Martin Luther King Day Talk

Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst

January 16, 2011 

Thank you for inviting me to join you this morning. I just returned a few hours ago from Hong Kong, so I am a bit bleary-eyed, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to be with you to reflect on Dr. King as we get ready to celebrate his legacy tomorrow. While I had learned about Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence and his leadership in the civil rights movement of the 60s throughout my education, I didn’t come to fully understand the impact of Dr. King’s philosophy until much later when I was a professor at the University of Rhode Island.

There was a series of events on campus that resulted from an incident that occurred the week before the holiday break. At the time, the University of Texas had just come out against affirmative action, and there was a nationally syndicated cartoon that appeared in papers throughout the nation as a commentary on the new policy regarding admission. The editor of the Five Cent Cigar, the student newspaper at the University of Rhode Island, stuck the cartoon in without any commentary. It was during final exams in the end-of-the-semester rush, and the editor needed a filler. The cartoon depicted a young African American man knocking on the door of a University of Texas classroom. The professor says, “If you’re here to empty the trash, wait until class is over. If you’re here for class, welcome.”

Students of color on campus were outraged by the cartoon. They thought the message was clear—that they were unwanted on campus and viewed as undeserving of a university education. The editor defended the cartoon as an indictment against those who sought to abolish affirmative action and said that even if it was offensive, he had the right to publish the cartoon as a matter of free speech. The incident sparked debate over who gets to decide what constitutes racial offense, whether there are limits to this sort of speech on a college campus, and what it means to provide an inclusive learning environment that offers equality of educational opportunity.

The protests that took place by those on both sides of the argument resulted in African American students taking over the administration building and demanding a multicultural center. In response, I began working with students and faculty to implement multicultural faculty and student programming. Through this process, I came to know Dr. Bernard LaFayette, a colleague who directed the Center for Peace and Nonviolence at the University of Rhode Island, and whose office was located in the newly formed multicultural center.

“Doc” Lafayette was a senior advisor to Martin Luther King Jr., and on the morning of King’s assassination, Doc had promised King that he would both lead his Poor People’s Campaign to address issues of social and economic injustice and assist King in carrying his message throughout the world. It was on one of these international missions in Medellín, Colombia, that I came to fully understand the profound impact nonviolence could have on a society. Four years earlier, Doc had been captured and detained by guerillas after co-leading a 120-mile peace march to an embattled village with Governor Guillermo Gaviria, who was eventually murdered along with a priest by their captors. Indeed, at the time, Colombia was the murder and kidnap capital of the world, with the state of Antioquia, where we were working, itself reporting 500 murders a month.

When asked by the press upon his release why he would put himself in such danger, Doc said, “Most people think of nonviolence as passive. Nonviolence is just the opposite. It is very active. We can’t simply be concerned about what would happen to us if we went to Colombia. We have to be concerned about what would happen to the Colombian people if we didn’t go.”

Thus, four years later, we were back again at the invitation of the state of Antioquia to establish a Center for Nonviolence at the University of Medellín to expand upon Doc’s work training inmates and taxicab drivers to use nonviolent tactics to achieve their goals. Shortly after we arrived in Medellín, at 2 a.m., I awakened to what sounded like a train rushing past the building. A few seconds later, I realized that we were in the midst of a major earthquake. When I asked Doc about the experience over breakfast, he revealed that his world had been shaken to the core in another sense that night, for he had just received word that his biographer, David Halberstam, had been killed in a car accident in California.

Halberstam had chronicled the lives of Doc and seven other student leaders of the civil rights movement in his book The Children. James Lawson, a former student of Gandhi and an admirer of King, undertook a mission to introduce the philosophy of Christian love and the principles of nonviolent social change to this group of youth in Nashville. Halberstam was a journalist for the Nashville Tennessean at the time. These eight young people endured beatings at lunch counters, faced police wagons and jail, and fled burning buses and death threats throughout their fight for justice in the sit-ins and freedom rides. Doc was beaten and arrested 27 times during the struggle, but never once wavered from his deep and abiding commitment to nonviolence.

Nevertheless, at the start he worried about whether he would be able to resist violence, especially in the midst of women and girls being brutalized. As a young man, he was particularly concerned about being viewed as a coward by the people attacking him. Halberstam recounts the day Doc’s fear disappeared. He says,

LaFayette was in a group of students walking from the First Baptist Church to the lunch counters, and he was near the end of the line, about three or four people from the end. Suddenly a group of white toughs charged ... and attacked one of his colleagues, Solomon Gort. The whites had knocked him down and were kicking him. Bernard moved as quickly as he could to get back and protect Solomon, to put his body down on Gort’s as they had all been taught. That would make them switch their attention from Solomon to him, and they did, beating and kicking him instead. Just then, Jim Lawson walked over.... The leader of the whites was sporting the prevailing uniform of the day.... When he saw Lawson’s coolness, he spat at him. Lawson looked at him and asked him for a handkerchief. Lawson wiped the spit off his face as calmly as he could. Then he looked at the man’s jacket and started talking to him. Amazingly, Bernard thought, these two men were talking about the level of horsepower in motorcycles when a few seconds earlier they had seemed to be sworn enemies.

