Monday, January 19, 2015

A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart (Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!)

“We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.” - Martin Luther King, Jr. , Strength to Love (1963)

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here in the United States.  There will be celebrations, parades, and volunteer outings.  Government offices and schools are closed.  Media, social and otherwise, will overflow with quotations from the “I Have a Dream” speech and “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  Politicians and religious leaders will give speeches.  A film about King’s involvement in the struggle for voting rights in Alabama has been nominated for an Oscar .  What is this holiday really about?

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is my favorite holiday, because it’s about hope for a better world.   A lot of religious people (like King himself) might say that religious holidays are about hope for a better world, too, but secular holidays can speak to everyone regardless of belief or lack thereof.  Others might say that holidays commemorating military service or sacrifice (like Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day here in the US) are more important, since the military is required to secure the bedrock of the freedoms King fought for.  Setting aside King’s concerns about militarism, even the most ardent military supporters ought to admit that a world in which we didn’t need to produce so many veterans and war dead would be a better world.  Holidays like Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day are holidays of remembrance and honor, but they are also holidays of regret for the horrors of war, however necessary they may have been (like King I suspect they are less necessary than most people think, but that’s another post).  Yet others might say that holidays like Labor Day or May Day are more important.  King supported workers’ rights (he was assassinated in Memphis while supporting a sanitation workers’ strike).  Respect and fairness for all workers is a key ingredient in a better world, but it is not the only ingredient.

King is known for his work in civil rights as well as his commitment to the Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence (although few people understand what either of those really mean).  He is less well known for his ideas on economic issues and his opposition to the Vietnam War.  The major problem with canonizing King with a federal holiday is that it encourages some people (especially white people) to turn his ideas into a Disney-fied, feel-good, color-blindness that serves as an excuse for complacency in the face of continued injustice.  This situation is perverse, for instance, in light of issues surrounding the killings of African Americans such as Treyvon Martin, Michael Brown, and so many others. 

The holiday ought to give us a chance to reflect on King’s ideas.  One of my favorite ideas from King is his notion of the combination of a tough mind and a tender heart, which he discusses in the first chapter of Strength to Love (1963). 

King builds on a Bible verse (Matthew 10:16) in a thoughtful, constructive way to discuss these two seemingly contradictory character traits.  King says, “The tough mind is sharp and penetrating, breaking through the crust of legends and myths and sifting the true from the false.”  King is talking about critical thinking, a skill that is rarely explicitly taught in schools.  Also, thinking critically isn’t easy.  As King says (somewhat humorously), “Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”

The dangers of softmindedness, according to King, include gullibility, superstition, religious dogmatism, and racial prejudice.  It also breeds fear of change and misunderstandings about science and religion.

“There is little hope for us until we become toughminded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half-truths, and downright ignorance.  The shape of the world does not permit us the luxury of softmindednesss.  A nation or civilization that continues to produce softminded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.”  (Presumably King meant “men and women.”  It was 1963.)

The other trait is tenderheartedness.  King says, “Toughmindedness without tenderheartedness is cold and detached…”  A hardhearted person “never truly loves” and “lacks the capacity for true compassion.”  Such a person “never sees people as people, but rather as mere objects or impersonal cogs…”  In other words, a hardhearted person is not living a life worth living.

King suggests that African Americans need not softmindedly accept segregation, nor should they hardheartedly promote violence.  The combination of toughmindedness and tenderheartedness is precisely what is required for nonviolent resistance and the creation of long-term justice and dignity for everyone.

A world with more toughminded, tenderhearted people is a world worth working toward.  It’s a world I hope will exist in the future.  That’s why Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is my favorite holiday.  It is a holiday of hope.


  1. This, I think, speaks to your point about how Dr King was advocating for human rights beyond the great work he is lauded for.

    Also, that it was a different world then but his work needs to be carried on even today.

    1. Yes, that does speak to my point. Thanks, Cheryl!