Martin Luther King Jr., Accepting Responsibility for Your Actions, July 26, 1953

King most likely delivered this sermon as a radio address for Atlanta’s WERD while serving as associate pastor at Ebenezer during the summer of 1953. The following May, when King delivered his acceptance address at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he also preached a version of this sermon, explicitly emphasizing his commitment to the social gospel.2

One of the most common tendencies of human nature is that of placing responsibility on some external agency for sins we have commited or mistakes we have made. We are forever attempting to find some scapegoat on which we cast responsibility for our actions. Herein lies the tragic misuse of much of our modern psychology, particularly what is known as depth psychology or psychoanalysis. This school of thought affirms that many of our conscious actions are due to unconscious motives. Now there is a kernal of truth in this theory and we owe a great debt to Sigmund Freud for opening to us the uncharted regions of the sub conscious. But the tragedy lies in the fact that many modern men have used this theory as an attractive defense mechanism. How easy it was to say that unconscious emotions and repressed sex drives were responsible for our actions rather than plain everyday sin. The word sin was gradually eliminated from the modern vocabulary and there emerged in its place a series of bombastic psychological phrases such as phabias, complexes, and inhibitions. And so modern man was convinced that psychology had given him explanations which relieved him of any responsibility for his actions.

This tendency to thrust responsibility for our actions on some eternal agency is by no means a new one. The Genesis writers found it present in the very beginning of history. Remember the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? God had placed Adam and Eve in the garden to dress it. They were given liberty to make use of everything in the garden with the exception of one thing: “They were not to eat of the tree of good and evil.” Very soon a serpent appeared on the scene and said: “Hath God said, ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” And Eve answered: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden, but of the tree of good and evil God has commanded that we not eat or touch lest we die.” And the nserpent answered: “Ye shall not surely die, for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” After listening to these cogent words by the subtle serpent, Eve yielded to the temptation and very soon Adam and Eve were found eating from the tree that God had forbidden them to touch. When God came back on the scene to ascertain why this sin had been committed, he found each shifting responsibility on some external agency. Adam’s answer was that the woman caused him to eat of the tree. Eve claimed that the serpent caused her to eat of the tree.3 Neither Adam nor Eve stopped to realize that although they were tempted by external agencies, they were, in the final analysis, responsible for yielding to the temptation. Ultimately individual responsibility lies not in the external situation but in the internal response.

We are all familiar with the most common agencies on which we project responsibility for our actions. First we tum to environment. How easy it is for one to affirm that one’s whole personality make-up and indeed one’s very destiny itself is determined by one’s environment. Here is a man about forty now whose life has been given in riotous living. Now as he looks back over these wasted years his comment is: “I would have been if I had been {in} a rich family with prestige and fame or if I had been in a more progressive community. It is my environment that has corrupted me.” Yet such persons as this fail to realize that many individuals rise from the very lowest of environments to be some of the most noble characters of human history. There is a Marian Anderson, born in a poverty stricken area of Phila. Pa. She could have very easily given up in despair and cried out that she was born in the wrong environment. But she was not one to make excuses. This same Marian Anderson rose from a poverty stricken environment to be one of the world’s greatest contraltoes, so that a Toscanni can say that a voice like this comes only once in a century and a Seballius of Finland can say, “My roof is too low for such a voice.”4 There is a Roland Hayes, born on the red hills of Gordon County Georgia under the most crippling restrictions. At a very early age he found himself working in an iron foundry of Chatanooga Tenn. But from these red hills of Georgia, he rose to the palace of Queen Mother of Spain. From this iron foundry in Chatanooga, Tenn., he rose to the palace of King George the 5th.5 There was an Abraham Lincoln, born in poverty and insecurity, later working as a Kentucky rail splitter. Yet this same Abraham Lincoln rose from a Kentucky rail splitter to be one of the greatest characters in the great drama of history. These are but few of the many examples that could be used to refute the claim that one is completely determined by his environment. Those who hold such a position fail to see that many fine and noble persons stem from bad environments and many very bad and corrupt persons stem from comfortable and desirable environments.

