THE 2014 MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
ESSAY CONTEST

Essay Prompts:

    1. MLK on Healthcare
      Advice for Living: Birth Control is Not Sinful

    2. MLK on Religion and Ecumenism
      Advice for Living: Religious Difference

    3. MLK on Inequality
      The Other America

    4. MLK on Civil Disobedience
      Debate with James J. Kilpatrick on "The Nation's Future" Program: Law versus Order

    5. MLK on War and Peace
      War and Pacifism

    6. MLK on Globalization
      Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution

Prompt No. 1: MLK on Healthcare

Advice for Living: Birth Control is Not Sinful

December 1957

Question: We have seven children and another one is on the way. Our four-room apartment is bursting at the seams and living space in Harlem is at a premium. I have suggested to my husband that we practice birth control, but he says that when God thinks we have enough children, He will put a stop to it. I've tried to reason with him, but he says that birth control is sinful. Is he right?

 

MLK, Jr., Response: I do not think it is correct to argue that birth control is sinful. It is a serious mistake to suppose that it is a religious act to allow nature to have its way in the sex life. The truth is that the natural order is given us, not as an absolute finality, but as something to be guided and controlled. In the case of birth control the real question at issue is that between rational control and resort to chance. Another thing that must be said is that changes in social and economic conditions make smaller families desirable, if not necessary. As you suggest, the limited quarters available in our large cities and the high cost of living preclude such large families as were common a century or so ago. A final consideration is that women must be considered as more than "breeding machines." It is true that the primary obligation of the woman is that of motherhood, but an intelligent mother wants it to be a responsible motherhood – a motherhood to which she has given her consent, not a motherhood due to impulse and to chance. And this means birth control in some form. All of these factors seem to me to make birth control rationally and morally justifiable.

 

SOURCE: Martin Luther King, Jr. ''Advice for Living,'' in Clayborne Carson (ed.), The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Symbol of the Movement, University of California Press, vol. iv (2000) pp 305-306

 

With the successful conclusion of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956 and the establishment of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) the following year, King became a national civil rights spokesman, and his opinions, even on personal matters, attracted considerable interest. Thus, in 1957 Ebony magazine invited King to write a monthly column "Advice for Living." Responding to readers' questions about marital infidelity, sexuality, birth control and other such matters, while also tackling issues such as capital punishment, atomic weapons testing, and race relations, King's column reflected his moral and religious convictions and his thoughts on a wide range of issues.

Prompt No. 2: MLK on Religion and Ecumenism

Advice for Living: Religious Difference
June 1958

Question: Please help me and my wife to settle our religious differences. My understanding is that a man and his wife are to be as one in everything. I am a Baptist and she is a Seven-Day Adventist. She goes to church on Saturday and I go to church on Sunday. I don't think that is being as one and I don't think God is pleased.


MLK, Jr., Response: There can be no gainsaying of the fact it is always a wonderful thing when a husband and his wife attend the same church. However, when such an arrangement does not exist, the family need not live in continual disharmony. The problem may be solved by concentrating on the unity of our religious views rather than accentuating your differences. There are certain basic points, such as the God concept, the lordship of Christ and the brotherhood of man that all Christians should be united on. Consequently, there can be unity where there is not uniformity. If you and your wife will concentrate on these points of unity and seek to minimize the ritualistic and doctrinal differences, you will come to see that you are not as far apart in your religious views as it appears to you on the surface.

 

SOURCE: Martin Luther King, Jr. ''Advice for Living,'' in Clayborne Carson (ed.), The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Symbol of the Movement, University of California Press, vol. iv (2000) pp 417-418

 

With the successful conclusion of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956 and the establishment of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) the following year, King became a national civil rights spokesman, and his opinions, even on personal matters, attracted considerable interest. Thus, in 1957 Ebony magazine invited King to write a monthly column "Advice for Living." Responding to readers' questions about marital infidelity, sexuality, birth control and other such matters, while also tackling issues such as capital punishment, atomic weapons testing, and race relations, King's column reflected his moral and religious convictions and his thoughts on a wide range of issues.

