We are familiar with Martin Luther King’s important work in the civil rights movement, and the tremendous role that some churches played in the fight for social justice. However, there were great humanists and humanistic ideals that preceded King and the movement.
King is best known for using passive resistance to fight for freedom, justice and equality. However, in the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau wrote his famous essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” His theory became influential after his death, largely because it is completely secular.
Thoreau’s earliest protest was lodged over a church/state separation issue. He was a schoolmaster in 1838, and the state of Massachusetts required him to pay a tax to a church he did not even attend. He refused to pay the tax, though another man paid it without his knowledge or approval.
Thoreau did not attend church and associated primarily with unchurched individuals. He believed that people have the right to disobey unjust laws, and that they were required to follow the dictates of their conscience, as opposed to divine or secular authorities.
Ironically, though King was a Christian, his entire crusade was in opposition to the biblical command to obey the authorities that were supposedly ordained by God (Romans 13: 1-3). Moreover, he opposed the First (Old) Testament law supporting “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a head for a head, and a life for a life.” Rather, like Gandhi, King said, “That old law about an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.”
Christians had the support of many humanists during the civil rights movement. People such as A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer, James Forman, Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, and numerous others were major voices in the movement. Indeed, in his book, From Strength to Love, King wrote:
“I would be the last to condemn the thousands of sincere and dedicated people outside the churches who have labored unselfishly through various humanitarian movements to cure the world of social evils, for I would rather a man be a committed humanist than an uncommited Christian.”
King also firmly believed in church/state separation. In his famous 1965 interview in Playboy, he addressed the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that made prayer in public schools unconstitutional. He remarked:
“I endorse it. I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally, or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right. I am strongly opposed to the efforts that have been made to nullify the decision.”
This should not be surprising. According to his biographer David J. Garrow in Bearing the Cross, King read the writings of philosopher Paul Tillich and almost became an atheist. King’s major attraction to Christianity was its emphasis upon communal love, or agape.
King was also knowledgable about the so-called pagan origins of Christianity. He knew about the religion of Mithraism and its influence upon Christianity. He knew that, before Christians, devotees of Mithra accepted Sunday as their holy day, December 25th as the birth of Mithra, etc. (From the papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume 4, University Press of California.)
Martin Luther King was one of the most important individuals in American history. His religion greatly motivated him. However, after all is said and done, there is no evidence that God had anything whatsoever to do with the success of the civil rights movement. Everything that King and his supporters accomplished can be explained in terms that are clearly and strictly human. King and his followers, sang, spoke, marched, protested, etc. Human beings have always engaged in such behaviors. However, King performed no miracles of a religious nature. What King demonstrated is that human thought and human activism will always have to be at the center of any program of action geared toward gaining freedom, justice, and equality. This is a message that humanists have been trying to get across for years, and one we will continue to promote.