What’s Love Got To Do With It?
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. defines justice as “love correcting that which revolts against love.”
Dr. King made this visionary and audacious declaration at the first mass meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association at the Holt Street Baptist Church on December 5, 1955, just days after the arrest of Rosa Parks. It was the meeting where Rev. Ralph Abernathy put forward the resolution to initiate the Montgomery bus boycott. The church was located in a black working-class section of the city. Both the sanctuary and the basement auditorium were filled, and an overflow crowd outside listened via loudspeakers. Many reporters, photographers, television crews, and black leaders were present. The meeting opened with two hymns, “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”
King then delivered an address that included this definition of justice as love correcting that which revolts against love. He later recalled his thoughts before the address:
How could I make a speech that would be militant enough to keep my people aroused to positive action and yet moderate enough to keep this fervor within controllable and Christian bounds? I knew that many of the Negro people were victims of bitterness that could easily rise to flood proportions. What could I say to keep them courageous and prepared for positive action and yet devoid of hate and resentment? Could the militant and the moderate be combined in a single speech?
Is Dr. King’s definition of justice context-bound? Or is it a universal definition of justice that withstands the test of time? Is it relevant today, or is it bound by the particulars of place and circumstance?
At first blush, on a personal level, this definition of justice bears no resemblance to the justice I pursued in my lifetime as an activist and civil rights lawyer. Love seems to have had little to do with my warrior-activist pursuits, whether as a militant black student fighting against racism and in support of the Black Panthers in the 1960s, or as a socialist fighting the evils of capitalism, or as a black woman fighting to save my sister Angela Davis from a legal lynching based upon fabricated charges of murder and conspiracy to murder a Marin County judge in the 1970s.
We were at war. Our relentless pursuit of social, racial, and economic justice in those days had nothing to do with love. It was us versus them. Or so it seemed.
And this continued through the 1980s after I became a civil rights lawyer fighting all-out civil rights wars in the courtroom against employers and on behalf of clients who were victims of employment discrimination.
What does love have to do with the hypermasculinist, hyperrational, aggressive, warrior-like personal qualities I was compelled to cultivate in order to be successful in these pursuits? ...
Davis, Fania E. 2012. What's Love Got To Do With It?. Tikkun 27(1): 30.