Prompt No. 3: MLK on Inequality

The Other America
Grosse Pointe High School

March 14, 1968

I want to use as a title for my lecture tonight, "The Other America." And I use this title because there are literally two Americas. Every city in our country has this kind of dualism, this schizophrenia, split at so many parts, and so every city ends up being two cities rather than one. There are two Americas. One America is beautiful for situation. In this America, millions of people have the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality flowing before them. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, freedom and human dignity for their spirits. In this America children grow up in the sunlight of opportunity.


But there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this other America, thousands and thousands of people, men in particular walk the streets in search for jobs that do not exist. In this other America, millions of people are forced to live in vermin-filled, distressing housing conditions where they do not have the privilege of having wall-to-wall carpeting, but all too often, they end up with wall-to-wall rats and roaches. Almost forty percent of the Negro families of America live in sub-standard housing conditions. In this other America, thousands of young people are deprived of an opportunity to get an adequate education. Every year thousands finish high school reading at a seventh, eighth and sometimes ninth grade level. Not because they're dumb, not because they don't have the native intelligence, but because the schools are so inadequate, so over-crowded, so devoid of quality, so segregated if you will, that the best in these minds can never come out.

 

SOURCE: http://www.gphistorical.org/mlk/mlkspeech/mlk-gp-speech.pdf

Prompt No. 4: MLK on Civil Disobedience

Debate with James J. Kilpatrick on "The Nation's Future" Program: Law versus Order

 

In 1960, as the nation witnessed continuous non-violent sit-in protests at restaurants and several segregated establishments, Dr. King debated segregationist editor James J. Kilpatrick on a live, nationally televised program. The two appeared before a studio audience of representatives from several civil rights and conservative groups as well as mayors attending the American Municipal Association Convention. Host John McCaffery moderated. The transmission was taken from NBC television footage and reproduced in print by the Martin Luther King Jr. Paper Project. This is a redacted version of the transcript.1

Moderator John McCaffery: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to this special half-hour edition of The Nation's Future. Now, every third week we concentrate on issues of national impact which have special local importance, and our subject tonight is, "Are Sit-In Strikes Justifiable?"… Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., then, will you state your position?

 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: […] Now, there are those who would argue that these demonstrations are unconstitutional and that they are illegal. They would go on to argue that [the demonstrators] have no respect for law. But I would say that this is absolutely wrong. The individuals engaged in sit-in demonstrations are revealing the highest respect for law. And they respect law so much that they want to see all laws just and in line with the moral law of the universe. They're willing to suffer and sacrifice in order to square local custom, customs and local laws with the moral law of the universe. And they are seeking to square these local laws with the federal Constitution and with what is the just law of the land. Therefore, I am sure, I am convinced, that they are just and that they are truly American, that somehow these sit-in demonstrations send us back to the deep wells of democracy that were dug by the Founding Fathers of our nation in formulating the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. And so in sitting down, these students are in reality standing up for the highest and the best in the American tradition. And I think it is justifiable because it isn't a selfish movement. It isn't based on seeking merely rights for Negroes or seeking to secure those things that would apply only to one minority group, but they're seeking to save the soul of America.

 

James J. Kilpatrick: These sit-ins, it seems to me, find their chief significance in very large, broad patterns of social and constitutional questions, and these divide us grievously. On that point I might make one thing plain. Contrary to recent high example, Mr. King and I do not agree on our objectives and disagree only on means of reaching them. He would accept racial separation nowhere; he would have integration everywhere. His aim, as I comprehend it, is the obliteration of race altogether. At the end of his line of argument, I submit, lies what has been termed the "coffee-colored compromise," a society in which every distinction of race has been blotted out by this principle of togetherness. Now, I am opposed to this Waring blender process on our society. In common with most southerners, I believe, I take pride in our race, and we are often puzzled - perhaps Mr. King will comment upon this - that Negroes by and large seem to take so little pride in theirs. We believe it is an affirmatively good thing to preserve the predominant racial characteristics that have contributed to Western civilization over the past two thou- sand years, and we do not believe that the way to preserve them lies in fostering any intimate race mixing by which these principles and characteristics inevitably must be destroyed. Toward that end, we believe in public policies that promote separation of the races in those few essential social areas where intimate personal association, long continued, would foster a break-down, especially among young people, of those ethnic lines that seem to us important… I want to ask Mr. King if he would direct some comment to this question: Whence come the right that he asserts in these southern states on the part of the Negroes to eat in privately-owned lunch counters and department stores? […]

