Tag Archives: Martin Luther King

Lecture 2: Some critiques of humanism

Second lecture in a class on humanism.

If we’re going to do a serious study of humanism, one of the things we have to do is take seriously any serious critiques of humanism. What I’d like to do is go through and give you six possible critiques of humanism, critiques that I consider interesting and worthy of thoughtful consideration. I’m not going to resolve these critiques for you; I’m just going to lay out seven arguments against humanism, and let you do with them what you will.


(1) Critique number one is the critique that humanism is no comfort to persons in a time of crisis. In its crudest aspect, this critique takes the form of saying, Well if you’re a humanist and you get cancer, to whom can you pray? But do not dismiss this critique on the basis of that crude critique.

Jean-Paul Sartre raises this issue in a subplot in his short story “The Wall.” The protagonist in this story was fighting in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. He is captured, sentenced to be executed, and spends his last night in a cell with some others who have also been sentenced to death. The protagonist, who has no apparent belief in God, watches as one of the other condemned prisoners who believes in God gives way to fear. Sartre’s protagonist faces his impending death with courage, and even finds himself relishing his last moments of living, as opposed to the believer who gives way to fear. But is this going to be convincing for most people?

This issue has been framed in other ways. Continue reading

Unfortunately, it took 44 years

In 1964, a BBC interviewer asked Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., if he thought there would be a “Negro president” in forty years. Here’s a partial transcript of King’s reply:

“Well, let me say first, to make it perfectly clear, that there are Negroes who are presently qualified to be president of the United States; and many who are qualified in terms of integrity, in terms of vision, in terms of leadership ability. But we do know there are certain problems and prejudices and mores in our society which would make it difficult now. However, I am very optimistic about the future. Frankly, I have seen certain changes in the United States over the last two years that surprise me…. So on the basis of this, I think we may be able to get a Negro president in less than forty years….”

It took longer than forty years, of course. But King could hardly have foreseen the overwhelming re-segregation of the United States, and the carefully concealed increase in systemic racism, during the Reagan and Bush years. Link to the BBC video clip.

“This confused war has played havoc with our domestic destinies.”

Martin Luther King would have been 80 today. On February 25, 1967, not long before he was killed, he spoke about the Vietnam War and its effects on our country. The following excerpt from that speech could easily be delivered today, with just a few minor changes:

“This confused war has played havoc with our domestic destinies.

“Despite feeble protestations to the contrary, the promises of the Great Society [anti-poverty program] have been shot down on the battlefield of Viet Nam. The pursuit of this widened war has narrowed domestic welfare programs, making the poor, white and Negro, bear the heaviest burdens both at the front and at home.

“While the anti-poverty program is cautiously initiated, zealously supervised and evaluated for immediate results, billions are liberally expended for this ill-considered war. The recently revealed mis-estimate of the war budget amounts to ten billions of dollars for a single year. This error alone is more than five times the amount committed to anti-poverty programs. The security we profess to seek in foreign adventures we will lose in our decaying cities. The bombs in Viet Nam explode at home: they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.

“If we reversed investments and gave the armed forces the antipoverty budget, the generals could be forgiven if they walked off the battlefield in disgust.

“Poverty, urban problems and social progress generally are ignored when the guns of war become a national obsession. When it is not our security that is at stake, but questionable and vague commitments to reactionary regimes, values disintegrate into foolish and adolescent slogans.”

Full text of the speech on Stanford’s Web site. Crossposted on PaxPac.



New Bedford’s “Martin Luther King, Jr., Day of Remembrance Celebration” began at 2:30 p.m. with a march. We were to march from Bethel AME church down County Street to Centre United Methodist Church, a total of about three short blocks. The program at United Methodist wasn’t going to begin until 4:00, so we stood in front of Bethel church for half an hour (in occasional light drizzle), while people waved at friends, schmoozed with each other (New Bedford is a great town for schmoozing), and children asked when we were going to start walking. Andy and some other people passed out blue buttons saying “Marriage Equality Coalition of the SouthCoast,” and more than half the people there had one pinned on their rain coats.

The ministers were all supposed to stand together near the front of the march, but I stayed in the middle of the crowd so I could schmooze and say hi to people: Everett, Louie, Kathy, Andy, John, half a dozen other people. At last we began to walk. I walked with Peter and his mom and dad. Peter was happy because the road went slightly downhill, so he could just coast along on his wheelie shoes, with an occasional light push from his dad. It was a mixed crowd, from the palest white skin (like mine) through every shade of white and brown to the darkest brown.

Preachers and politicians

Once inside, I lost Peter and his mom and dad. By a quarter past three, I was sitting in the very back of the huge church, near some other people from First Unitarian. The program was printed in tiny type, and went on for two pages. Seven clergypeople were scheduled to speak; seven politicians were scheduled to speak; the consensus of the people around me was that it was going to be a very long program indeed. “We’ll be here till seven,” I predicted. “Not me,” said the distinguished-looking African American man at the end of the pew, “why do you think I’m sitting in the back row?”

In spite of gentle admonitions from Rev. David Lima, the master of ceremonies, the preachers and politicians all exceeded their alloted time of one minute each (except for Rev. Bradbury, the rector of Grace Episcopal, who kept his bit to one minute). I didn’t mind that they all went over their allotted time, not much anyway. Rev. Mark Green invoked the presence of God to bless this assembly, and to help us remember the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King. City Councillor Brian Gomes told about how he managed to get a job as a soda jerk at an all-white soda fountain in New Bedford because of the intervention of an older white woman — and because of the dream set forth by Dr. King. Congressman Barney Frank spun out his vision of a truly fair and just society that does not discriminate on the basis of race, sexual orientation, or anything else — a vision like that of Dr. King. State Representative Tony Cabral told how his family had escaped the old Portuguese dictatorship, come to America when he was fourteen, following a dream — a dream like that of Dr. King.

What he said…

At some point, I noticed a small knot of people walking up the aisle just past us: Deval Patrick, the new governor of Massachusetts, had arrived. People started applauding; people were on their feet applauding. Next to me, Katey said, “He’s shorter than I thought he was.” Patrick got an extended standing ovation, just for walking in the door. We all sat down, and the program continued as before — but now there was a lot more excitement in the room.

At last Deval Patrick got up to speak. He started slowly: said he was glad to be there, made a joke about how preachers and politicians could never limit themselves to just one minute of speaking time, apologized that he would have to leave right after he finished speaking. And then he really began to speak, and held us all captivated with his vision, his dream of what Massachusetts could be, if we would all work together. I made some inadequate notes of what he said:

On why he wished he could be present for the whole program: “I didn’t just come to speak to you; I came to listen, to hear what you have to say….”

Speaking of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and equal access to voting in America: “We have done a great deal to make voting easier, but we haven’t done enough to make voting meaningful.”

On the anti-gay marriage amendment ballot initiative: “Letting a majority tell a minority just how much freedom they can have” is not the right thing to do.

“I think we’re all getting tired of debates about the differences between the right and the left, and what we want is debates about the difference between right and wrong.”

Those four short quotes don’t communicate the feeling we got sitting there, listening to the new governor speak. He presents a powerful vision, his words have the power to motivate people out of passivity and into action. And hearing someone like Patrick in person makes a difference — if you’re a Massachusetts resident, make a point of going to hear him speak in person some time and you’ll see what I mean. He has a dream, and it comes across best in person. I’ve been feeling pretty cynical about Massachusetts for some years now, but hearing Patrick speak today gave me hope, and made me want to get active again.

The power of dreams — the power of speech to communicate dreams.