Martin Luther King describes the activists for civil rights

On Sept. 10, 1961, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. published an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “The Time for Freedom has Come.” To the best of my knowledge, it is his most extensive description of the people who formed the Civil Rights Movement. It is neither an address to the movement nor a critique of broader social issues. It is an effort to characterize the movement’s participants for an audience that was presumably mostly white and not involved in civil rights activism (although I am sure the document also circulated within the movement).

It’s interesting that King never uses a noun like “activists” or “leaders” or “radicals” to name the people he writes about.* His topic in this article is “Negro youth,” “Negro students,” or “Negro collegians”–identities and social roles. Not all Black college student were activists (as King acknowledges), and certainly not all civil rights activists were college students. But King is interested in generalizing about members of an important social group. He believes they are characterized by “imagination and drive …, tamed by discipline and commitment”; by “maturity and dedication” along with “intensity and depth of … commitment.”

Their characteristic act is “self-sacrifice,” which is a leitmotif in King’s writing. To sacrifice something of value, in public, with clarity of conviction, is a weapon available to everyone, including the excluded.

To be so disciplined, so intense, and so eager to sacrifice sounds hard, and it is hard, but King emphasizes that “it is not a solemn life, for all its seriousness.” Humor and satire are common and useful in the movement. Participation also builds skills and dispositions that have value to the individual. King even suggests that the way to produce American workers who can “compete successfully with the young people of other lands, may be present in this new movement,” because of the way it builds “maturity.”

Throughout the article, King emphasizes the need for “both action and philosophical discussion.” He writes, “Knowledge and discipline are as indispensable as courage and self-sacrifice. … The movement therefore gives to its participants a double education–academic learning from books and classes, and life’s lessons from responsible participation in social action.”

Here we have a powerful statement that nonviolent political action can change the world (winning “spectacular and considerable” victories) while also enriching and ennobling the lives of the activists themselves. To accomplish that requires a combination of action and reflection, of passion and discipline, and it requires the joint effort of many people.

*Once, in passing, he calls them “participants in the movement.” See also the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolence; an exercise for Martin Luther King Day; Why Civil Resistance Works; no justice, no peace? (analyzing a quote from Dr. King)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.