The Time for Justice
On March 18, 1956, the day before he was to stand trial over breaking the state of Alabama's anti-boycott law over the Montgomery Bus Boycott1, a 27 year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about an 'obnoxious' peace.
On February 3, 1956, Autherine Lucy began her graduate studies in library science as the first African American formally admitted to the University of Alabama. Immediately upon her entry, she was subjected to physical and psychological violence, with riots and demonstrations occurring regularly by protesters to her admission. As a result, on February 28, the university trustees and president permanently expelled her in order to restore peace.2 While the local press celebrated the restoration of order, King responded with a sermon entitled "When Peace Becomes Obnoxious."3
In this sermon, King states that the stance taken by the University of Alabama leadership to restore peace and order comes at a great cost to the dignity of the human person; it is an obnoxious peace. In the conflict between obnoxious peace and true peace, King argues that the urgent issue at hand is not physical violence and physical war, for "[t]here is no moral justification for [physical] war...[Physical] [w]ar is devastating."4 Rather, it is within the war of ideas where one must confront this conflict. Peace is therefore more than simply a physical presence.
King states that true peace “confronts the real issues of life." However, obnoxious peace fails. It fails to face conflict; it makes for stagnant complacency; and it seeks to restore and maintain order at the price of human dignity and human rights. True peace, though, declares war on this type of injustice by confronting the conflict between evil and good and between the negative and positive in human relationship. Thus, King declares that true “[p]eace is not merely the absence of some negative force - war, tensions, confusion - but it is the presence of some positive force - justice, goodwill…[R]eal peace...is the presence of positive good...[Therefore,] in a non-violent manner we must revolt against [obnoxious] peace."5
True peace, then, must include the positive force of justice, in partnership with goodwill.
Today, we remain exposed, within and without, to the odious fumes of an obnoxious peace. Walls of separation, the rejection of those in need, and a stubborn hesitance with confronting the difficult conflicts required for securing a healthy democracy remind us of the deep problems in our midst. But, we also stand at a point of great possibility, where the positive force of justice, with goodwill, can move us toward greater promise and where, despite the doggedness of obnoxious peace, we can be guided by a justice that improves our individual and collective lives.
So, let us reject the complacency that allows for separation, rejection, and retrenchment, and instead let us cling to the true peace born of the positive force inherent in justice, partnered with goodwill. For, now is The Time For Justice.
1. For more information on King's 1956 trial see, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Testimony in State of Alabama v. M.L. King, Jr.," Judgment and Sentence of the Court, State of Alabama v. M.L. King, Jr. (facsimile)," and "Reactions to Conviction" in
The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume III: Birth of a New Age, December 1955 to December 1956,
eds. Carson, Clayborne; Burns, Stewart; Carson, Susan; Powell, Dana; Halloran, Peter (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).
2. To learn more about Autherine Lucy and the 1956 desegregation episode at the University of Alabama see "The Indomitable Spirit of Autherine Lucy," The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/indomitable-spirit-autherine-lucy; James P. Kaetz, "Autherine Lucy," Encyclopedia of Alabama, 2019, http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-2489; Kerri Lee Alexander, "Autherine Lucy," National Women's History Museum, 2018, https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/autherine-lucy; and Wikipedia contributors, "Autherine Lucy," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Autherine_Lucy&oldid=915412579 .
3. See Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "When Peace Becomes Obnoxious, Sermon Delivered on 18 March 1956 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church" in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume III: Birth of a New Age, December 1955 to December 1956, eds. Carson, Clayborne; Burns, Stewart; Carson, Susan; Powell, Dana; Halloran, Peter (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), pp. 257-9.
4. Ibid., p. 258.
5. Ibid., p. 258, 259.