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It’s A Love Thing: Love as a Radical Factor in Civil Rights

Fifty one years ago (1968-2019), Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. His assassination was one among many of the cruel events that dotted the civil rights landscape. Images that come to mind when one recalls the Civil Rights era often reflect violence. Certainly the beatings, the imprisonments, the insults, the discrimination and various forms of micro-aggressions that civils rights leaders, people of color and white justice sympathizers endured during the Movement create angst when recalled. However, apart from the cross of Jesus Christ, the Civil Rights Movement was one of the greatest expressions of love.

To associate the cruelty of the cross with love is seemingly preposterous. That is not to say that the violence to which Jesus was subjected was an act of “love” on the perpetrators’ part. The purpose behind it was to lovingly reconcile the world to God. The cross-love analogy fittingly applies to the Civil Rights Movement because of the Movement’s non-violent approach to addressing vitriolic hate and the fact that ethically, the fight for social justice is love in action. Non-violent resistance for King meant that one was willing to accept violence but never inflict it. For him “unearned suffering is redemptive.” Furthermore, the purpose behind non-violent resistance was the establishment of the beloved community, a society centered on, equal opportunity, justice and love of one’s fellow human beings.

Engaging in social justice is love in action. Paul Tillich in Dynamics of Faith reminds us that “the immediate expression of love is action” (115). He asserts that “faith implies love, love lives in works: in this sense faith is actual in works. Where there is ultimate concern, there is the passionate desire to actualize the content of one’s concern” (115-116). What Tillich calls “love in action,” Traci C. West in Disruptive Christian Ethics refers to as “paying attention to the conditions that entrap socially marginalized people” (xv). Non-
violent resistance is a love thing. The nonviolent
resister willingly accepts violence, when necessary but is never a perpetrator of violence.

Social justice consciousness expressed as a desire for equity and equality is a Christian ethic that supports love for one’s neighbor. In fact, in a speech at Notre Dame’s law school in 2017, Diane Nash, one of the founding members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee referred to the “agapic energy” that inspired leaders and strategists, and ordinary citizens to voluntarily engage in sit-ins, marches, freedom rides, and protests that would culminate in beatings, imprisonment and further ostracism by the white oppressors. The term agape is the Greek word for sacrificial love. What the Civil Rights Movement sought to accomplish was to usher in an era in which people who had been relegated to the margins because they had been deemed as unworthy of love would be treated with human dignity and afforded all the rights and privileges as any other citizen of America.

From 1955- 1968, many lives were lost during the fight for Civil Rights: whites, blacks, males, females, young, old, rich, poor, Catholic, and Protestant. All these lives matter. In “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King referred to the resistance strategy of the Movement as “the more excellent way of love.” The radical love ethic of the Civil Rights Movement, as exemplified in non-violent resistance and the battle for justice resulted in The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in public places and prevented employment discrimination due to race, color, sex, religion or national origin. Again in 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act to prevent the use of literacy tests as a voting requirement. It also allowed federal examiners to review voter qualifications and federal observers to monitor polling places. On April 11, 1968 President Johnson also signed the Fair Housing

Act, providing equal housing opportunity regardless of race, religion or national origin. Although systemic racial injustice still exists in the U.S., the Civil Rights Movement was a “love thing” that trampled on the head of hate and overt injustices, ultimately preventing separatism, civil war and bloodshed.

– Joanne Noel, M.A., M.DIV., D.MIN.,  Ph.D (ABD)
Dean, Division of Traditional Undergraduate Studies & Interim Chair of General Education, [email protected]

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