Defining Martin Luther King, Jr. as an Existentialist Hero


On February 1, 1968, a faulty packing ram on a sanitation truck in Memphis, Tennessee crushed to death Echol Cole and Robert Walker. These two men had been sanitation workers for the city of Memphis, Tennessee. Their deaths came to represent a symbolic breaking point after years of unequal hiring policies, pay, and leave that black men in the workforce had to endure during the mid-1900s. On February 11, 1968, over 1,300 sanitation workers went on strike demanding their basic rights to organize a union, to gain a living wage and to receive the respect and dignity due all working men and women (“I Am A Man”).

Fig. 2 Flyer Inviting the Public to Join the Sanitation Strikes Image Courtesy of: The Stanford University Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project

Fig. 2 Flyer Inviting the Public to Join the Sanitation Strikes
Image Courtesy of: The Stanford University Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project

As AFSCME leader Bill Lucy described it in the “I Am A Man” Symposium reflecting on the strike, “The Memphis Sanitation strike of 1968 and participation in it was a life-altering experience.” Two months following the first strikes, twice-daily marches, evening church rallies, and continual picket lines were still taking place. Everyone in the black community, from preachers and students to sanitation workers and civil rights activists, forfeited the security of their everyday lives to join the cause. Mayor Loeb had 4000 National Guard troops sent into Memphis, and police attacked strikers with clubs and mace. By this time, fear of defeat was beginning to creep into the public, and they were tempted to result to violence. “It really was the classic confrontation between striking workers with nothing more then picket signs and the might of the armed forces of this city,” stated Bill Lucy.

On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” in the city of Memphis to inspire morale for the sanitation strikes. Full of biblical language and political urgency, King gave specific directions to unite the strikers. He intended to lead a peaceful mass march, but was murdered the next day. Many people consider Martin Luther King, Jr. an integral leader of the Civil Rights movement. King was not only a passionate social and political activist, but appealed to his audience through a fervent belief in God that shined through in his speeches. What many people overlook is the similarities that King seemed to bridge between Christian values and existentialism, especially in “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” Christians and existentialists are two groups that many usually equivocate as being polar opposites. Existentialists renounce God, while Christians base actions off of morality and eternal salvation. Perhaps King’s charm came not only in his biblical allusions, themes of brotherhood, and superb craft of rhetoric, but in the subtleness in which he employed existentialism into subjects of religious depth. By examining Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last speech through the lens of existentialism, we can see how he connected Christian values and existentialism to become an existentialist hero.

To examine Martin Luther King, Jr. as an existentialist hero, it is foremost imperative to define what existentialism truly means in terms of modern activism. Jean-Paul Sartre, in his essay “Existentialism is a Humanism,” defined existentialism as “a doctrine that makes human life possible and also affirms that every truth and every action imply an environment and a human subjectivity” (18). In the simplest of terms, we can relate this back to Renée Descartes’ “Discourse on Method,” in which he most famously states, “I think, therefore I am” (40). Existentialists believe that existence precedes essence. Christians often criticize existentialists for being pessimistic, but in actuality, existentialism offers the possibility of individual choice, and is governed by morals. Sartre explains, “Man is not only that which he conceives himself to be” (22). Man first exists, and then he is free to define himself however he chooses. As Sartre says, “Dreams, expectations, and hopes only serve to define a man…negatively” (38). Through existentialism, humans are not limited by fate or hope, but instead have the freedom to individually craft themselves through actions. In this way, existentialists believe that man should be held responsible for his actions, because he possesses the freedom to control them.

Sartre says,

When we say that man chooses himself, not only do we mean that each of us must choose himself, but also that in choosing himself, he is choosing for all men (24).

An existentialist hero, then, is one who is actively aware of his responsibility not only for himself, but also for mankind. An existentialist hero is a man of public action, with the goal of freedom. Existentialists focus on action in the present, and they believe that actions alone are what define a man. The existentialist hero fights for freedom without expecting reward, because he is an engaged part of the world and has a duty to fulfill his obligation to mankind.