Another external agency on which we readily cast responsibility for our actions is heredity. There are those who would affirm that one is completely determined by heredity. How easy it is to say, “I would have been better if I had had better hereditary circumstances.”

Here again those who project total responsibility for their actions on hereditary circumstances fail to see that numerous individuals rise above such circumstances. There is a John Bunyan, deprived of his physical sight, and yet he wrote a Pilgrim’s Progress that generations will cherish so long as the cords of memory shall lengthen.6There is a Franklin D. Roosevelt, inflicted with infantile paralysis and yet he rises up to leave such an imprint in the sands of our nations history, that future history books will be incomplete without his name. There is a Hellen Keller, burdened with blindness and deafness, and she rises up to live such a sublime and noble life that millions have come to admire her as one of the choicest fruits on yhe tree of history.7 These are but few of those who have proved that man is not finally caught in the cluches of heredity. He has within himself the power to transcend the disadvantages of bad hereditary conditions. As a world famous psychologist has said: “After going through the experimental and clinical literature, the thoughtful reader will conclude that the effects of personality upon glands are more impressive and easier to illustrate than are the effects of the glands upon personality.”8

I must hasten to say that the above assertions do not mean to imply that heredity and environment are not important. I happen to be a firm believer in what is called the “social gospel.” Indeed, no one can intelligently care for personal life without caring about genetics and social reform. Moreover, the above assertions do not mean to imply that our actions are not somewhat conditioned by external influences. When one considers the cosmic setting of our lives, our absolute dependence on the maintenance of the earth’s heat and moisture, the determining effect on each individual of the race’s biological evolution, the momentous consequences of heredity, and the conditioning effect of environment, one cannot lightly talk about being the master of one’s fate and the captain of one’s soul.9 Far from saying that environment and heredity have no importance in human personality, what I am really saying is that there is another factor which is the ultimate determining factor (viz) personal response. And herein lies our responsibility. We are not responsible for the environment we are born in, neither are we responsible for our hereditary circumstances. But there is a third factor for which we are responsible namely, the personal response which we make to these circumstances.

And so the challenge which confronts all of us is to respond to our circumstances with strength and courage rather than with weakness and despair. Who in all history can serve as a better example for us at this point than our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ? There was nothing so comfortable and advantageous about His environmental and hereditary circumstances. He was born in a stable and raised on a carpenter’s bench. His mother and father were not menbers of the upper crust of Jewish society. They did not enjoy the power of the aristocratic Pharisee or the prestige of the cosmopolitan Saducee. Jesus was born in plain unpretentious circumstances. But Jesus had within himself a power of personal response which was destined to transform his circumstances. This same Jesus who was born in an ox stable, rose up to be the strongest and tallest oak in the great forest of history. This same Jesus, rose from a carpenter’s bench to give impetus to a movement which has grown from a group of 12 men to more than 700,000,000 today. This same Jesus split history into A.D. and B.C. This same Jesus so convinced men that His message is eternal and universal that they have triumphantly sung

Jesus shall reign where ere the sun
Does his successive journeys run;
His kingdom spread from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.10

Not environment; not heredity; but personal response is the final determining factor in our lives. And herein lies our area of responsibility.11

Preached July 26, 1953
{Preached at Dexter, May 2, 1954}

1. At the end of this document, King wrote “Preached July 26, 1953,” the date he assigned to this title in his list of his radio sermons for the summer of 1953 (King, “Radio Sermons” 26 July-6 September 1953, p. 136 in this volume). King’s announced sermon on 28 June 1953 was “Accepting Responsibility for Your Actions” (“Rev. King Jr. Slated at Ebenezer Sunday,” Atlanta Daily World, 27 June 1953).

2. King wrote “Preached at Dexter, May 2, 1954” at the end of this document and also noted, “ARYA Preached at Dexter May 2, 1954” on the inside of the file folder containing this document (King, Acceptance Address at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, 2 May 1954, pp. 166-167 in this volume).

