What MLK teaches us about civility and the power of ideas to heal our divides

And, introducing CR's first mini-course, "Greek Mythology in Ten Minutes"!

Gracious Readers, this week, we’ll explore:

  • What MLK teaches us about civility and the power of ideas to heal our divides

  • Coming soon: CR’s FREE “Greek mythology in ten minutes” mini-course!

  • Ask me anything: What should we explore together next?

  • Book give-away: Gracy Olmstead’s Uprooted

What MLK teaches us about civility, and how ideas can heal our divides

Last Friday, April 2nd, was Good Friday—the occasion on which Christians around the world commemorate the day two millennia ago on which Jesus Christ was crucified and died for the sins of humanity.

Good Friday was also the day that, in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a civil rights march against racial segregation from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. He was quickly arrested and taken to jail.

Last Sunday, April 4th, was Easter Sunday.

King spent his Easter of 1963 incarcerated. During his confinement, he wrote his famous treatise on civil disobedience, Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

King’s letter was addressed to “white moderate” pastors who had publicly called for King to pursue racial equality through the courts instead of nonviolent protest. His letter reveals important insights about the nature of civility, and how knowledge of intellectual history has power to heal our divides:

  1. There is a moral foundation to civility.

  2. Unjust norms are no norms at all.

  3. A more just and equal future requires that we recognize that there is an essential difference between civility and politeness

First, King’s letter reveals the moral foundations of civility.

Treating others with decency, dignity, and respect is nonnegotiable because they are our fellow human beings. When describing the evils of racial segregation, he invokes Martin Buber’s “I It” and “I thou” distinction. It is wrong to treat a person—a “thou”—as though they were a thing, an “it.” Why? Because as human beings, we share an irreducible moral worth. We have dignity, Dr. King noted, which is why he dedicated his life to creating a world “in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.” Human dignity was the basis and goal for his battle against racism in our nation: “Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity,” his Letter explains. Human dignity—and the the imago dei tradition that grounds humankind’s dignity in being created in God’s image— is similarly the moral basis of civility.

Second, just as King noted that there are both just and unjust rules that claim the title “law,” there are also just and unjust social norms that go under the name of “civility.”

It is our duty to identify the unjust ones and weed them out of our lives and daily habits. But how do we do that? Dr. King offers a litmus test for how to distinguish between a just and unjust laws, and this test can also help us distinguish between just and unjust norms. To paraphrase Dr. King, any social norm that uplifts human personality is just, while any norm that degrades human personality is unjust. A just social norm is one that is rooted in eternal and natural law. Social norms that are used to divide, silence, and oppress people distorts the soul and damage the human personality. When social norms are made into weapons, they give a false sense of superiority to the person weaponizing them, and a false sense of inferiority to the person against whom they are used. Our project today is to recover and defend the norms that celebrate the dignity of the human person and promote community

Third, a more just and equal future requires that we recognize that there is an essential difference between civility and politeness.

Civility is a disposition, a way of viewing the word and others that sees them as people first, with irreducible dignity and worth. Politeness is a technique. It is manners, the norms of decorum, and etiquette. Civility requires that we act in ways that may appear deeply impolite in the name of truly respecting others. Examples include telling someone a hard truth—instead of patronizing them by telling them what they want to hear—or engaging in nonviolent protest in order to stand against systemic and institutional injustice.

History is rife with examples of brave individuals who defied the authorities of their day in the name of the higher good of human equality. Civil disobedience gets to the heart of civility—the disposition and conduct befitting a member of the civitas. Politeness, by contrast, comes from the latin word “to smooth” or “polish.” That is what politeness does: it focuses on superficial fixes, which are not enough to remedy injustices, past or present.

Finally, Dr. King’s Letter shows that he was intimately familiar with the Great Conversation, the ideas and written work of wise people who have come before us.

  • “I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.”

  • “To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.”

  • “Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I it" relationship for an "I thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful.”

As we discussed last issue, the Great Conversation is iterative. Great thinkers—such Dr. King, Augustine, Aquinas, and Buber—are familiar with the ideas of those who have gone before them, and are able to benefit from the body of human wisdom that has been built over time.

