'Softmindedness,' Riots, and Science: Seven Lesser-Known King Quotes
People love to quote Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we're honoring today. In fact, no man in American history, save for perhaps Thomas Jefferson, seems to evoke the need to rattle off at length his letters, speeches, television interviews, and just about everything he said in between. All this quoting has over the years resulted in some notorious misquotes and manipulations of meaning. Recently, even the U.S. Department of the Interior was shamed into changing a quote on the brand-new King monument in Washington, D.C., when it was revealed that King's words had been taken completely out of context.
It's unlikely people will ever stop misquoting King, whose wise words are eminently repeatable. But while we can't prevent future mistakes, we can offer people some other quotes to try instead of using the same old passages from "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and "I Have a Dream." Now if you happen to misquote King, you'll at least be less trite about it.
On America's military industrial complex:
This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate in to the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view... But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.
On the debate between religion and science:
Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values.The two are not rivals. They are complementary. Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism.
On the failures of the church:
In spite of the noble affirmations of Christianity, the church has often lagged in its concern for social justice and too often has been content to mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. It has often been so absorbed in a future good 'over yonder' that it forgets the present evils 'down here.' Yet the church is challenged to make the gospel of Jesus Christ relevant within the social situation. We must come to see that the Christian gospel is a two-way road. On the one side, it seeks to change the souls of men and thereby unite them with God; on the other, it seeks to change the environmental conditions of men so that the soul will have a chance after it is changed. Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and yet is not concerned with the economic and social conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is the kind the Marxist describes as 'an opiate of the people.'
The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition that inspires men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life. It can make men so I-centered that they no longer are Thou-centered. Are we not too prone to judge success by the index of our salaries and the size of the wheel base on our automobiles, and not by the quality of our service and relationship to humanity? Capitalism may lead to a practical materialism that is as pernicious as the theoretical materialism taught by Communism.
On the crimes of the white majority:
Let us say it boldly, that if the total slum violations of law by the white man over the years were calculated and were compared with the lawbreaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man.
On the plague of feeble minds:
Softminded individuals are prone to embrace all kinds of superstitions. Their minds are constantly invaded by irrational fears, which range from fear of Friday the thirteenth to fear of a black cat crossing one's path. As the elevator made its upward climb in one of the large hotels of New York City, I noticed for the first time that there was no thirteenth floor-floor fourteen followed floor twelve. On inquiring from the elevator operator the reason for this ommision, he said, 'This practice is followed by most large hotels because of the fear of numerous people to stay on a thirteenth floor.' Then he added, 'The real foolishness of the fear is to be found in the fact that the fourteenth floor is actually the thirteenth.' Such fears leave the soft mind haggard by day and haunted by night.
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