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from issue no. 04 - 2009

Martin Luther King and Reinhold Niebuhr. A possible meeting of minds

At a decisive moment in his career Martin Luther King, the hero of the struggle for the emancipation of American blacks, spent considerable time on the ideas of Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the main exponents of liberal political realism. And, despite the diversity of their positions, the pair influenced each other mutually

by Gianni Dessì

A photo of Martin Luther King during the famous speech “I have a dream,” in Washington, 28 August 1963 <BR>[© Associated Press/LaPresse]

A photo of Martin Luther King during the famous speech “I have a dream,” in Washington, 28 August 1963
[© Associated Press/LaPresse]

In April 1952 Martin Luther King, then just twenty-three, jotted down some ideas on the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr for a seminar that he was to give in the presence of his professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Boston. These notes were to be restructured in May under the title The Ethical Dualism of Reinhold Niebuhr and form the basis for a paper, The Theology of R. Niebuhr, given in June 19541.
Also in September 1958, in a piece of writing that was to become part of the book Stride Toward Freedom, King devoted a paragraph, An encounter with Niebuhr, to the attempt to clarify what aspects in the position of the older theologian he felt drawn to2.
Basically from April 1952 to June 1954 King as a young student of theology scrutinized Niebuhr’s ideas and in 1958 returned to reflect on his relationship with Niebuhr.
That the leading figure in the struggle for the emancipation of American blacks, known for his speech, I have a dream, given on 28 August 1963 in Washington – in which he expressed the dream of full racial equality – spent considerable time in a decisive period of his career on Niebuhr, one of the chief proponents of liberal political realism, may seem strange today. In reality the fact that a young student of theology should study Niebuhr was quite normal in the America of the ’fifties.
In March 1948 the cover of Time magazine was devoted to Niebuhr. The article it related to, Faith for a Lenten Age, presented him as the disturbing figure who had said “with every muscle of its being: no” to “Protestantism’s easy conscience and easy optimism”3.
Niebuhr was at the peak of his fame: his ideas seemed a tonic for the difficult and unprecedented situation of uncertainty that the American people were experiencing in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War. The breaking of the alliance with Russia, the looming threat of total destruction that an atomic war would produce, created a spiritual situation that contrasted with the optimism of liberal Protestantism, and also raised questions, at least in Niebuhr, about the significance of the great dissemination of religious values in the American culture of the ’fifties4. The writer of the Time article went on to note that Niebuhr’s “is clearly not a faith for weak souls. It is a faith for an age of ordeal”5.
It should therefore not be surprising that in those years, King was interested in Niebuhr: the idea of a sharp and schematic distinction between the realist Niebuhr and the dreamer King, as Enrico Beltramini6 has noted, will not stand up to a more detailed analysis of various themes in the two major religious thinkers of twentieth century America.
On the other hand it is undeniable that, while sharing some opinions on society and on American religious feeling in those years, there were differences between the two resulting both from their different life experiences and from some precise theoretical positions.
This diversity does not prevent the possibility of a comparison, however, so much so that if it is possible to speak of Niebuhr’s influence on King, the opposite is perhaps also true.
Reinhold Niebuhr during a lecture at the Union Theological Seminary in New York in a photo of 1952 <BR>[© Getty images/Laura Ronchi]

Reinhold Niebuhr during a lecture at the Union Theological Seminary in New York in a photo of 1952
[© Getty images/Laura Ronchi]

