chicago against unfair housing practices like high rents for tenement housing, and red-line exclusion of black people from certain neighborhoods, he was met with violence that he said was far worse than what he had ever experienced in the South.
One of the institutions of power that was permitted to attack Dr. King was the FBI. As its leader, J. Edgar Hoover openly harbored racist views. He’d grown up in the South and it is believed by many historians that he had black ancestry. Many historians also believe Hoover was secretly homosexual. As some people do, Hoover likely transferred his self-hatred hypocritically on other people – and Dr. King was a target. The FBI conducted a secret and unconstitutional effort to regularly bug King’s home, offices, and motel rooms – all in order to portray him as a moral fraud.
At one point, the FBI sent to King’s wife Coretta a tape recording of King having an affair with another woman in a Washington DC hotel room. With the recording came a note telling Mrs. King that her husband would soon be exposed and that, to save his reputation, he should do the right thing and end it all – an encouragement for Dr. King to commit suicide. Similar tape recordings of Dr. King allegedly engaged in affairs were sent by the FBI to other black ministers and Civil Rights leaders – all to destroy King’s reputation.
Another effort to attack King was to expose Bayard Rustin, one of King’s close advisors and the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. Rustin was a gay man – and Dr. King knew this. When the FBI threatened King with revealing a romantic encounter Rustin had with another man, unless he was fired, King refused. He stood by Rustin as a colleague and as an expert grass roots organizer who almost single-handedly was responsible for the huge success of the Washington DC, I Have a Dream, March.
My overall point for detailing King’s enemies is to emphasize how targeted and threatened he was during most of his activist years. His home was bombed, he was shot at, he was hit many times with rocks and bottles, he received numerous death threats, he was falsely arrested by multiple Police Departments for ridiculous violations like loitering, and he was even stabbed in the chest and nearly killed over ten years prior to his death.
It is not exaggeration to say that Martin Luther King, Jr. was the most hated man in America from 1956 to 1968 – when he died. He didn’t just have a few enemies, like most people. He had millions of them, many of whom were very powerful.
Most important for us, however, is to be inspired by and try to emulate how King reacted to his attackers. In one sermon, King spoke from personal experience on how he believed people should follow the spiritual ethic of loving one’s enemies.
First, he said people should look deep within themselves to perceive how they are imperfect. We each have flaws, he said, that enemies use to their advantage. If we are honest, we should admit our flaws, try to correct them, and thereby confound our enemies by becoming a better person.
Second, King suggested we should look for the good in our enemies. To do this, King said, will dispel any toxic hatred within oneself.
As I discussed in last week’s message and as we just heard in his own words, King deeply believed love is the only power strong enough to defeat hate and win over an enemy. But he was also practical enough to understand how hate ultimately harms the one who hates.
Third, King suggested that the best answer to an enemy is to let your work speak for itself. When we are working to achieve good things, there will always be people who want to defeat our efforts. If we resolve to work all the harder at doing good, and not be dismayed or distracted by enemy attacks, we provide a perfect response to an enemy: your attacks cannot defeat me.
Fourth and finally, King encouraged people not to respond to an enemy by attacking them in return. Instead, he advised we leave it to God to determine consequences for an enemy. King’s advice echoes what virtually all spiritual people believe: good always overcomes evil.
That follows what I believe about the Buddhist and Hindu concept of karma. Both believe that it is the sum of one’s actions and words that will determine his or her fate. For people who are motivated to put good into the world, and who do their best to achieve that, good things will happen to them. And the reverse is true for those who perpetrate negativity and harm. Such is a universal law of life, in my mind.
As an example, this month the world honors and celebrates Dr. King’s birth. J. Edgar Hoover and King’s many other enemies are largely forgotten – and if they are remembered at all, it is not flattering. For me, our real afterlife comes in how we impact the world long after we have passed. Many of us may not be remembered as Dr. King still is, but the true measure of a person is the lasting influence their lives have. The good we do today, the charity we give away, and the sacrificial service we offer to others will pay dividends long into the future.
One-hundred years from now, will the good work we perform today still be impacting others – however indirectly? If it does, we will be living onward in beautiful and eternal ways. As a great prophet for the ages, Martin Luther King, Jr. now enjoys his good karma, and his Heaven, in the lives that his words and actions still improve. His many enemies now suffer an opposite fate. Their legacy and their eternity are relegated to the garbage heap hell of history.
The reality is that our legacy – how the universe is affected by our lives – is NOT determined by how much fame, power, or money we amass, or how much nastiness and hate we cause. Our eternal legacy is, for example, in the changed life of a child born into poverty whom we help or advocate for. Because of our work, she gets an education and enjoys opportunities to succeed, have children of her own, and pass onto them values of diligence, charity, and goodness – all so that they in turn will teach the same to their children. And on and on. Our name may be forgotten, but the soul, and the effects, of our goodness will be eternal.
Dr. Martin Luther King understood that truth. His enemies were many and the attacks they threw at him stung, but his enemies did not enjoy final victory. King’s faith in himself, the righteousness of his cause, and the goodness of his methods, will all live forever precisely because they were founded on love and empathy – even for his millions of enemies.
I wish you each peace and joy.