To designate Martin Luther King, Jr. as an existentialist hero, we must establish the antithesis, the anti-hero. As Jean-Paul Sartre says, “A man who commits himself, and who realizes that he is not only the individual that he chooses to be, but also a legislator choosing at the same time what humanity as a whole should be, cannot help but be aware of his own full and profound responsibility” (25). This is the Kierkegaardian idea of anguish. A man feels anguish because he is aware of the immense power he has to affect the world. However, when a man chooses to ignore the anguish that he feels, he ultimately acts in what Kierkegaard calls “bad faith.” When a man chooses to be passive or to deceive his own self, he exhibits bad faith, because choosing not to choose still affects the world. We are the only ones who can control our thoughts and actions, and when we choose to ignore our thoughts or to act in contrast with our thoughts, that is a display of bad faith.

Sartre gives the analogy of Abraham killing Isaac to explain bad faith. He says, “An angel orders Abraham to sacrifice his son. This would be okay provided it is really an angel who appears to him and says, ‘Thou Abraham, shalt sacrifice thy son.’ But any sane person may wonder first whether it is truly an angel, and second, whether I am really Abraham” (26). We have no proof of whether Abraham actually received the Word of the Lord, or if he was deceiving himself and consequently others as an excuse to murder his son. In the context of an anti-hero, this can be paralleled to Martin Luther King, Jr., whose speeches are chock-full of biblical allusions to relate the audience to serious social and political topics, especially in the last section of “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” King’s influence came from his connection to both white and black people through his reverence to God. He could inspire guilt in white audiences by referencing morality and sin, while reinvigorating black audiences with vivid imagery of a “Promised Land” and a hope for eternal salvation. Without religion on his side, King would have lost many followers, who wanted to result to violence. King says, “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land” (45). But the real question is: did King truly have a closer connection to God than others, or was he using lofty rhetoric to gain supporters through deception?

As Sartre said, “Everything happens to every man as if the entire human race were staring at him and measuring itself by what he does” (26). Human existence, as a result, is both subjective and objective, because man must actively engage in the world and be aware that he affects others, while also being defined by how humanity perceives him and affects him. In the context of “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” it is impossible to tell if King actually believed the words of nonviolence that he passionately proclaimed to the sanitation workers, or if he was just awaiting death so that he could be finished fighting for an already dying cause. Either way, King presented himself with religious fervor, so that is how he is perceived by the public. King could have extremely exaggerated his relationship with God to influence the way that he was received, because he knew that he would be analyzed by many people, including white and black audiences.

As Jonathan Rieder said in his examination of how King represented himself publicly in different aspects of his life, titled “The Word of the Lord is Upon Me,” King “made himself Moses” (2). He defined himself in the public sphere as an extreme believer in God, leading his people to the Promised land, so that was how he was interpreted. Rieder explained, “We know other people mainly through the way they display their inner states” (3). If our actions alone define who we are to the public sphere, King could have convinced everyone of his religious warmth, using rhetoric and great speaking skills, even though inside he had doubts.

However, doubts and bad faith are not the same. An existentialist hero possesses doubt, but never exhibits bad faith. It is impossible to tell if, by the time “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” came around, King was tired of nonviolence, and was tired of acting as the leader of an immense movement. Nevertheless, he displayed himself as a confident political figure, and his actions spoke for themselves. He had an immense impact on the freedom of black people, and so he should be respected as both a Christian and an existentialist hero, regardless of his doubts.  King’s doubts, if present, were merely a form of anguish, which every existentialist hero feels. He was aware of his own mortality and he knew that he had to act. Once he died, he could not depend on other people to prolong his legacy. King was aware of the gravity of the situation and of his ability to influence the world, so he was nervous that he would not live up to his full potential. King knew that he could affect the world, and so he did. As Rieder put it, “King sought to change his audience’s sense of the ratio of risk to reward” (219). King was a proponent of the present, and urged his followers to take action so that they would be rewarded on Earth. Rieder said, “To begin to rethink reward and punishment in the way King suggested required the imagination to view oneself as a powerful person able to control one’s fate” (219). Free will, which is the basis of existentialism, is what King constantly tried to convince his audience that they possessed.

It is evidenced that King had initially decided not to give a speech the night before he died. He had led a march that day protesting low pay for black garbage collectors in Memphis. It was rainy and dark, and King was feeling sick. Being present at the gathering “called up the spirit in Reverend King, and he spoke that night without a single note in hand” (“Say It Plain”). King used anguish to fuel him through the movement, instead of ignoring his responsibility. He could have chosen not to speak that night, but he was aware of the power of his words to sway the movement, so he took leadership. King’s urgency to act and to fight for the freedom of brotherhood characterizes him as an existentialist hero, who renounces hope and focuses on the now. He was worried, but he used anguish to prompt him to act. Although he was a Christian, Martin Luther King Jr. focused on the present, and he urged his audience, whether they believed in an afterlife or not, to precede essence with existence.

