Dr. King’s teachings and politics were more radical than the Disney-fied version of him that tends to be put forward on the commemoration of his birthday. When he was only 23, he wrote to his wife-to-be, Coretta Scott: “I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic.” His ability to link apparently disparate issues like race, economics, war, and technology, as well as to build bridges between groups of people, made him a potent leader. In fact, after King’s 1963 speech at the March on Washington, FBI Assistant Director Louis Sullivan charged that King was “The most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.”
Although Dr. King was himself a Baptist minister, he developed a relationship with, and a deep respect for, Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh; King nominated Thay for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. And the heart of King’s teaching transcends any one religion – it’s a clear testimony to the truth of our interconnectedness and the power of love to overcome hate. Which sounds quite a bit like the basic teachings of the Buddha, actually.
Rather than try to summarize Dr. King’s amazing life here, here are a couple of good sources to learn more about him:
- Taylor Branch’s book trilogy – Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge – may be the very best to tell Dr. King’s story as well as the story of the complex times in which he lived:
- Rev. Hozan Alan Senauke, vice-abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center, gives a wonderful workshop on “The Dharma of Martin Luther King, Jr.” You can listen to a dharma talk by Alan on Dr. King here.
I could have chosen one of Dr. King’s many quotes on our interconnection – that would make sense for a Buddhist blog, and many have highlighted those quotes. Instead, here’s one that fully exemplifies his passion for peace and justice, as well as his love for his country. The quote is from a speech given on February 25, 1967:
Those of us who love peace must organize as effectively as the war hawks. As they spread the propaganda of war, we must spread the propaganda of peace. We must combine the fervor of the civil rights movement with the peace movement. We must demonstrate, teach and preach until the very foundations of our nation are shaken. We must work unceasingly to lift this nation that we love to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humaneness.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was a bodhisattva extraordinaire.