Opinion: What Martin Luther King Jr. taught us about embracing our enemies

Eboo Patel

This year’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day comes less than two weeks after a violent white mob, inspired by entrenched racism and dressed up in Christian symbolism, attacked American democracy, leaving five people dead.

As a Black Christian minister leading a nonviolent movement for civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr. came to know such mobs well. He faced them across the American South, and also right here in Chicago.

What might we learn from how King dealt with such mobs in his own time? It is reasonable to believe that King would support holding people accountable for crimes committed, but King also held a higher hope for at least some of those who were part of the mob. Namely, that they might be changed, and then included in the beloved community of American democracy.

The rising full moon passes behind the Martin Luther King Memorial and the Washington Monument, Tuesday evening, Dec. 29, 2020, in Washington.

It was toward the end of the Montgomery bus boycott, after enduring a year of death threats, false arrests and firebombings from white mobs, that King spoke of “the glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of our civilization.”

It was precisely when others had shown themselves at their worst that it was most important for righteous people to “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.”

He continued, “This is the time for reconciliation. This is the time for redemption. This is the time to build the beloved community.”

Let us be clear about how remarkable this is. Some of the people he was advocating for had attempted to burn down King’s home, seriously endangering his wife and their new baby. And still King believed they could change, and be included in the beloved community of American democracy.

In 1966, while leading a march for fair housing in Chicago, King was faced with a similar mob, and he reacted in much the same way. The several hundred peaceful demonstrators he led through the Marquette Park neighborhood were met by a crowd of thousands of people, mostly ethnic whites, frothing with hate. They screamed racial epithets at him. He kept marching. They threw rocks and bottles. One hit him in the head, he went down on his knee, wiped the blood away, got up, kept marching.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a group of teenagers jeering at him. Somehow, King escaped his security detail, walked up to them and said something to the effect of: “You all are so smart and good-looking. Why would you want to stoop so low?”

Why would King compliment people who hurled racist slurs and rocks at him? Why would he speak of reconciling with people who firebombed his house and endangered his family?

Without a doubt, the anchor for King’s actions was his Christian faith. King truly believed that all of us are created in the image of God, that love is at the center of the Gospel and that it is “the only force capable of changing an enemy into a friend.”

It was actually an ethic that King admired across faiths. King’s hero, Mohandas Gandhi, called his Hindu-based nonviolent movement to free India from British colonial rule “satyagraha,” or “love force.”

In addition to his spiritual commitment to use love to turn enemies into friends, King was working a deeply pragmatic strategy. He understood a profound truth about democracy: You have to live with the people you defeat.

Moreover, they have all the same powers of citizenship as you do. They can hold rallies to promote their views, raise money for favorite causes and run candidates for office. Even if they go to jail for committing crimes, they get out at some point.

And so you have a stake in them being better than their worst selves. You have a stake in them going through a positive change.

King believed that people change when they are reminded of their God-given potential for both greatness and goodness. And so he effectively says to the racist mobs: This is not all that you can be. Your potential is so much greater than this. Even though I am the target of your hate, I see so much more in you. I am going to remind you of that greatness and goodness, and then I’m going to convince you that I’m building a world where your greatness and goodness can manifest. You will like yourself better in that world. And in that world, we will be like brothers and sisters.

There are few people in the world with the special talent for evil, a talent for bringing out the worst in others.

But if we are to have a healthy and diverse democracy, more of us will need to have the opposite talent, the Martin Luther King Jr. talent of seeing in people who are at their worst that they can be something better. Sometimes we have to tell those people a story that encourages them to be that better self, even when their ugliness is directed at the things we consider most precious.

King knew that it was good for them, but it was also good for him.

When people are at their worst — our enemies and our friends — we all lose. When people are at their best — our enemies and our friends — we all win.

Dr. Eboo Patel is founder and president of IFYC, an interfaith organization, and the author of “Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise.”