 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Mr. Kilpatrick, I think on this point you would have to agree with me that most of these local laws that have been set up are certainly contrary to the federal law.

 

James J. Kilpatrick: Oh, I don't agree with that at all.

 

[1 Full Transcript is available online through the Martin Luther King, Jr. Paper's Project ]

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: To the Constitution of our United States.

 

James J. Kilpatrick: I don't agree with that at all.

 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: I think they are. And I think in disobeying these laws, the students are really seeking to affirm the just law of the land and the Constitution of our United States. I would say this - that all people should obey just laws, but I would also say, with St. Augustine, that an unjust law is no law at all. And when we find an unjust law, I think we have a moral obligation to take a stand against it, and I think these local laws that have been set up are unjust…

 

James J. Kilpatrick: Well, these are very interesting viewpoints on your part. Let me ask this question: Suppose that… the Supreme Court of the United States on a Woolworth's, or on a Kress's, or on a Thalheimer's Department Store in Richmond, not involved in interstate commerce, not involved in a publicly owned facility, and let me suppose further that the Supreme Court of the United States were to adopt the opinion of the Fourth United States Circuit Court of Appeals in this Howard Johnson's case. Then, wouldn't it be your view that that became the supreme law of the land? Would you feel any higher moral duty to obey it then? […]

 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: I would answer that by asking you a question.

 

James J. Kilpatrick: No, that's no way to answer a question. Why don't you answer first and then ask me a question?

 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: If the United States Supreme Court of the government of our nation issued a law, set forth a law or a decision stating that the public worship of God is unconstitutional, there would be a denial of the right of freedom of religion and to worship God publicly. Would you urge people to obey that and to be obedient to it and wait fifty or a hundred years through the century of litigation before protesting this?

 

James J. Kilpatrick: No, sir, I would take the recourses that are provided under the law. I would try to impeach the Justices, for one thing, but I would go through legal procedures to try to do something about it… Now, let me go back to the question I put to you a while ago. If the Court should say this, would you be inclined to call off all your troops and disband your school down there where you're teaching them these techniques and so on?

 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: I go back to the argument, Mr. Kilpatrick, that an unjust law is no law at all.


James J. Kilpatrick: And you… reserve the right to say whether it is just or unjust?

 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Well, I think this, that on the basis of conscience-and how do we test conscience? On the basis of the insights of the ages through saints and prophets, on the basis of the best evidence of the intellectual disciplines of the day, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and what have you, on the basis of all that we find in the religious insights of the ages-and I think we will all agree that any law that degrades human personality is an unjust law, and one's conscience should reveal that to him.

 

James J. Kilpatrick: Would you extend the right, the same right to everyone else that you claim for yourself, to decide what is just and what is unjust?

 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: I would extend that right only if individuals will do it on the basis of conscience and in resisting it will do it in what I call a loving, nonviolent, peaceful sense, and not in terms of a violent, unloving, and uncivil sense.

 

James J. Kilpatrick: This is the most remarkable exposition of obedience to law that I ever remember taking part in, in which everyone has the right to decide for himself on the basis of his conscience what laws he regards as just and what he regards as unjust.

 

Moderator John McCaffery: Gentlemen, I'm sorry […] our time is already up. I am afraid that you have been unkind to lawyers in how well you have taken care of the legal aspects of this… This is John McCaffery. Good night. [applause]. END.

