Responsibility & Unity: The Freedom of Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Sergio Rebeles   

A staple of Western thought, political freedom is the idea that individuals possess the right to, within reason, do as they please without fear of oppression or restriction. This freedom, unique from that of inner freedom, is concerned with the defense and exaltation of personal liberties in the public sphere. Martin Luther King, Jr., a leader of the American Civil Rights Movement, helped advance political freedom in the United States through his methodology of nonviolent resistance. However, what distinguished MLK’s political freedom was its insistence that it is the responsibility of all individuals to uphold not only their liberties, but also those of their peers. Freedom is not an internal phenomenon – it is a communal concern.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work was primarily concerned with establishing the belief that African-Americans deserved the same rights and privileges as those of their white peers. Yet, this concept of equality was long overdue in the United States. In his landmark “I Have a Dream” speech, King draws on the Declaration of Independence “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”[1] Before considering the Civil Rights Movement, it is imperative to understand that public freedom is predicated on the belief that all men (meaning all humans, females alike) are equal before the law. Disapproving of the hierarchy and inequity of the British system, the writers of the Declaration of Independence believed that pedigree and personal assets were unfair measures of one’s worth. More than just a declaration of independence from an oppressive government, this idea was the declaration of a new faith in reason. Much like René Descartes in his Discourse on Method (1637), the drafters questioned the conventional norm of their day and strove to establish an enlightened nation. In fact, America is oftentimes seen as a child of enlightenment because it so adamantly set itself apart from the European system of governance. Rather than cling to the structure and stagnancy of their predecessors, the Founding Fathers looked to progress and sought enlightenment, a phenomenon Kant describes as “mankind’s exit from its self-incurred immaturity.”[2] (Kant, 58) It is from this spring of reason that Martin Luther King, Jr. drank and developed his ideas on freedom and equality. Public freedom finds its only guarantee in the idea that all men are created equal; although the Founding Fathers did not actively work to abolish slavery or enfranchise women, there is little doubt that they would agree.

Founding Fathers

The Founding Fathers signing the Declaration of Independence
by John Trumbull

The fundamental core of political freedom is based in how an individual interacts with and finds freedom in the external world. This is manifest in the form of a willed physical act such as voting or sharing ideas. Drawing yet again on the Declaration of Independence, Dr. King posits that all men must “be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”[3] in order to be free. Public freedom necessitates the right to the pursuit of happiness. Not a passive state of happiness, the active pursuit of happiness requires a doctrine of freedom based in action, one that grants men and woman responsibility for their own destiny. A proponent of the action-based will, Hannah Arendt describes freedom as “a worldly reality, tangible in words which can be heard, in deeds which can be seen, and in events which are talked about.”[4] (Arendt, 153) For King, as for Arendt, public freedom is essentially concerned with the physical realm and how one may interact in and throughout it. In this light, MLK’s public freedom, also inspired by the principle of justice and equality and manifest in his speech performances, stands in stark contrast to what Arendt goes on to define as inner freedom, “the inward space into which men may escape from external coercion and feel free.”[5] While inner freedom remains an entirely personal concept, political freedom is found in the external, shared world of men and women (the public sphere) and implies liberties such as freedom of speech or press. In fact, Arendt goes so far as to state that inner freedom “remains without outer manifestations and hence is by definition politically irrelevant.”[6] Although significant in its own right, doctrines of freedom that “always presuppose a retreat from the world”[7] are both incompatible and inconsequential to political freedom. Martin Luther King Jr.’s conquest for political freedom may have been based in individual liberties, but only in their extrapolation to the world at large. To clarify, public freedom is not expressed when an individual develops his or her ideas through self-realization and transcends commonplace thought. Yet, when said individual goes on to publish writing and spreads it to a wide readership, public freedom is expressed because it is action set in the public realm. Political freedom may be born in the heart of man, but by definition must extend to the hearts of men.

Having now formally established what public freedom is and what it entails, we may now move on to how MLK’s model of public freedom plays a role in political theory today. Public freedom is one of responsibility; individuals are indebted as much to themselves as to others to uphold their shared access to freedom. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, Dr. King expresses frustration with white moderates, going so far as to say that “shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”[8] King’s point is that whites who pity Black Americans in their plight but ignore discrimination and refuse to act are, in essence, violating the fundamental self-evident truth that all men are born equal. As members of the body of American citizens, he reminds us time and time again, we are obligated to right wrongs and effect change when needed. Returning to a new faith in reason, the drafters of the Declaration of Independence argue that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it.”[9] A devout believer of his duty to reform, Martin Luther King Jr.’s public freedom compels us to move in opposition to perceived wrongs (“any law that uplifts human personality is just”[10]) when given the opportunity. Although as individuals we may be detached from one another, as part of the public sphere we are all interconnected. As such, we are compelled to uphold the freedom of others’ as if they were our own.