The above are merely a few examples of the many thinkers and ideas that Dr. King imbibed and was influenced by—and in turn invoked in his battle against the evils of racial segregation. We can learn from King, and harness the power of intellectual history to elevate our conversation and pursue justice and equality in our world today.

Greek mythology in ten minutes

Five years after his arrest and imprisonment in a Birmingham jail in 1963—on April 4th, 1968—Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Bobby Kennedy was running for President of the United States at the time, and was campaigning in Indianapolis—where I now live—when he received the news of King’s murder. At what is now named the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Park—just a few blocks from my home—Kennedy was slated to deliver a campaign speech to a predominately African American audience. After hearing the news, Kennedy dropped his planned speech and instead delivered an extemporaneous speech of healing, hope, and forgiveness. Notably, Kennedy’s speech draws from ancient Greek culture to make his case for unity in a time of deep injustice and division.

The speech is beautiful. I encourage you to watch the full remarks below.

A the 2:50 mark of this video, Kennedy invokes the Greek poet Aeschylus, a source of many stories of Greek myth we have today:

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: "In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

He goes on to tie Aeschylus’ sentiment to the need for healing in our nation in the wake of the horrific evil of King’s assassination:

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.

Kennedy’s soothing words had a remarkable effect. While many cities across the country suffered violence as people mourned the loss of Dr. King, Indianapolis was spared—it appears those who heard Kennedy’s words went home in peace.

Kennedy’s speech is another powerful reminder of the power of intellectual history to heal our divides. As I wrote in the last issue of Civic Renaissance:

Many of us live in modern liberal democracies and enjoy the freedoms and privileges as a result. And those who created the institutions of modern liberal democracy were intimately familiar with the Great Conversation. They were in constant conversation with statesmen and thinkers who came before them. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was influenced by John Locke. And Locke in turn was responding to Thomas Hobbes, Hobbes to Augustine, Augustine to Plato (and, of course the, Bible), Plato to Socrates (and the Egyptians), Socrates to Homer….

I adore conclusion of Kennedy’s speech:

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.

That second clause holds a deeper promise of Greek myth.

To tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.

Not only will leaning about Greek myth allow us to enter into the Great Conversation—it will also improve our lives by exposing us to beauty, and taming the rougher edges of our soul.

We are planning to launch the course next week. Sign up below to reserve your spot!

Save your spot!

Ask me Anything: what should we explore together next?

I’m excited to experiment with the Ask Me Anything (AMA) feature that will allow us to be in better communication. What questions are on your mind? What should we explore in future Civic Renaissance issues? You can offer ideas, even anonymously if you prefer, by clicking the button below.

What should we learn together?

Book give-away: Gracy Olmstead’s Uprooted, a book on community and place

My friend Gracy Olmstead has written a wonderful book, just released in March, on place, community, rootedness and presence. Entitled Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We've Left Behind, Gracy’s book is a lovely reflection on growing up on a farm in rural Idaho, and the consequences of moving to Washington D.C. and leaving her community and family behind. The book explores important trends today: brain drain, how our increasing mobility contributes to our lack of community, and the ethics of modern agriculture.

I have FOUR copies of this book to give away. If you’re interested in a copy, please send me a note with the subject line UPROOTED. I’ll select at random from those who write to me.

Thank you again for being part of the Civic Renaissance community!



P.S. I love this sentiment from a thoughtful CR Reader about liberating nature of the liberal arts and the Great Conversation, which he shared in the Civic Renaissance Facebook group.

Join the CR Facebook Group!

One of my favorite rationales for the liberal arts is to liberate us from the parochialism of time and place. Once one learns of the range of beliefs that thoughtful people have held in the past, one becomes more appreciative of the blessings we have today while also realizing that we don’t have a conclusive way to address the human condition. One becomes less glib about the profound challenges of life, as an individual, in community, and as a citizen in a state. One also develops a greater appreciation of the tragic sense of life as well as humility regarding what “we” can control. —Michael S.