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Justice

What Did Dr. King Actually Stand For?

January 18, 2016 by

Today, millions of children will stay home from school in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. But how many of them will think about who King was – what he stood for, and why he died?

I didn’t know King personally, but I am lucky enough to have marched with him: in Alabama, in Selma and Marion, at the very height of the Civil Rights Movement. And when I think back to what I experienced then, I feel obligated to remind people that King didn’t only preach nonviolent resistance, but that he preached – and lived – love and forgiveness.

crowds of marchers outside a building in Selma, 1965
A Civil Rights gathering in Selma attended by Bruderhof members, 1965.
Photo credit: Bruderhof Photo Archives

Many people ridicule Jesus’ command to forgive our enemies as self-destructive foolishness. How can we embrace those who want to harm or destroy us? But when we love someone with the love of Jesus, we transform and redeem what would otherwise be a hopeless situation. Here we are not speaking of love as a wavering human emotion, but of a divine power that supersedes the natural urge to fight back – a love that heaps coals of fire on the enemy’s head.

It was March 1965, and my friend Art Wiser and I were at the Tuskegee Institute when we heard about Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young man who had been shot days earlier when a rally at a black church in Marion was broken up by the police. State troopers from all over the county had converged on the town and beaten the protesters with clubs.

Bystanders described a scene of utter chaos in which white onlookers smashed cameras and shot out street lights while police officers attacked men and women, some of whom continued to kneel and pray on the steps of their church. Jimmie’s crime was to tackle a state trooper who was mercilessly beating his mother; his punishment was to be shot in the stomach and clubbed on the head until he was nearly unconscious. Denied admission at the local hospital, he was taken to Selma, where he was able to tell his story to reporters before he died, days later.

At the news of Jimmie’s death we drove to Selma immediately. The viewing, at Brown Chapel, was open-casket, and although the mortician had done his best to cover Jimmie's injuries, the wounds on his head could not be hidden: three ugly stripes running above his ear, over the base of his skull, and on the top of his head.

The author, Johann Christoph Arnold, walking among other mourners at the funeral of Jimmie Lee Jackson.
The author (circled) attending the funeral of Jimmie Lee Jackson.
Photo credit: Bruderhof Photo Archives

Deeply shaken, we stayed in town for the first of two memorial services. The room was packed with people, and we sat on a window sill at the back. We never heard one note of anger or revenge in the service. Instead, a spirit of courage emanated from the congregation, especially as they sang the old slave song, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round.”

Later, at Zion Methodist Church in Marion, the atmosphere was more subdued. Lining the verandah of the County Court House across the street was a long row of state troopers, hands on their night sticks, looking straight at us. These were the same men who had attacked Marion’s blacks only days before. The crowd of whites gathered at nearby City Hall was no less intimidating: armed with binoculars and cameras, they scanned and photographed us so thoroughly that we felt every one of us had been marked.

Bruderhof members march in Selma along with crowds of other marchers, 1965
Bruderhof members  join the marchers in Selma, 1965. Photo credit: Bruderhof Photo Archives

At the cemetery, King spoke about forgiveness and love. He pleaded with his people to pray for the police, to forgive the murderers, to forgive those who were persecuting them. Then we held hands and sang, “We shall overcome.” It was an unforgettable moment. If there was ever cause for hatred or vengeance, it was here. But none was to be felt, not even from Jimmie’s parents.

Only later did we hear of another remarkable act of forgiveness, this time by the children of Selma, in those same weeks. Local students had organized a peaceful after-school march when the town’s notorious Sheriff Clark arrived. He and his deputies began to push and prod the children, and soon they were running. Initially the boys and girls thought Clark’s men were marching them to the county jail, but it soon became clear that they were headed for a prison camp almost five miles out of town. The men didn’t relent until the children were retching and vomiting. Later, they claimed they only wanted to wear out Selma’s “marching fever” for good.

A few days after this incident, Sheriff Clark was hospitalized with chest pains. Unbelievably, Selma’s schoolchildren organized a second march outside the courthouse, this time chanting prayers and carrying get-well signs.

Would we have the same love and courage today? It is children like these Jesus speaks of when he says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”


Adapted from material originally published in Arnold’s book Why Forgive.

Historic footage of Jackson’s funeral:

Watch on YouTube.

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About the author

Johann Christoph Arnold and his wife, Verena

J. Christoph Arnold

Johann Christoph Arnold was a senior pastor of the Bruderhof, founder of Breaking the Cycle of Violence, and the author of...

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  • Thank you very much for this article which invites much reflection and could serve as a catalyst for further peacemaking and peacekeeping efforts personally, individually, and collectively. Peace makers are having a global impact because figures show that world-wide violence has declined over the years. With all the media focused on pockets of local, and regional violence it's easy to overlook the aforementioned fact. I remember Dr. King well. In fact, I spent the day listening to a local radio station, WBAI, honor him throughout the day by airing his speeches and reiterating his commitment to non-violent struggle in stark contrast to the approaches of Malcom X and the Black Panther Party. I especially remember the news flash announcing he had been gunned down. Words of a song then popular come to mind with its refrain, "Has anyone here seen my old friend...it seems the good, they die young." President John Kennedy, Senator Bobby Kennedy, Dr. King, Malcom X. All gunned down, just like Mohandas Gandhi, who championed non-violence in India. We usually or rather typically call up Dr. King's role in Civil Rights but downplay his strident opposition to the Vietnam War. I had not known the Bruderhof had participated in the Selma march. And I appreciated the video and the closing image of the epitaph on the tombstone: he (J. Lee) died for man's freedom. I am encouraged, I am inspired that the Bruderhof continue to be strong devoted Witnesses of and for peace and justice.

    Raven Anthony Squire