3. Cf. Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-13.

4. Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957), an internationally recognized conductor, and Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) made these comments on Anderson’s singing during her concert tours of Europe in the 1930s (Anderson, My Lord, What a Morning[New York: Viking Press, 1956], pp. 149, 158). King owned Anderson’s autobiography and kept it in his personal library.

5. King refers to tenor Roland Hayes’s successful singing tour of Europe.

6. John Bunyan (1628-1688) was an English preacher and Christian writer who, in 1678, published Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegory of the Christian path to salvation.

7. Helen Keller (1880-1968).

8. Fosdick included this quotation in his sermon “Shouldering Responsibility for Ourselves,” in On Being a Real Person (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1943), p. 7. King drew a line next to it in his copy of On Being a Real Person and wrote, “quote.” Fosdick attributed the quotation to Starke R. Hathaway’s Physiological Psychology (New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1942), p. 203.

9. King paraphrases William E. Henley’s 1875 poem “Invictus”: “It matters not how strait the gate / How charged with punishments the scroll / I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul.”

10. King quotes from Isaac Watts’s hymn “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun”(1719).

11. Fosdick, On Being a Real Person, p. 4: “Three factors enter into the building of personality: heredity, environment, and personal response.” Next to these words, King wrote “quote (environment)” in his copy of Fosdick’s book. He also underlined the words “personality: heredity, environment and personal response.”

Source: CSKC-INP, Coretta Scott King Collection, In Private Hands, Sermon Files, folder 139. Digitized by the King Institute
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Martin Luther King Jr., Peace on Earth

King preaching

Dr. King delivered “Peace on Earth” at Ebenezer Baptist Church, his home congregation, on Christmas Eve, 1967. See here for audio

This Christmas season finds us a rather bewildered human race. We have neither peace within nor peace without. Everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night. Our world is sick with war; everywhere we turn we see its ominous possibilities. And yet, my friends, the Christmas hope for peace and good will toward all men can no longer be dismissed as a kind of pious dream of some utopian. If we don’t have good will toward men in this world, we will destroy ourselves by the misuse of our own instruments and our own power.

Wisdom born of experience should tell us that war is obsolete.

There may have been a time when war served as a negative good by preventing the spread and growth of an evil force, but the very destructive power of modern weapons of warfare eliminates even the possibility that war may any longer serve as a negative good. And so, if we assume that life is worth living, if we assume that mankind has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war and so let us this morning explore the conditions for peace. Let us this morning think anew on the meaning of that Christmas hope: “Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men.” And as we explore these conditions, I would like to suggest that modern man really go all out to study the meaning of nonviolence, its philosophy and its strategy.

We have experimented with the meaning of nonviolence in our struggle for racial justice in the United States, but now the time has come for man to experiment with nonviolence in all areas of human conflict, and that means nonviolence on an international scale.

Now let me suggest first that if we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world. Now the judgment of God is upon us, and we must either learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.

Yes, as nations and individuals, we are interdependent.

It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality. Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that’s poured into your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you’re desirous of having cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half of the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.

Now let me say, secondly, that if we are to have peace in the world, men and nations must embrace the nonviolent affirmation that ends and means must cohere. One of the great philosophical debates of history has been over the whole question of means and ends. And there have always been those who argued that the end justifies the means, that the means really aren’t important. The important thing is to get to the end, you see.

So, if you’re seeking to develop a just society, they say, the important thing is to get there, and the means are really unimportant; any means will do so long as they get you there? they may be violent, they may be untruthful means; they may even be unjust means to a just end. There have been those who have argued this throughout history. But we will never have peace in the world until men everywhere recognize that ends are not cut off from means, because the means represent the ideal in the making, and the end in process, and ultimately you can’t reach good ends through evil means, because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree.

It’s one of the strangest things that all the great military geniuses of the world have talked about peace. The conquerors of old who came killing in pursuit of peace, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, and Napoleon, were akin in seeking a peaceful world order. If you will read Mein Kampf closely enough, you will discover that Hitler contended that everything he did in Germany was for peace. And the leaders of the world today talk eloquently about peace. Every time we drop our bombs in North Vietnam, President Johnson talks eloquently about peace. What is the problem? They are talking about peace as a distant goal, as an end we seek, but one day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. All of this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.