Through nonviolence, Lawson had forced his attacker to view him as a fellow human being. For Doc, the lesson became obvious: “It does not matter what the other person thinks of you; it matters only to do the right thing, to follow your conscience.” Doc’s way of living his philosophy enjoins us to confront the challenges of our own communities, to ask how nonviolent activism and civil discourse can be used to transform lives and promote lasting peace and to find unity with a larger life of which one is a part.

Dr. LaFayette reaffirmed the importance of this latter point recently in a conversation with my son Spencer, who interviewed him for a college project. Doc said,

In many cases, people who had no other option available to them resorted to arms. What I wanted to do in carrying out Dr. King’s work was to create an option in the form of nonviolence so they would have something else available to them. I would rather see a person stand up than be apathetic and cower in fear. Courage is what is required to be nonviolent. In having a weapon and fighting back, there is no insurance policy. Likewise, there is no guarantee with nonviolence that you will not be killed. The question is not whether you are going to live or die—the question is how you are going to live. Once you find something to live for, how you die and when you die doesn’t matter if it’s done for those principles (Kuchle 10).

However, there is a further lesson that I learned from my work with Dr. King’s philosophy. Living for the right principles is critical, but learning how to live a good life in a world that often violates principles of social justice is equally important. I suspect that each of us has experienced what philosophers refer to as moral distress in our daily lives. Moral distress takes place when institutional, organizational, and political cultures coerce people into acting in ways that they believe are unethical, but they feel that have no choice. It was a phenomenon I witnessed countless times throughout my career as a medical ethicist and as a philosopher of law.

One of the most compelling cases we dealt with in the hospital setting was brought to the ethics committee for retrospective analysis. It involved the death of a 60-year old patient who had been suffering from what the doctor termed “multiple vague symptoms”—she had aches and pains over a period of three years, but nothing serious could be identified as the cause. On the final visit to her doctor, she received the news that an extensive battery of tests had revealed terminal liver cancer. Her family physician talked to her about both the diagnosis and prognosis and asked her if she wanted to sign a living will, making clear that if the burdens of treatment outweighed the benefits, she would like to forego extraordinary measures and be allowed to die a natural death with dignity. She did, and a signed copy was placed in her physician’s office and in the emergency room files. The next day, her doctor, who happened to be on call in the emergency room, received word that his patient was being brought by ambulance to the hospital. Her husband found her unconscious in bed after she swallowed a bottle of tranquilizers and cut her wrists with a hatchet.

In the emergency room, her doctor agonized over what to do. He knew that his patient had made a serious attempt at ending her life and that, in all likelihood, she had few, if any, good days ahead of her. He took to heart the Hippocratic Oath’s dictum to “first do no harm” and believed in this case that continued existence might actually bring about more harm than death. On the other hand, he worried that if he did nothing to attempt to save his patient, he could be charged with assisted suicide, which is a felony in the state of Connecticut. Feeling that he had no choice under the circumstances, the doctor performed CPR on the patient, intubated her and stitched her up.

When she regained consciousness, as the doctor suspected, she was furious. She tried to rip out the tubes that were keeping her alive and insisted that she be allowed to die. Her physician called in a psychiatric consult who determined that patient was competent to refuse treatment. As a result, life support was removed, and the patient died six hours later.

Moral dilemmas, by their very nature, are such that no matter what course of action one takes, some ethical principle will be violated. This case is further complicated by the fact that for the doctor to meet his obligation to an oath he took, he believes he must go against his own self-interest in violating a legal code. In weighing his self-interest against the interest of another, he is forced to come to grips, not only with his patient’s, but with his own humanity. The moral distress he experienced was, in part, due to the realization that his patient’s right to refuse life- sustaining treatment as an expression of the right to die needed to be considered in the broader context of a society in which women are conditioned to be caregivers and may be psychologically pressured into choosing death rather than be an economic or emotional burden on family members.

There were many other cases that followed, and I came to understand that at the center of many, if not all instances of moral distress, was the question of the extent to which one is willing to countenance individual injustice for the sake of long-term organizational reform. This fact was most evident to me when I was in Rhode Island, supervising a project known as the Pre-Trial Project, in which my students were working in the Department of Corrections. They provided a variety of services, including acting as liaisons between pre-trial defendants and the public defender’s office, serving as discharge planners, HIV counselors, tutors, and clerks for probation and parole.

I received a call one day from a student working in “men’s max,” who couldn’t wait until our weekly debriefing meeting to talk. She had just witnessed a shackled prisoner, face down on the floor, being kicked in the head by two correctional officers. She wanted to know what to do. The courses of action over which we deliberated took into account the fact that a few months earlier, a correctional officer who had “blown the whistle” on two of his colleagues had the windows blown out of his house and received death threats to the point where he was forced to take a medical leave. I also knew that if this incident were reported, university students would likely no longer be allowed to work in the prison. So, it came down to whether we would do what we thought was right in protecting this inmate’s rights, regardless of the consequences, or allow for a consideration of long-term consequences that might lead to lasting reform of an organizational culture that desperately needed reform. 

These sorts of challenges take place throughout our lives in a variety of contexts. Standing up for what one believes and overcoming moral distress requires creating communities, as they did in the civil rights movement, that can cause a ripple effect in which cultures are eventually changed. It requires what President Obama referred to at the memorial service in Arizona last week as moral imagination and the habituation of behavior that respects the human dignity of all persons. This is, indeed, the lived experience of Martin Luther King, Jr. and a model for all of us. Thank you, and happy birthday Dr. King!