Martin Luther King: Continued Inspiration for a Continuous Journey

1/26/15 by Paul Mattessich
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Dr. King’s words – “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that” – speak loudly to researchers. I like to think that we have had the ability to shine at least a little bit of light by means of our research activities at Wilder Research, our engagement with communities and institutions, and our continuous searching for insight regarding the most significant social issues which face our society today.

As a keynote presenter at the 1967 conference of the American Psychological Association, Dr. King advised the social scientists in attendance: “White America needs to understand that it is poisoned to its soul by racism and the understanding needs to be carefully documented and consequently more difficult to reject.” He suggested three areas of study which he felt deserved research and which could promote the cause of civil rights. Although some of his language seems a bit dated, and although research during the past half century has improved our understanding of these topics, his key messages still resonate.

“Social science may be able to search out some answers to the problem of Negro leadership.” He lamented a tendency of upwardly mobile blacks to separate themselves from those in the lower class. “Social science should be able to suggest mechanisms to create a wholesome black unity and a sense of peoplehood while the process of integration proceeds.”

“The second area for scientific examination is political action.” Dr. King went on to say that some political scientists had suggested that “voting is not the key that will unlock the door to racial equality because 'the concrete measurable payoffs from Negro voting in the South will not be revolutionary'….My own instinct is that these views are essentially erroneous, but they must be seriously examined. The need for a penetrating massive scientific study of this subject cannot be overstated.”

“The third area for study concerns psychological and ideological changes in Negroes. It is fashionable now to be pessimistic. Undeniably, the freedom movement has encountered setbacks. Yet I still believe there are significant aspects of progress.” Dr. King explained that social science needed to move forward to expose underlying, taken-for-granted precepts of American society which result in social and economic disparities. We would now use terms such as systemic racism or structural racism to capture the essence of Dr. King’s insight. He pointed out in his address that such racism can have a more significant negative impact than what he called “superficial prejudice.”

In his characteristically penetrating style, with a tinge of satire, he mordantly suggested to the psychologists who comprise the American Psychological Association that, despite their ever present efforts to help people to “adjust” to societal life, they should perhaps create an International Association of Creative Maladjustment.

“I am sure that we will recognize that there are some things in our society, some things in our world, to which we should never be adjusted. There are some things concerning which we must always be maladjusted if we are to be people of good will. We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation. We must never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry. We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. We must never adjust ourselves to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence… As President Kennedy declared, 'Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.'”

“For social scientists, the opportunity to serve in a life-giving purpose is a humanist challenge of rare distinction,” Dr. King stated. We at Wilder Research strive, with determination, to take on that challenge more and more every day.