It is evidenced, in King’s essay, “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” that he did not only display existential qualities, but was also an existentialist scholar who had a “new appreciation for the philosophy of existentialism” (6). He explains, “Its understanding of the ‘finite freedom’ of man is one of existentialism’s most lasting contributions, and its perception of the anxiety and conflict produced in man’s personal and social life as a result of the perilous and ambiguous structure of existence is especially meaningful for our time” (7). King talks about the anguish associated with life, as man is aware of his impact on others. This theme of being aware of man’s impact on others is hinted at the beginning of King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” and is repeated many times in the speech.

Fig. 1 Notes Taken By Martin Luther King, Jr. on Existentialism According to Jean-Paul Sartre Image Courtesy of: The King Center

King begins, “Something is happening in Memphis, something is happening in our world” (1). This automatically links Memphis, a smaller arena, to the world as a whole, showing the audience how they affect the entire world and emphasizing human responsibility. King then goes on to list important events that he would have liked to witness in history, from Moses leading the slaves in Egypt, all the way up to the present sanitation strikes. Presenting these events not only shows that King is well-educated, but also puts perspective on the issue and stresses the importance of the present.

The importance of action, a key existentialist value, is also underlined in the speech. King says, “It’s all right to talk about long white robes over yonder, in all of its symbolism, but ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here” (21). This is an iteration of existence preceding essence. People can talk about how the poor will be rewarded in Heaven, but from an existentialist standpoint, where there is no afterlife, immediate action is a necessity. King directs the public towards “economic withdrawal,” stressing the importance of passive resistance versus violent action. He instructs them “not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis” or “Sealtest milk,” or “Wonder Bread” or “Hart’s Bread” (24). He wants to relocate money into the power of the black people, and “strengthen black institutions” by depositing “money in the Tri-State Bank” (25). Instead of just speaking, King, acting as an existentialist hero, gives the audience specific actions that they can take to impact the cause. King says, “If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school, be there” (26). This is a prime example of taking responsible not just for yourself, but also being “concerned for your brother” (26).

King then goes on to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan, which is the climax point of existentialism in this speech. The Good Samaritan stopped to help a man in need, when no one else would. Many men think only about the negative things that would happen to themselves. The Good Samaritan, however, reversed the question, and asked,

 If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him? (30).

This is the epitome of an existentialist hero. King was aware of his impact on the world, and knew that he had a responsibility for mankind. He knew that, because of free will, he had the power to change the world. King wanted the strikers to stop thinking, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” (30). He wanted them to focus on what would happen if they did not help. That concept of anguish, that knowledge that they had to use their power to change the world, was enough to keep the movement alive.

Whether he intentionally tied Christian teachings to existentialism in “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” or if his passion for the cause just naturally embodied him with existentialist values, Martin Luther King, Jr. portrays many qualities that make him the perfect existentialist hero. King was a man of action, who took responsibility for his own free will. He was aware that he could impact humanity in a positive way. As Sartre put it, “Even if God were to exist, it would make no difference” (53). King ends “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” by saying, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” (45). It rings truthfully through the church, carrying with it strong Christian values along with the undertone of existentialism ideally personified.

Works Cited

Descartes, Rene, and David Weissman. Discourse on the Method And, Meditations on First Philosophy. New Haven: Yale UP, 1996. Print.

“I Am A Man.” I Am A Man Symposium. Wayne State University Walter P. Reuther Library. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.

King Jr., Martin Luther. “”I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” Address Delivered at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple.” Stanford University Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project. 3 Apr. 1968. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.

King Jr., Martin Luther. ““Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”.” Stanford University Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project, 13 Apr. 1960. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.

Rieder, Jonathan. The Word of the Lord Is upon Me the Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2008. Print.

Sartre, Jean, and John Kulka. Existentialism Is a Humanism = (L’Existentialisme Est Un Humanisme) ; Including, a Commentary on The Stranger (Explication De L’Étranger). New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. Print.

“Say It Plain – A Century of Great African American Speeches.” American Radioworks. American Public Media. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.