Dr. King’s “Ten Commandments”

When we think of the skills required in political movements, we often consider shrewdness, a willingness to destroy the adversary, and clear communication as the essentials. It’s useful to explore what Dr. King expected, and required, of those who would join his protest movement. In his book, Why We Can’t Wait, which is the story of the Birmingham protests, he prints the form required of all who would join his protests. I’m always moved by this. Each time I have taught this book, in one context or another, this required form always surprises the students. This is no mere political movement. It is a movement of people yearning to be transformed. It’s no political party’s lobbying shop.

He writes: “Not all who volunteered could pass our strict tests for service as demonstrators.” When you read the form below, you will see the truth of his words. How many of us could commit to what he asks below? The capital letters are his, not mine. This is taken from the actual form printed by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, the Birmingham Affiliate of the Souther Christian Leadership Conference, Fred Shuttlesworth, President.


1. MEDITATE daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.

2. REMEMBER always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation- not victory.

3. WALK and TALK in the manner of love, for God is love.

4. PRAY daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.

5. SACRIFICE personal wishes in order that all men might be free.

6. OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.

7. SEEK to perform regular service for others and for the world.

8. REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue or heart.

9. STRIVE to be in good spiritual and bodily health.

10. FOLLOW the directions of the movement and of the captain of a demonstration.

On the paper form, below these ten commandments, were spaces for the volunteer’s name, address, phone number and that of one’s nearest relative.

Imagine a political movement today asking these commandments of its members. We’re a long way from the depth of commitment Dr. King required. I am particularly moved by numbers 2 and 8.

If one truly believes in the rightness of a cause, you don’t need to defeat the other. You need to simply help the other to change. This is no simple task, of course, but it is a radically different approach than one that seeks to defeat the other. In “winning” the other has not necessarily come to your side and you will have to “win” over and over again. This does not change society. It merely necessitates constant conflict.

Similarly, to avoid the “violence of fist, tongue, or heart” might be the radical work anyone could ask of us. Dr. King’s nonviolence didn’t simply require that no one slug anyone else. He urges us not to speak cruelly about another, and not even to think or feel cruelly about another. This approach requires a transformation of each participant that involves one’s whole life.

I wonder, on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday in 2012, how willing I am, we are, to enter into this kind of transformation? I know I need this transformation. I know my country needs this transformation. I know our world needs it desperately.

Published by www.JosephRoss.net

Poet & Teacher. Author of four books of poetry: Raising King (2020) Ache (2017) Gospel of Dust (2013) Meeting Bone Man (2012)

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