When African American students sat down at the segregated lunch counters, they were asserting their own dignity by refusing to obey a law that treated them with contempt. They were holding onto the dignity of their harassers by refusing to engage in violence or harm. They were harnessing the power of love to make a change in an unjust system. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and all of the many heroic civil rights activists, used loving nonviolent action to restore the dignity of an oppressed people, and also to restore the soul of the oppressor.
Loving nonviolent action is always a force for human dignity. Whether the political outcome is successful or not, a change has already taken place. The night before Dr. King was killed, he said, “I’ve been to the mountaintop. It doesn’t matter what happens to me now. I’ve seen the Promised Land.” I used to think this meant that in some mysterious way he had seen the future, and he had faith that black people would eventually win their rights.
But I saw it differently after I was involved in the struggle for equal marriage for same-sex couples in Massachusetts. I believe the mountaintop is less about the future, and more about the present. When lesbian and gay people began to imagine that they might get married, they had an inner experience of equality. It didn’t happen all at once. Two members of my congregation on Cape Cod were part of the lawsuit for equal marriage. They told me how terrifying it was, in the days leading up to the lawsuit, to ask the town clerk for a marriage license when they knew the answer would be no. It was also terrifying for many others to carry a sign in public, or to have a conversation with their legislator or their neighbor.
But each new act in honor of love lessened their fear and strengthened their dignity. Same sex couples became aware of the burden they had been carrying, the hidden assumption that they were somehow less than the others. Once they felt a glimpse of equality, they couldn’t go back. They had put down the burden, and they were free. So even if there were opponents holding signs that said, “Homosexuals are demons,” it didn’t matter. A young lesbian woman carried another poster that said, “Your signs are mean but we love you anyway.” No matter what happens next, such love releases an inner power that is indestructible.
I think that is part of what Dr. King was talking about. It was visceral and immediate. By tapping the power of love through non-violent action, he felt first hand a new way of being in the world. He fully experienced his own dignity and the dignity of his people. After that, what else could matter? He had been to the mountaintop. As he said, “whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere.” He knew there was no turning back.
King quotes from “I See the Promised Land”, reprinted in A Testament of Hope, The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.