We, the Disinherited of This Land
“We, the disinherited of this land, we who have been oppressed so long, are tired of going through the long night of captivity. And now we reaching out for the daybreak of freedom and justice and equality. May I say to you, my friends, as I come to a close, and just giving some idea of why we are assembled here, that we must keep — and I want to stress this, in all of our doings, in all of our deliberations here this evening and all of the week and while — whatever we do, we must keep God in the forefront. Let us be Christian in all of our actions. But I want to tell you this evening that it is not enough for us to talk about love, love is one of the pivotal points of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.
“The Almighty God himself is not the only, not the God just standing out saying through Hosea, “I love you, Israel.” He’s also the God that stands up before the nations and said: “Be still and know that I’m God, that if you don’t obey me I will break the backbone of your power and slap you out of the orbits of your international and national relationships.” Standing beside love is always justice, and we are only using the tools of justice. Not only are we using the tools of persuasion, but we’ve come to see that we’ve got to use the tools of coercion. Not only is this thing a process of education, but it is also a process of legislation.” (King 11-12)
In his first speech at what is considered the beginning of the Modern Civil Rights Movement (Parks 1), King briefly discusses the history of discrimination and oppression of black Americans (King 7), including the misinformation in the press regarding bus seating and Rosa Parks refusal to let a white man have her seat (8), and the reason they are present at this first meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association: namely “deliberations” (King 11) to organize a bus boycott (King 7; Parks 2-3). At the conclusion of his speech, as he does in other speeches, King references Exodus imagery by referring to black Americans “who have been oppressed so long, [and] are tired of … captivity” (King 11). From Psalm 30:5, King applies the “weeping … [of] a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (KJV) to demonstrate that, as in the Psalm, they are “reaching out for the daybreak of freedom and justice and equality” (King 7) Here, King has tied Micah’s prophecy for Israel to remain a nation to that which America must do: It must “do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God” (Micah 6:8 KJV). America’s disinheriting black Americans has, as George Wallace wrote about Great Britain, guaranteed that the “disinherited population” exists only to suffer and to do as the landed gentry orders. According to Wallace, “The worker … gets the refuse. Poverty is the inevitable result” (45). Instead of “We, the people” of the Constitution (which guarantees rights for all men), King spins the line into “We, the disinherited of this land” (11), showing how divided blacks are from white America and its laws.
But this disinheritance, this suffering, King reasons, should not result in anything but “us being Christian in all of our actions because “love is one of the pivotal points of the Christian faith” (11). This is a reference to 1 Corinthians 13, in which all actions mean nothing unless they are based upon love (charity in the KJV). Had King stopped there, his audience would have thought that King meant a soppy type of love; instead, King ties 1 Corinthians 13 to a love that reflects justice as “love in calculation … correcting that which revolts against love” (King 11). Here, King mentions Hosea, an Old Testament prophet who, at God’s command, married a whore, had children with her, and then redeemed her from her lovers when she left him to return to life as a prostitute. King conflates Israel with America, and America has whored herself out to greed and materialism at the expense of poor, namely black, Americans who do not have full civil rights. It isn’t those who are protesting, legally, for their civil rights who will judge America. It is the “God that stands up before the nations and said: “… that if you don’t obey me I will break the backbone of your power and slap you out of the orbits of your international and national relationships” (King 11-12). As in Hosea 4:1-3, when “the Lord hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land” (KJV) and as in so many other prophecies against the wrongs of Israel, King maintains that America will experience, as sinful Israel did, a loss of its power externally and internally.
King has not fully developed the idea of nonviolent and strong love at this point. He refers more to the justice God will demand of American citizens who allowed America to create a disinherited people. He discusses the tools of persuasion (economic persuasion of the bus boycott) and the tools of coercion. Coercion is an interesting word for King to use, for its connotation is negative due to its association with force or threats. For this speech, and King’s later speeches, this use of coercion is in direct contradiction to his call for a love that uses the tools of justice, such as Supreme Court decisions in their favor, the “process of education” (King 12) that occurred through voter education drives, and the “process of legislation” (King 12) that eventually culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Perhaps it was the twenty minutes instead of fifteen hours (Parks 3) that King had to prepare for this speech, but the use of coercion is a mark against the nonviolent action motivated by the justice-loving, bitter-free direct action King later advocated.
The Bible. King James Version. The Bible Study App. 10 Aug. 2016.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Address to the First Montgomery Improvement Association Mass (MIA) Meeting.” A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Claiborne Carson and Kris Shepard. IPM / Grand Central Publishing, 2001, pp. 7-12.
Parks, Rosa Louise. “Introduction to ‘Address to the First Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) Mass Meeting.” A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Claiborne Carson and Kris Shepard. IPM / Grand Central Publishing, 2001, pp. 1-5.
Wallace, George. The Disinherited: Observations in Travel, Giving New Views and Descriptions of old routes and scenes; also conditions of old world people observed and depicted, with incidental study of the cause of the poverty which afflicts so many; followed by timely comments on home topics. J. S. Ogilvie Publishing Company, 1908. Hathi Trush Digital Library. https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008676262.
“What does, joyous daybreak to the long night of their captivity mean?” Chachacha.com, 2016, http://www.chacha.com/question/what-does,-joyous-daybreak-to-the-long-night-of-their-captivity-mean. [used to find biblical reference]