Daily Archives: January 17, 2011

What is Freedom?

Reading some MLK this morning, which has become my habit on the day designated to acknowledge the man and his work, I came across some material you might find useful.

Martin Luther King arrested

On the mechanics of suppression and how it denies an individual the power of choice, MLK from What Is Freedom?, The Ethical Demands for Integration:

What is Freedom?  It is, first, the capacity to deliberate or weigh alternatives. “Shall I be a teacher or a lawyer?”  “Shall I vote for this candidate or the other candidate?” “Shall I be a Democrat, Republican or Socialist?”   Second, freedom expresses itself in decision.  The word decision like the word incision involves the image of cutting. Incision means to cut in, decision means to cut off . When I make a decision I cut off alternatives and make a choice.  The existentialists say we must choose, that we are choosing animals; and if we do not choose we sink into thinghood and the mass mind. A third expression of freedom is responsibility.  This is the obligation of the person to respond if he is questioned about his decisions.  No one else can respond for him.  He alone must respond, for his acts are determineed by the centered totality of his being.

From this analysis we can clearly see the evilness of segregation.  It cuts off one’s capacity to deliberate, decide and respond.  The absence of freedom is the imposition of restraint on my deliberation as to what I shall do, where I shall live, how much I shall earn, the kind of tasks I shall pursue.  I am robbed of the basic quality of man-ness. When I cannot choose what I shall do or where I shall live or how I shall survive, it means in fact that someone or some system has already made these a priori decision for me, and I am reduced to an animal. I do not live; I merely exist. The only resemblances I have to real life are the motor responses and functions that are akin to humankind. I cannot adequately assume responsibility as a person because I have been made a party to a decision in which I played no part in making.

Now to be sure, this is hyperbole in some degree but only to underscore what actually happens when a man is robbed of his freedom. The very nature of his life is altered and his being cannot make the full circle of personhood because that which is basic to the character of life itself has been diminished.”

On confronting the evil of suppression, MLK from Stride Toward Freedom:

As I thought further I came to see that what we were really doing was withdrawing our cooperation from an evil system, rather than merely withdrawing our economic support from the bus company. The bus company, being an external expression of the system, would naturally suffer, but the basic aim was to refuse to cooperate with evil. At this point I began to think about Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience.  I remembered how, as a college student, I had been moved when I first read this work. I became convinced that what we were preparing to do in Montgomery was related to what Thoreau had expressed. We were simply saying to the white community, “We can no longer lend our cooperation to an evil system.”

Something began to say to me, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate  it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”   When oppressed people willingly accept their oppression  they only serve  to give the oppressor a convenient justification for his acts.  Often the oppressor goes along unaware of the evil involved in his oppression so long as the oppressed accepts it. So in ordered to be true to one’s conscience and true to God, a righteous man has no alternative but to refuse to cooperate with an evil system.  This I felt was the nature of our action…”

Finally, while reading the following passage,  it occurred to me that we are blessed to have a number of Mother Pollards among us.  Why it tends  to be women who demonstrate this intuitive strength, I do not know.  But, it does so happen to be that way.  This is in acknowledgment to each of you; and no doubt you will know who you are when you read it. MLK from The Strength of Love:

One of the most dedicated participants in the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama was an elderly Negro whom we affectionately called Mother Pollard. Although poverty stricken and uneducated, she was amazingly intelligent and possessed a deep understanding of the meaning of the movement.  After having walked for several weeks, she was asked if she were tired. With ungrammatical profundity, she answered, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.”

On a particular Monday evening, following a tension-packed week which included being arrested and receiving numerous threatening telephone calls, I spoke at a mass meeting.  I attempted to convey an overt impression of strength and courage, although inwardly depressed and fear-stricken. At the end of the meeting, Mother Pollard came to the front of the church and said, “Come here, son.”  I  immediately went to her and hugged her affectionately. “Something is wrong with you,” she said. “You didn’t talk strong tonight.”  Seeking further to disguise my fears, I retorted, “Oh, no, Mother Pollard, nothing is wrong. I am feeling as fine as ever.”  But her insight was discerning. “Now you can’t fool me,” she said.  “I knows something is wrong. Is it that we ain’t doing things to please you?  Or is it that the white folks is bothering you?”  Before I could respond, she looked directly into my eyes and said, “I don told you we is with you all the way.”  Then her face became radiant and she said in words of quiet certainty, “But even if we ain’t with you, God’s gonna take care of you.”  As she spoke these consoling words, everything in me quivered and quickened with the pulsing tremor of raw energy.

Since that dreary night in 1956, Mother Pollard has passed on to glory and I have known very few quiet days. I have been tortured without and tormented within by the raging fires of tribulation. I have been forced to muster what strength and courage I have to withstand howling winds of pain and jostling storms of adversity. But as the years have unfolded the eloquently simple words of Mother Pollard have come back again and again to give light and peace and guidance to my troubled soul.  “God’s gonna take care of you.”

This faith transforms the whirlwind of despair into a warm and reviving breeze of hope.  The words of a motto which a generation ago were commonly found on the walls in the homes of devout persons need to be etched on our hearts:

                    Fear knocked at the door.

                   Faith answered.

                  There was no one there.