Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is such an icon of the American civil rights movement that it is easy to overlook that he was a highly educated man and profound thinker and writer as well as a charismatic speaker. After receiving a B.A. in sociology from Morehouse College in Atlanta at the age of 19, he went on to earn a Bachelor of Divinity (B.D.) degree from Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and then a Ph.D. in theology from Boston University. He wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the work of Paul Tillich, a preeminent American theologian of the mid-20th century.
King’s involvement with the civil rights movement began almost immediately after he became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954. In 1955-1956 he helped lead a boycott of city buses in Montgomery, and from the mid-1950s he began speaking out frequently against segregation. Until his assassination in Memphis in April 1968 he was a tireless champion of the civil rights cause for African-Americans.
While King’s civil rights leadership and tragic death make for an inspiring and dramatic story, his work as an original thinker and writer with a more universal message also deserves to be remembered and appreciated. A good example of this is one of his noteworthy sermons, “Transformed Nonconformist,” which he first delivered in 1961 and which can be found in various collections of King’s work. While the civil rights movement was clearly in King’s mind, the message of “Transformed Nonconformist” transcends the politics of the day and can be meaningful regardless of what religious tradition the reader may be coming from.
King’s sermon opens with a quotation from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, who counsels: “Be not conformed to this world; but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” King breathes new insight into this message and reads it in a modern setting. He said: “We are called to be people of conviction, not conformity; of moral nobility, not social respectability. We are commanded to live differently and according to a higher loyalty.
What bothered King was that so many are content to accept the prevailing attitudes of the majority and to seek happiness in material comforts. He saw an affluent society around him with big automobiles, impressive houses, and stylish clothes, but a lack of conviction and reluctance to engage in original thinking. King urged his listeners to think about the things that really matter, and to have the courage to not only express their own ideas but also act upon them. He was concerned that people had cultivated a “mass mind” and urged a renewal of the individualism of earlier American thinkers, quoting from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
At the same time, King understood that nonconformity in itself and for its own sake “contains no saving value,” that it is really just “a form of exhibitionism.” That is not what King had in mind. King said: “Nonconformity is creative when it is controlled and directed by a transformed life and constructive when it embraces a new mental outlook.” King urged his listeners to embrace a nonconformity based on a commitment to worthy principles, and free of the “cold hard heartedness and self-righteousness” that is often associated with those who do shocking things to get attention.
Looking at the world around him, King saw a planet teetering “on the brink of atomic annihilation,” with too many revering what he called the “false gods of nationalism and materialism.” In many respects, our world today is much different from the one King saw around him in 1961. Our society may not be free of racial tensions, but the civil rights battles that King was to help fight in the 1960s have been largely won. Americans are doing pretty well overall, and living standards worldwide have been rising as the global economy has expanded and evolved.
Nevertheless, King’s “Transformed Noncomformist” still has a vital message. Nuclear weapons remain a pervasive source of anxiety. The global economy and the advance of new technologies have left many with uncertain futures. And there is a tendency for those who have done well to settle into a kind of complacency about things happening in the world around them.
King’s 1961 sermon is a reminder that we should avoid that complacency. We should think about the things that really matter, and be ready to not only express our independent views but also act upon them. It is not just a question of living a fulfilling life. We may make more of a difference than we realize by simply standing up for the things we believe in.
The Contra Costa Library has numerous books and electronic resources about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., including collections of King’s writings, that you can check out to learn more about the man and his work. The libraries will be closed on the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, Monday, January 15.