Martin Luther King as Icon of USA Democracy
(Mark Tooley shared these October 11, 2018, remarks at a conference at George Washington University on Martin Luther King Jr.’s political theology.)
There is typically too little reference to the civil rights martyr’s Cold War role. He delivered two important Cold War speeches, his 1967 antiwar sermon at Riverside Church, and his 1964 address to two churches in communist East Berlin.
King emerged in the 1950s at the near height of USA tensions with the Soviets. Racial discrimination made America look hypocritical as it argued to the world for the superiority of USA democracy. So the civil rights cause for some became a national security imperative. Others claimed the Civil Rights Movement was subversively infiltrated by Communists and/or fellow travelers.
The Kennedy Administration authorized wiretaps of MLK based on these concerns, focused especially on MLK confidant Stanley Levison, a former Communist Party USA member whom JFK unsuccessfully implored MLK to disavow.
Of course J. Edgar Hoover, who came of age and rose to prominence during the post WWI Red Scare, was obsessed with MLK’s potential communist ties. Wiretaps of MLK revealed his adulteries, about which the Kennedys and later LBJ would gossip, but no affinity with communism.
A KGB defector decades later confirmed not only that MLK was unhelpful to the Soviets, he was actively targeted by the KGB because of his commitment to American democratic ideals. Vasili Nikitich Mitrokhin was a longtime KGB archivist who gradually across the years became disenchanted with the Soviet system. He began taking copious notes from KGB records that he hid in his home, totaling over 20,000 pages, which he gave to British intelligence after the Soviet Union collapsed and he defected in 1992. Many of the notes were first published in 1999, in The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, with the archive itself opened in 2014.
The Mitrokhin Archive indicates that American communists in the earlier stages of the Civil Rights Movement confidently boasted to their Soviet masters of their influence on MLK. But their boasts were, like most of their aspirations about a Sovietized America, wishfully delusional, believed by a KGB that was even more ignorant about America. MLK’s hailing the “magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence” did not echo Soviet purposes. Neither did his declaration that the “goal of America is freedom … We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”
According to Mitrokhin’s notes, when the KGB realized in the 1960s that MLK aimed to reform and not subvert American democracy it resolved to discredit him as a stooge of American capitalism, in a campaign led by the same KGB official who had earlier managed celebrated British spies like Kim Philby.
KGB planted articles in Africa that portrayed MLK as a paid tool of the Johnson Administration were designed to filter into American media. The KGB hoped to supplant MLK with a more Marxist-friendly black leader like Stokeley Carmichael, who enthusiastically visited Havana and Hanoi.
Of course, the KGB campaign against MLK flopped and its hopes for pro-Soviet black revolutionaries were absurd. The Civil Rights Movement was mostly led by black church leaders who looked to the Bible and America’s founding documents for inspiration.
There are many ironies in this story. Claims by clueless and inconsequential American communists that MLK could help the Soviet cause likely helped delude both the KGB and FBI. Both the KGB and FBI at various points tried to discredit MLK as being a tool of the respective other. The Mitrokhin files indicate the KGB was trying to discredit J. Edgar Hoover while it was also targeting MLK. While the KGB was trying to paint MLK as compliant servant of LBJ, MLK was denouncing LBJ’s war policy, prompting LBJ, who felt betrayed after having backed civil rights, to great fury against MLK, including increased obsession with MLK’s adulteries, which were known because of FBI surveillance provoked by what turned out to be MLK’s nonexistent communist sympathies.
MLK knew of FBI exertions against him but seems not to have known about the KGB’s campaign, whose disinformation against him he perhaps ironically surmised came from the FBI.
MLK was never a threat to but in fact was a champion of American democracy. By rhetoric and conviction he was more Jeffersonian than Marxist, quoting Jefferson’s most famous words in his own most famous speech: “I still have a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American dream – one day this nation will rise up and live up to its creed, ‘We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal.’”
In his heterodox Enlightenment Christian theology, MLK was also similar to Jefferson, more exponent of biblical justice than orthodox creed.
King’s famous 1967 sermon at Riverside Church in New York where he unveiled his opposition to the Vietnam War is sadly suffused with naïveté about the brutal nature of communist North Vietnam. It estranged him from his ally LBJ and is his best remembered pronouncement on USA foreign and military policy.
A refugee from the horrors of Indochinese communism would not reflect favorably on that speech, in which MLK tied American war-making abroad to racism at home. MLK did not appreciate that the Vietnam effort, however unrealistically, was a genuine attempt to export to southeast Asia the Christian democratic ideals he himself espoused. Yet he called for a “positive thrust for democracy” by an America he loved, and pronounced that communism was “a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions we initiated.”
Of course King still insisted that God remained on His throne.
“Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world,” King implored. “This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard?” King answered “no.” He pointed to another message of “longing, of hope, of solidarity.” And he concluded with the words from the haunting hymn “Once to Every Man and Nation” by James Russell Lowell.
Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet ’tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong:
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above his own.
This confidence in Providence is what King offered East German Christians when he addressed two churches in newly fenced in East Berlin. He was of course by that time an international figure and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize whose impact for human rights and exemplifying Christian shaped American democracy was global.
Then mayor and later West German Chancellor Willy Brandt had invited MLK to West Berlin for a commemoration of JFK, where MLK addressed 20,000 at an outdoor stadium. Afterwards he inspected the bullet marks where an East Berlin escapee had been shot by Communist guards earlier that day.
The U.S. embassy inexplicably withheld MLK’s passport to prevent travel to East Berlin. But MLK presented his credit card for identification to East German guards, who quickly got permission for his entrance. MLK was after all a critic of American systemic racism, a critique East Germany’s communist masters of course appreciated. But they got more than they reckoned.
Two East Berlin churches hosted MLK. By word of mouth, about 3000 East Berliners appeared at the Marienkirche (St. Mary’s Church). The size of the crowd, which he addressed as “dear Christian friends,” led to his also speaking at the Sophienkirche (Sophia Church), where he rehashed the same speech. “Here are God’s children on both sides of the wall, and no man-made barrier can destroy this fact,” MLK told the attentive crowds.
MLK shared how “we have attempted to conduct our struggle for freedom in the United States on the basis of Christian principles” with “non-violence and love,” for which he asked his audience’s “continuous support and backing as we continue to go on in our efforts to make brotherhood a reality all over that country and over the world.”
Berlin was a “symbol of the divisions of men on the face of the earth,” MLK noted. “Whether it be East or West, men and women search for meaning, hope for fulfillment, yearn for faith in something beyond themselves, and cry desperately for love and community to support them in this pilgrim journey.”
Despite “barriers of race, creed, ideology, or nationality, there is an inescapable destiny which binds us together,” MLK said. “There is a common humanity which makes us sensitive to the sufferings of one another. And for many of us, there is one Lord, one faith, and one baptism which binds us in a common history, a common calling, and a common hope for the salvation of the world.”
MLK admitted “our situations are quite different,” and it was only “with some reluctance” that he tried “to bring you God’s word for your situation” as he had not been in East Berlin “long enough to discern God’s plan for you and his calling to you.” But he shared “the way in which the spirit moves in our midst in the freedom struggle in the southern part of United States.”
Stressing the theme of reconciliation in the New Testament, MLK cited the Gospels’ call for mutual responsibility “regardless of the differences of race and nation.” In a reference from Ephesians that nobody in that divided city would have missed, MLK noted:
And so it is not difficult for us to go a step further and assume that wherever reconciliation is taking place, wherever men are “breaking down the dividing walls of hostility” which separate them from their brothers, there Christ continues to perform his ministry of reconciliation and to fulfill his promise that “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.
Not willing to delve more extensively into Berlin politics, MLK instead shared what the American Civil Rights Movement had “learned about God’s action in our midst,” starting with the Montgomery bus boycott, a process over a decade he likened to leaving Egyptian slavery, enduring the Wilderness, and entering the Promised Land.
God’s power had enabled the Civil Rights Movement to face “daily crucifixions, in the knowledge that God’s world is changed through resurrection, and there can be no resurrection without crucifixion,” MLK preached. “This is the faith I commend to you Christians here in Berlin. A living, active, massive faith that affirms the victory of Jesus Christ over the world, whether it be an Eastern world or a Western world.”
MLK’s message for imprisoned East Berlin was unmistakable.
“With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to suffer together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day,” MLK promised. “With this faith, we will speed up the day when the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ and he shall reign forever and ever.”
Clearly MLK was commending the civil rights experience in America as an example for East Berlin in terms of peaceful endurance and loving resistance. He was reminding East German Christians that their nation, like America and all nations, was ultimately accountable to a transcendent authority.
MLK instructively explained: “Under God, every nation has a destiny, and the ‘people of God’ in that nation have a peculiar responsibility to witness to that destiny and work toward its fulfillment.”
By some accounts, MLK’s message to East Berlin churches on that day in 1964 nourished quiet but patient resistance to the Communist regime. A choir after his one speech sang the black spiritual, “Go Down Moses.” MLK’s words and example were also instructive to the 1968 democratic revolution in Czechoslovakia.
By that time MLK had just been assassinated and was already canonized as an international martyr saint of human dignity and human rights for all. That revolution failed, but its spirit inspired the eventual fall of East European communism and the Berlin Wall 21 years later.
Too often MLK is recalled only as critic of America who called out our social sins. But he must also be remembered as an icon of the American democratic ideal, shaped by the nation’s Christian faith.
MLK was and is a friend to human rights and democracy everywhere because he insisted that every nation stands before God’s judgment seat. And as MLK counseled, Christians in every nation are called to proclaim this reminder, no matter the costs to themselves.