The Atheist & Martin Luther King, Jr

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King (right-center) and other major American leaders of the civil-rights movement, including (from left to right) John Lewis, Whitney Young, Philip Randolph, James Farmer and Roy Wilkins, met in March 1963 in New York City to organize the March on Washington.

Today, as we remember the great civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr, let us not forget the man responsible for organizing the 1963 March on Washington which led to the famous “I Had a Dream” Speech. This man, A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979), was an atheist. The public seems to remember only the religious who marched for civil rights while forgetting that many atheists and humanists marched with King. Some even speculate that King himself was an atheist who used religious fervor to rally people behind him. Though I wouldn’t go that far, I will say that it wasn’t Jesus that led King to greatness but Gandhi. In the Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr edited by Clayborne Carson, King states the following:

Prior to reading Gandhi, I had about concluded that the ethics of Jesus were only effective in individual relationships. The “turn the other cheek” philosophy and the “love your enemies” philosophy were only valid, I felt, when individuals were in conflict with other individuals; when racial groups and nations were in conflict a more realistic approach seemed necessary. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I was.

Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. Love for Gandhi was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation. In was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking. (23-24)

Clearly, King did not find the teachings of Jesus sufficient for social reform. It took a man, not a god, to open his eyes on making change. And a man not of the Christian faith.

Looking back, it is clear to me that people made change, not any god. It took men and women to stand up for what was right in order to inspire change. Remember, many bible believing Christians not only felt Martin Luther King, Jr was wrong but he was dangerous. These same Christians used scripture to prove their point. Some still do to this day as you can read here. Religion clearly isn’t the best or only way toward social reform.

This is why I bring up the atheist, A. Philip Randolph. Here are some points I found about Randolph on the A. Philip Randolph Institute site:

  • He was called the most dangerous black in America.
  • He led 250,000 people in the historic 1963 March on Washington.
  • He spoke for all the dispossessed: Blacks, poor Whites, Puerto Ricans, Indians and Mexican Americans.
  • He attained for Black workers their rightful at in the house of Labor.
  • He won the fight to ban discrimination in the armed forces.
  • He organized the 1957-prayer pilgrimage for the civil rights bill.
  • He was President of the Institute, bearing his name, and President Emeritus of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the union he built.

Some might jump right to the bullet point about the “prayer pilgrimage” but Randolph had this to say about prayer:

“Our aim is to appeal to reason, to lift our pens above the cringing demagogy of our times,and above the cheap peanut politics of the old reactionary negro leaders. Patriotism has no appeal to us; justice has. Party has no weight to us; principle has. Loyalty is meaningless; it depends on what one is loyal to. Prayer is not one of our remedies; it depends on what one is praying for. We consider prayer nothing more than a fervent wish; consequently the merit and worth of a prayer depend upon what the fervent wish is.”

Randolph was the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly black union. He helped convince President Franklin Roosevelt to desegregate military production factories during World War II. Randolph signed the Humanist Manifesto II, a public declaration of Humanist principles. He clearly had done much for the civil rights movement but most people only know of King, a Christian, while forgetting Randolph the atheist.

Today, most atheists and humanists are still hard at work at securing rights for the LGBT groups and their biggest opponents are the religious. I find it hard to believe that women, blacks and gays would follow any organize religion when most religions are the foundation on which many choose to oppress them.

Today, along with celebrating King, let us celebrate all who choose reason and compassion over dogma and oppression. Reason is the only path to equal rights among all. We need to throw away the ancient holy books that promote homophobia, misogyny, racism and hate and let freedom truly ring.

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