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This American government- what is it but a tradition, though arecent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity,but each instant losing some of its integrity? It has not the vitalityand force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it tohis will. It is a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves. Butit is not the less necessary for this; for the people must have somecomplicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that ideaof government which they have. Governments show thus howsuccessfully men can be imposed on, even impose on themselves, fortheir own advantage. It is excellent, we must all allow. Yet thisgovernment never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by thealacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep thecountry free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. Thecharacter inherent in the American people has done all that has beenaccomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if thegovernment had not sometimes got in its way. For government is anexpedient by which men would fain succeed in letting one anotheralone; and, as has been said, when it is most expedient, thegoverned are most let alone by it. Trade and commerce, if they werenot made of india-rubber, would never manage to bounce over theobstacles which legislators are continually putting in their way; and,if one were to judge these men wholly by the effects of theiractions and not partly by their intentions, they would deserve to beclassed and punished with those mischievous persons who putobstructions on the railroads.
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The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but asmachines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and themilitia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most casesthere is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moralsense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth andstones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve thepurpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or alump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses anddogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens.Others- as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, andoffice-holders- serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as theyrarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve thedevil, without intending it, as God. A very few- as heroes,patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men- serve thestate with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it forthe most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it. Awise man will only be useful as a man, and will not submit to be"clay," and "stop a hole to keep the wind away," but leave that officeto his dust at least:
How can a man be satisfied to entertain an opinion merely, and enjoyit? Is there any enjoyment in it, if his opinion is that he isaggrieved? If you are cheated out of a single dollar by your neighbor,you do not rest satisfied with knowing that you are cheated, or withsaying that you are cheated, or even with petitioning him to pay youyour due; but you take effectual steps at once to obtain the fullamount, and see that you are never cheated again. Action fromprinciple, the perception and the performance of right, changes thingsand relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consistwholly with anything which was. It not only divides States andchurches, it divides families; ay, it divides the individual,separating the diabolical in him from the divine.
However, the government does not concern me much, and I shall bestowthe fewest possible thoughts on it. It is not many moments that I liveunder a government, even in this world. If a man is thought-free,fancy-free, imagination-free, that which is not never for a longtime appearing to be to him, unwise rulers or reformers cannot fatallyinterrupt him.
The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to-for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I,and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well-is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanctionand consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over myperson and property but what I concede to it. The progress from anabsolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to ademocracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual.Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard theindividual as the basis of the empire. Is a democracy, such as we knowit, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible totake a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights ofman? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until theState comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independentpower, from which all its own power and authority are derived, andtreats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State atleast which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat theindividual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think itinconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof fromit, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all theduties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind offruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, wouldprepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, whichalso I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" andeverythingthe Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid andcomfort a Jew inHitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I wouldhave aided andcomforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certainprinciples dear tothe Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country'santireligiouslaws.
In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemnedbecause they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn't this likecondemning a robbedman because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn't this likecondemningSocrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiriesprecipitated theact by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn't this likecondemningJesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God's willprecipitatedthe evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts haveconsistently affirmed,it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutionalrights because thequest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relationtothe struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. Hewrites: "AllChristians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it ispossible that youare in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years toaccomplishwhat it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth." Such an attitude stemsfrom a tragicmisconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in thevery flow oftime that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be usedeither destructively orconstructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much moreeffectivelythan have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merelyfor the hatefulwords and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.Humanprogress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless effortsof men willing tobe co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of theforces of socialstagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe todo right.Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending nationalelegy intoa creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from thequicksand of racialinjustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventuallymanifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something withinhasreminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that itcan begained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with hisblackbrothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and theCaribbean, theUnited States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land ofracialjustice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, oneshould readilyunderstand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent upresentmentsand latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayerpilgrimagesto the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. Ifhis repressedemotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence;this is not athreat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: "Get rid of yourdiscontent." Rather, I havetried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creativeoutlet ofnonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist.But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as Icontinued tothink about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Wasnot Jesus anextremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them thathate you, andpray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremistfor justice:"Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was notPaul anextremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Wasnot MartinLuther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And JohnBunyan: "I willstay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And AbrahamLincoln:"This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We holdthese truths tobe self evident, that all men are created equal . . ." So the question is not whether wewill beextremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or forlove? Will we beextremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In thatdramatic scene onCalvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three werecrucified for the samecrime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell belowtheirenvironment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, andthereby roseabove his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need ofcreativeextremists.