Prompt No. 5: MLK on War and Peace

War and Pacifism
College Course Essay for Dr. Kenneth L. Smith Class
Crozer Theological Seminary

1951

Though I cannot accept an absolute pacifist position, I am as anxious as any to see wars end and have no desire to take part in one. Man being what he is it seems to me that struggle will be a necessary part of human existence for a long time to come. I could not present my view as one to which there is no exception. No one can work out a theological or philosophical system which is perfect.


I found the position of Nels Ferré interesting especially since he was for a time a pacifist. He presents conflict as a part of the evolutionary process. Man struggles with his fellow man because he has not yet overcome the animal nature which is his. He sees war as a creative part of this process, but it is creative only as long as it is used to work toward peace. The true aim of war is peace. War has been creative in the past and might possibly be so in the future. A third world war might give us a united world. The development of larger units of government from smaller ones has often come about as a result of war. However he is not sure that war can be creative any more. War has been necessary under the concept of natural law and national sovereignty. The time has come for the nation to give way to world government. Under world government man could learn to control war with proper world police. He find the cause of war in the sinful nature of man and the proper attitude one of the practice of Christian justice….


A position of absolute pacifism allows no grounds for maintaining even a police force, since there is no real difference in kind between war and police action. Their position logically results in anarchy. Perhaps the most serious criticism is that they fail to recognize the sinfulness of man. The believe that if we just assume that the enemy will react favorably he will. They isolate war from other ethical problems and ignore the fact that war is actually a symptom of deeper trouble. By their total absorption in the question of war they neglect the deeper underlying causes of war.


It seems to me that we must recognize the presence of sin in man and that it can be done without seeing that there is also good. Since man is so often sinful there must be some coercion to keep one man from injuring his fellows. This is just as true between nations as it is between individuals. If one nation oppresses another a Christian nation must, in order to express love of neighbor, help protect the oppressed. This does not relieve us of our obligation to the enemy nation. We are obligated to treat them in such a way as to reclaim them to a useful place in the world community after they have been prevented from oppressing another. We must not seek revenge.


SOURCE: The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Called to Serve, Clayborne Carson (Ed.), University of California Press (1992), pp 434 - 435

Prompt No. 6: MLK on Globalization

Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution
National Cathedral, Washington DC

31 March 1968

There can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in the world today. In a sense it is a triple revolution: that is, a technological revolution, with the impact of automation and cybernation; then there is a revolution in weaponry, with the emergence of atomic and nuclear weapons of warfare; then there is a human rights revolution, with the freedom explosion that is taking place all over the world. Yes, we do live in a period where changes are taking place. And there is still the voice crying through the vista of time saying, "Behold, I make all things new; former things are passed away."


Now whenever anything new comes into history it brings with it new challenges and new opportunities. And I would like to deal with the challenges that we face today as a result of this triple revolution that is taking place in the world today.
First, we are challenged to develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution. The world in which we live is geographically one. The challenge that we face today is to make it one in terms of brotherhood.


Now it is true that the geographical oneness of this age has come into being to a large extent through modern man's scientific ingenuity. Modern man through his scientific genius has been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. And our jet planes have compressed into minutes distances that once took weeks and even months. All of this tells us that our world is a neighborhood.


Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God's universe is made; this is the way it is structured.


John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms: "No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." And he goes on toward the end to say, "Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." We must see this, believe this, and live by it if we are to remain awake through a great revolution.


SOURCE: A Knock at Midnight, NY: Warner Books (1998) pp 205 – 224



 

 

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The 2014 MLK Essay contest is made possible by generous financial and organizational support


Essay Instruction Overview

View the complete guidelines and Frequently Asked Questions - download the complete package as a PDF

 

Choose one of the excerpted speeches from the complete guidelines and write an original essay of no more than 750 words on the relevance of the passage to contemporary social, political, and/or economic domestic/ global issue. You may consult external resources while formulating and writing your essay; however, you must attribute prior or unoriginal work and ideas to the correct sources. Please comply with the university's academic integrity standards and policy on plagiarism.

 

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Contact: Obie Okuh, MLK Essay Coordinator at oco@case.edu