Now let me say that the next thing we must be concerned about if we are to have peace on earth and good will toward men is the nonviolent affirmation of the sacredness of all human life. Every man is somebody because he is a child of God. And so when we say “Thou shalt not kill,” we’re really saying that human life is too sacred to be taken on the battlefields of the world. Man is more than a tiny vagary of whirling electrons or a wisp of smoke from a limitless smoldering. Man is a child of God, made in His image, and therefore must be respected as such. Until men see this everywhere, until nations see this everywhere, we will be fighting wars. One day somebody should remind us that, even though there may be political and ideological differences between us, the Vietnamese are our brothers, the Russians are our brothers, the Chinese are our brothers; and one day we’ve got to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. But in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile. In Christ there is neither male nor female. In Christ there is neither Communist nor capitalist. In Christ, somehow, there is neither bound nor free. We are all one in Christ Jesus. And when we truly believe in the sacredness of human personality, we won’t exploit people, we won’t trample over people with the iron feet of oppression, we won’t kill anybody.

There are three words for “love” in the Greek New Testament; one is the word “eros.” Eros is a sort of esthetic, romantic love. Plato used to talk about it a great deal in his dialogues, the yearning of the soul for the realm of the divine. And there is and can always be something beautiful about eros, even in its expressions of romance. Some of the most beautiful love in all of the world has been expressed this way.

Then the Greek language talks about “philia,” which is another word for love, and philia is a kind of intimate love between personal friends. This is the kind of love you have for those people that you get along with well, and those whom you like on this level you love because you are loved.

Then the Greek language has another word for love, and that is the word “agape.” Agape is more than romantic love, it is more than friendship. Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive good will toward all men. Agape is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. Theologians would say that it is the love of God operating in the human heart. When you rise to love on this level, you love all men not because you like them, not because their ways appeal to you, but you love them because God loves them. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “Love your enemies.” And I’m happy that he didn’t say, “Like your enemies,” because there are some people that I find it pretty difficult to like. Liking is an affectionate emotion, and I can’t like anybody who would bomb my home. I can’t like anybody who would exploit me. I can’t like anybody who would trample over me with injustices. I can’t like them. I can’t like anybody who threatens to kill me day in and day out. But Jesus reminds us that love is greater than liking. Love is understanding, creative, redemptive good will toward all men. And I think this is where we are, as a people, in our struggle for racial justice. We can’t ever give up. We must work passionately and unrelentingly for first-class citizenship. We must never let up in our determination to remove every vestige of segregation and discrimination from our nation, but we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege to love.

I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many white citizens’ councilors, and too many Klansmen of the South to want to hate, myself; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country, and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, and we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

If there is to be peace on earth and good will toward men, we must finally believe in the ultimate morality of the universe, and believe that all reality hinges on moral foundations. Something must remind us of this as we once again stand in the Christmas season and think of the Easter season simultaneously, for the two somehow go together. Christ came to show us the way. Men love darkness rather than the light, and they crucified him, and there on Good Friday on the cross it was still dark, but then Easter came, and Easter is an eternal reminder of the fact that the truth-crushed earth will rise again. Easter justifies Carlyle in saying, “No lie can live forever.” And so this is our faith, as we continue to hope for peace on earth and good will toward men: let us know that in the process we have cosmic companionship.

In 1963, on a sweltering August afternoon, we stood in Washington, D.C., and talked to the nation about many things. Toward the end of that afternoon, I tried to talk to the nation about a dream that I had had, and I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare. I remember the first time I saw that dream turn into a nightmare, just a few weeks after I had talked about it. It was when four beautiful, unoffending, innocent Negro girls were murdered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama. I watched that dream turn into a nightmare as I moved through the ghettos of the nation and saw my black brothers and sisters perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity, and saw the nation doing nothing to grapple with the Negroes’ problem of poverty. I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched my black brothers and sisters in the midst of anger and understandable outrage, in the midst of their hurt, in the midst of their disappointment, turn to misguided riots to try to solve that problem. I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched the war in Vietnam escalating, and as I saw so-called military advisors, sixteen thousand strong, turn into fighting soldiers until today over five hundred thousand American boys are fighting on Asian soil. Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close today by saying I still have a dream, because, you know, you can’t give up in life. If you lose hope, somehow you lose that vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of all. And so today I still have a dream.