MLK Badass

MLK at the Lincoln Memorial, presenting “I Have a Dream”
Photo courtesy of,+Jr./+images/59938399

Dr. King’s emphasis on duty and responsibility was a fundamental concept to many American thinkers before him. Distraught at the bloodshed and suffering rampant in his nation, Lincoln calls upon us to remember the sacrifice of the fallen in his Gettysburg Address. He asserts that “from these honored dead [Union and Confederate soldiers] we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion.”[11] Just as Lincoln argued that it is the duty of the living to carry on the mission of the departed (so that their death not be in vain), so too does MLK argue that it is the duty of white moderates to support the fight for Black civil rights. Another voice promoting responsibility and the intrinsic link it shares with freedom, Ralph Waldo Emerson contended that it was Americans’ civil duty to fight against slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The “Bloodhound Law” ordered US citizens to, upon encountering a runaway slave, ensure that they be returned to their master. Frustrated at the complacency of the United States citizenry, Emerson critiques “the disastrous defection (on the miserable cry of Union) of the men of letters, of the colleges, of educated men, nay, of some preachers of religion”[12] and refers to it as “the darkest passage in the history.”[13] Emerson’s castigation of intellectuals who refuse to fight against slavery or the fugitive slave law even though they know it to be wrong is analogous to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call to action for the silent white moderates. As demonstrated throughout the United States’ history, the concept of collective duty is truly a constitutional building block of political freedom.

The charge to act on the behalf of others is what King describes as “the fierce urgency of now.”[14] Rather than “engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of ‘gradualism,’”[15]; we have no choice but to act. MLK’s tenets of communal obligation revolutionized the way Americans understood political responsibility; because of him they realized their duty to maintain awareness of injustices in the public sphere and react when necessary. Had the United States adopted this philosophy earlier, would it have allowed World War II’s tragedies to continue as long as they did? Or acted to prevent the Armenian genocide from having ever occurred? No matter the ‘What If?’s, it is irrefutable that Martin Luther King Jr. and his public freedom have contributed to today’s politics. Due to King’s speeches, letters, and nonviolent resistance, the America of today possesses a citizenry more eager to respond to inequality than ever before. Had it not been for MLK, conventional political thought would not be what it is today. This in mind, Jean-Paul Sartre takes the collective onus a step further and claims that “when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.”[16] Just as with Arendt, King’s conception of political freedom is compatible with that of Sartre’s. Sartre’s existentialism calls upon us to, as individuals, act as examples for others. Furthermore, he goes so far as to make the categorical imperative that we must act only as all others should act. That is to say even French existentialism shares similarities with MLK’s political freedom. This recurrent bond and burden of public freedom is one that defines Martin Luther King, Jr. and his struggle.

Another aspect of public freedom prevalent in Dr. King’s work is that of the singularity of human nature. During his landmark speech, King suggests that the white majority “have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our [Black’s] freedom.”[17] Ostensibly simple, this statement actually underlies a far-reaching idea of human interconnectedness. Although political and ethnic opposites, whites and blacks must stand together if they ever wish to be free. No matter the color of one’s skin or principles of one’s creed, humans are inextricably linked to one another. By describing our freedom as dependent on that of our peers, King insinuates that, as humans, we hold more in common with one another than not. Furthermore, by uniting opposing sides with the common thread of humanity, King delineates an essential aspect of political freedom. In light of this revelation, his famous line “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”[18] may at last make sense. Although public freedom may ensure security for one’s individual rights (e.g. First Amendment), it also comes with the burden to help uphold others’. As members of the human race, we are all connected and must support each other’s freedom in order to maintain our own. Comparing himself to the Apostle Paul, King proclaims that he is “compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my [King’s] particular hometown.”[19] This concept of human unity is congruent with Arendt’s model of political freedom and Emerson’s call to action. Enlightened and capable, King viewed himself as obligated (happily so) to spread his message of equality throughout the United States. By enforcing his will upon the world, Dr. King takes Arendt’s inner freedom “as something occurring in the intercourse between me and myself”[20] and transforms into something occurring in the intercourse between me and the world, into a creation worthy of Arendt’s public freedom. As demonstrated, the basis of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s political freedom contains aspects belonging to a diverse range of thinkers and eras.