One of the most obvious differences between King and Niebuhr relates to the issue of race. King was marked by childhood experiences of racial discrimination, living till he was nineteen in Atlanta, Georgia, and, after studying for his doctorate at Boston, going to the South to become pastor of a Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. From December 1955, when Rosa Parks broke a law of the State of Alabama by not giving up her seat in a bus to a white, for which she was arrested, he became the leader both of the boycott of the bus line and municipal administration by the black people of Montgomery, and of the movement for racial equality.
In the span of a few years King achieved results unthinkable only a few years before: in December 1956, the United States Supreme Court declared segregation on public transport unconstitutional; in 1963, King led the march for civil rights in Washington in which more than two hundred thousand people participated, in 1964 he received the Nobel Peace Prize and was received by Pope Paul VI.
During this period King, taking the idea from Gandhi, proposed the method of non-violence, something that seemed to clash explicitly with the ideas of Niebuhr, who in 1939 had left the American Socialist Party for its advocation of a neutral stance towards the Second World War.
For Niebuhr, at least during his first years of activity, the racial issue was secondary to the perception he had of the facile religious optimism and injustice that marked American society: as the pastor of a small community in Detroit between 1915 and 1928 he had been struck by the negative effects, from a social and moral standpoint, of industrialization on the lives of his faithful.
Niebuhr, who taught at Columbia University in New York from 1928, had no direct experience of the racial issue, as that experienced in the Southern states.
On the other hand he publicly committed himself to supporting a number of sharecropper co-operatives in Arkansas that advocated an interracial policy, and in 1937 he published Meditations from Mississippi, an essay written after a visit to some of the Southern states, in which he denounced the hanging of two colored men: this essay is emblematic of his approach to the issue of race. He considered it largely due to the situation of social degeneration caused by extreme poverty in those areas and was strongly critical of edifying or utopian attitudes as response to such complex problems. He wrote that “moralists of different kinds do not agree with each other. The idealists of the North rightly condemn the racial politics of the South, but too simplistically. The desire to preserve racial integrity is a usage as powerful as the impulse to personal survival. It is accentuated when an economically dominant group is numerically smaller, as are the whites in many towns of the South. In such a situation, fear increases the selfishness of a race and what follows is cruelty”7.
Niebuhr continued by arguing the need to set up alternative social structures such as the Delta Farm and Providence Farm sharecropper cooperatives.
In his writings of those years he expressed two ideas that continually return in his reflections. The first was a criticism of perfectionism. For him no social organization or ideology existed that could satisfy the aspiration in every man to perfect love. The second was an appreciation laden with human sympathy and solidarity for every attempt at existential, social or political expression of the human.
In subsequent years, particularly in the ’fifties, his central theme became that of American foreign policy: only in the ’sixties did he return explicitly to consider the fight for civil rights.
The writings of the young King on Niebuhr enable one to grasp, even from a more theoretical standpoint, the distinction between the positions of the two.
In 1952 he wrote that “the strength of Dr. Niebuhr’s position lies in his critique of the easy conscience and complacency of some forms of perfectionism. He is right, I think, in insisting that we must be realistic about the relativity of all moral and ethical choice. His analysis of the complexity of the social situation is profound, and I disagree with it in no way. But there is a weakness in Niebuhr’s ethical position that runs through all his writings. The weakness lies in the inability of his system to deal adequately with the relative perfection which is a fact of the Christian life”8.
King agreed with Niebuhr’s critique of perfectionism and optimism: history shows no full realization of human ideals, even of religious ideals. Believing that such is possible leads to various forms of optimism and superficiality in judgment on individual and even more on collective being. In Niebuhr’s approach, which King seems to share, there is no room for utopianism.
President Barack Obama, with some children at a school, talking to the astronauts of the International Space Station, Washington, 24 March 2009 <BR>[© Associated Press/LaPresse]

President Barack Obama, with some children at a school, talking to the astronauts of the International Space Station, Washington, 24 March 2009
[© Associated Press/LaPresse]

On the other hand, King’s criticism picks out a central theme and a possible limit to Niebuhr, the limit that led Luigi Giussani to write that, according to the Protestant theologian, “it could be said that man through faith possesses ‘justice as sentiment’, not ‘as achievement’. Achievement will corrupt this sentiment, this inner attitude of aspiration: and the dialectical process that governs human existence will continue. So it is a matter of newness of life which remains at the root of the self without being able to fully translate itself into reality, just as the infinite transcendence of the spirit remains at the root of self without being able to fully realize itself”9.
In short, Niebuhr seems more shaped by the need to avoid the risk that a particular historical achievement, individual or social, might claim to be absolute and thus become idolatrous; King more shaped by the experience of the black community and the presence in it of the Christian law of love.
These factors of diversity do not do away with the fact that, even if at a remove, not least because of the historical circumstances I have mentioned, there was at least a meeting of minds between the two.
In the 1958 essay referred to earlier, King wrote: “The prophetic and realistic elements in Niebuhr’s passionate style and profound thought were appealing to me, I became so enamoured of his social ethics that I almost fell into the trap of accepting uncritically everything he wrote”10.
In a letter of 1963 Niebuhr wrote that the I have a dream speech given by King in Washington “was one of the most eloquent in recent years. It won’t influence the hard core of racists, but it will influence the nation”11.
In conclusion it appears that the relationship between King and Niebuhr was not characterized primarily by the contrast between the idealism of the former and the realism of the latter: in reality both lived, with different slants, a Christianity both realistic and prophetic.

1 The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., vol. II, senior editor Clayborne Carson, Volume editors: R. E. Luker, P. A. Russel, P. Holloran, University of California Press, Berkeley - Los Angeles 1994, pp. 139-279.
2 The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., vol. IV, Senior editor Clayborne Carson, Volume editors: S. Carson, A. Clay, V. Shadron and K. Taylor, University of California Press, Berkeley - Los Angeles 2000, pp. 473-484.
3 W. Chambers, Faith for a Lenten Age, in Time, 8 March 1948, p. 70.
4 See R. Niebuhr, Is there a Revival of Religion?, in New York Times Magazine, November 1950, p. 62.
5 Time, 8 March 1948.
6 E. Beltramini, Niebuhr, il teologo realista amato da Barack Obama, in Il Riformista, 25 February 2009.
7 R. Niebuhr, Meditations from Mississippi, in Christian Century, 10 February 1937, pp.183-184.
8 The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., vol. II, cit., p. 150.
9 L. Giussani, Grandi linee della teologia protestante americana. Profilo storico dalle origini agli anni Cinquanta, Jaca Book, Milan 1988, p. 139 (1st edition 1969).
10 The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., vol. IV, cit., P. 478.
11 Letter of R. Niebuhr to William Scarlett, 4 September 1963, Library of Congress, Niebuhr Papers, box 33.

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