I have a dream that one day men will rise up and come to see that they are made to live together as brothers. I still have a dream this morning that one day every Negro in this country, every colored person in the world, will be judged on the basis of the content of his character rather than the color of his skin, and every man will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. I still have a dream that one day the idle industries of Appalachia will be revitalized, and the empty stomachs of Mississippi will be filled, and brotherhood will be more than a few words at the end of a prayer, but rather the first order of business on every legislative agenda. I still have a dream today that one day justice will roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream. I still have a dream today that in all of our state houses and city halls men will be elected to go there who will do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with their God. I still have a dream today that one day war will come to an end, that men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, that nations will no longer rise up against nations, neither will they study war any more. I still have a dream today that one day the lamb and the lion will lie down together and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. I still have a dream today that one day every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill will be made low, the rough places will be made smooth and the crooked places straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. I still have a dream that with this faith we will be able to adjourn the councils of despair and bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when there will be peace on earth and good will toward men. It will be a glorious day, the morning stars will sing together, and the sons of God will shout for joy.

Ebenzer baptist church

Dil Ghoom Ghoom Kare- Bhupen Hazarika

My heart pants and gasps, it is terrified.

Clouds beat and thunder, petrified.

Like a raindrop, a drop of tear sometimes bursts from my eyes.

As I open your sack all leaves had dried.

Soon you touched me, my dried twigs revived.

The body which you touched, should I hide it?

The mind which you laid eyes on, to whom may I show?

O’ my moon burn my body with your light.

on your high altar, my wings are cut.

—Bhupen Hazarika

Fragment: Shamal Bhatt (1718-1765)

For a bowl of water give a goody meal; 
For a kindly greeting bow thou down with zeal; 
For a simple penny pay thou back with gold; 
If thy life be rescued, life do not withhold. 
Thus the words and actions of the wise regard; 
Every little service tenfold they reward. 
But the truly noble know all men as one, 
And return with gladness good for evil done.

–Shamal Bhatt (1718-1765)

Paul Robeson’s speech at American Labor Party rally, Madison Square Garden, October 26, 1950

I am happy to be here tonight. I come certainly not at the invitation of the management of the sports arena and not because of the protection which federal, state, and municipal authority is a Ford the constitutional rights Of free speech and assembly these days – but rather Because of the courage and fighting spirit of progressive and anti-fascist America and particularly in this instance the hard-working members and leaders of the American Labor Party.

And most emphatically I am here because I am privileged to share the strength and devotion to democracy of masses of the Negro people – their will to be free at any cost.

And they will be free!

The guarantee that our day of liberation is not far offIs that this is the time of colonial liberation. It is the time in dark men and women in Asia and Africa are putting off shackles of exploitation which have kept them bound for centuries.

They are following The glorious example of people’s China in refusing any longer to be “the white man’s burden” – the tools and play things and source of great wealth for European and American millionaires. As they succeed in Asia – soon you may be sure, in Africa — as more than half the world escapes the clutches of the Dulles, the MacArthurs, Rockefellers, and Firestones, they lend a powerful stimulus to our freedom struggle at home.

We still have a long way to go

(…)

Should Dr. W.E.B Du Bois go to the United States Senate? One of the tragedies of American political life is that for so many years so many mediocrities, who do not deserve to sit in the same room with him, have gone to the head of the State Department, other places in the cabinet and to the Presidency itself. The Negro people will not forget that the ALP’s turn to a Du Bois for leadership and not to the sycophants and flunkies of monopoly wealth and plantation power to clutter up the tickets of the twin parties of reaction.