Happy children

Multiracial children in unity
Photo courtesy of CASA of Arizona

An image dominant throughout MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech is that of interracial children holding hands in unity. This is fundamental to public freedom, and thus a crucial aspect of King’s speech, because it reinforces the commonality of man. Expressing his desire that one day “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers”[21], King intimates that color should not be a distinguishing barrier between individuals; although some are Black and others are White, the children are ultimately just that – children. Differences in socioeconomic status, location, and belief may serve to isolate individuals from one another, but ultimately it is humanity that binds us all together. The “interrelatedness of all communities and states”[22] and unity of humankind is exemplified at the end of “I Have a Dream” when King describes freedom ringing throughout the United States. Ringing from “every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city”[23], freedom does not distinguish between color or location. When individuals are united as one, this public freedom gains power and is able to make effect actual change (“individually we are poor…collectively we are richer than all the nations in the world.”[24]) This unity and interrelatedness is a goal often sought during today’s political fiascos. Although divided and in gridlock, the politics of today nevertheless have been changed by King’s virtuosity because they sparked a desire for bipartisan agreement. Regardless of its outcome, MLK’s message of unity and connectedness continues to influence thought today.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s recurring themes of solidarity and brotherhood is heavily influenced by his Christian roots. The frequency with which he refers to the US populace as “God’s children” is superficially a reference to Christian tradition, but actually goes much deeper into the depths of MLK’s political freedom than is first apparent. By likening himself as a modern Paul the Apostle, Martin Luther King, Jr. summons the associations of fellow-feeling solidarity and a journey to spread God’s enlightened word. These work in MLK’s favor and help elucidate his multifaceted idea of public freedom. In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul proclaims that “by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.”[25] (1 Cor. 12.13) This exemplifies King’s notion of humanity’s single nature; no matter one’s background, we are all ultimately of one ‘Spirit.’ Men are born equal and shall all return to the humus from which they came, no matter their rank or position when living. Moreover, this is significant to MLK’s public freedom because it coincides with the idea of body politic, or unity of a nation’s people. Paul brought together his world with God’s word of love; analogously Dr. King brought together the United States with his message of equality and responsibility.

Ultimately, political freedom is concerned with the public sphere and ensuring individual liberties in it. Martin Luther King, Jr. played an integral part in establishing political freedom throughout the United States by spearheading the American Civil Right Movement. Effecting change in the public sphere, King demonstrated what it means to “free” through his actions and corpus. Public freedom is ultimately necessary not only to maintain a happy society, but to maintain what could be deemed a society at all. Although politics are a burden we all must bear, as part of the public sphere it is our duty to uphold and exalt them. For in doing so we may, as Hannah Arendt puts it, “keep in existence a space where freedom as virtuosity can appear.”[26]

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. “What Is Freedom.” Between Past and Future Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York: Penguin, 2006. N. pag. Print.

Bureau of International Information Programs. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” U.S. Department of State, 29 Dec. 2008. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.

Eidenmuller, Michael E. “I Have a Dream.” American Rhetoric. N.p., 2001-2008. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “VII. The Fugitive Slave Law–Lecture at New York. Ralph Waldo Emerson.” VII. The Fugitive Slave Law–Lecture at New York. Ralph Waldo Emerson. 1904. The Complete Works. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.

“The Gettysburg Address.” Abraham Lincoln Online. N.p., 2008. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.

Independance Hall Association. “The Declaration of Independence.” N.p., 4 July 1995. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.

Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question: “What Is Enlightenment?”” Philosophy Collection. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.

King, Dr. Martin L. “”I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” Speech. Mason Temple, Memphis, TN. 3 Apr. 1968. American Rhetoric Top 100 Speeches. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism Is a Humanism. Trans. Carol Macomber. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. Print.


[1] “I Have a Dream”

[2] “What is Enlightenment?”

[3] “I Have a Dream”

[4] “What is Freedom?”

[5] “What is Freedom?”

[6] “What is Freedom?”

[7] “What is Freedom?”

[8] “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

[9] “Declaration of Independence”

[10] “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

[11] “Gettysburg Address”

[12] “Discourse on the Fugitive Slave Law”, 1854

[13] Ibid.

[14] “I Have a Dream”

[15] “I Have a Dream”

[16] “Existentialism is a Humanism”

[17] “I Have a Dream”

[18] “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

[19] “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

[20] “What is Freedom?”

[21] “I Have a Dream”

[22] “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

[23] “I Have a Dream”

[24] “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”

[25] King James Version, 1 Corinthians 12.13

[26] “What is Freedom?”

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