The Maladjustment of MLK

During a 1967 NBC interview hosted at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Martin Luther King Jr. confessed, “That dream I had that day has, at many points, turned into a nightmare.”

It was a mere 11 months before his assassination in Memphis.

King was alluding, of course, to his famous “I Have a Dream” speech delivered at the National Mall in August of 1963. This is the King of our memory: hope-filled, electric, inspirational, proclaiming,

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

By 1966, King’s popularity had plummeted to a point where 2/3 of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of him. As he sought to address the roots of American racism and to redress the more concealed causes and effects of Black inequality in the North, he found himself battling elusive forces and less obvious villains.

King also found himself battling his own internal demons of anger and depression. His friends and aides urged him, unsuccessfully, to enter therapy.

In the NBC interview, King explained the persistence of Black inequality by way of the ‘thing-ification’ of the Negro.

You can’t ‘thing-ify’ something without de-personalizing that something. If you use something as a means to an end, at that moment you make it a thing and you de-personalize it…

In fact, King and his allies were battling for the restoration of humanity to Black people in America; something existential and beyond the mere enactment of laws and policies.

Asked whether Black men and women in America were ready to embrace full humanity and equal participation in American society (“Does the Negro in America know what he wants to be?”), King began to respond in the affirmative before lingering within the pathologies associated with the Black condition in America,

I’m convinced that almost every negro in this country, other than those who have been so scarred by the system and have become pathological in the process—and we all have to battle with pathology, and nobody knows what it means to be a negro unless one can really experience it.

And I know we all have to battle with this constant drain—a feeling of ‘nobody-ness.’

Here we catch a glimpse of King’s own inner conflict, “this constant drain—a feeling of ‘nobody-nes.'” It was the pathology with which he waged constant battle.

We recall King’s words from the previous year to a group of students at Southern Methodist University in which he reflected upon the psychological idea of being “well-adjusted.”

Modern psychology has a word that is probably used more than any other word in psychology. It is the word maladjusted. It is the ring and cry of modern child psychology and certainly we all want to avoid the maladjusted life.

We all want to live a well-adjusted life… But I must honestly say there are some things in our nation and the world to which I am proud to be maladjusted and wish all men of goodwill would be maladjusted until the good society is realized.

King inherently understood that to live and labor in a world of sickness often meant to be psychologically maladjusted.

He continued,

And so we need maladjusted men and women where these problems are concerned. It may well be that our whole world is need of the formation of a new organization, the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment.

King cited the maladjustment of the prophet Amos, of Abraham Lincoln, and of Jesus Christ. And we remember the words of the prophet Isaiah describing Jesus, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (53:3)

These have been incredibly hard days. Many of us who care about justice, equality, and human dignity in our culture have found ourselves quite disheartened.

In days like these, we also find ourselves battling pathologies, finding ourselves maladjusted, and acquainted with grief. We must interpret these things rightly. They are unpleasant emotions—oftentimes crippling—yet they are part and parcel of living in the legacy of those who love the things of God. They are the “inward groanings” of God’s people (Rom 8:22-23) who, because of their heavenly citizenship, remain maladjusted to this world.

Unpleasant though these inner battles be, they signal an eternal inheritance. This comes with the territory of being children of God: “fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Rom 8:16, 17)

During the NBC interview, King was wistful. “I must confess that that period was a great period of hope for me,” King said, reflecting on the 1963 March on Washington. “That dream I had that day has, at many points, turned into a nightmare.”

King continued,

Now I’m not one to lose hope. I keep on hoping. I still have faith in the future. But I’ve had to analyze many things over the past few years and, I would say, over the past few months. I’ve gone through a lot of soul searching and agonizing moments and I’ve come to see that we have many more difficult days ahead. And some of the old optimism was a little superficial. Now it must be tempered with a solid realism. And I think the realistic fact is we still have a long, long ways to go.

Fifty years later, we see the truth of King’s words. Through our own soul searchings and moments of agony, we are reluctantly embracing our own solid realism. When paired with a love for the things of God, this solid realism makes us, more or less, permanently maladjusted people. Depression, anxiety, anger and all manner of other unpleasant emotions become for us symptoms not only of our own mental distress but also of the distress of our world; not exactly things to be fought but rather kindly attended to.

King would tell his student audience at SMU,

And through such maladjustment, we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.

That was in March of 1966. One can sense much of King’s irrepressible hopefulness, maybe even optimism. He was calling another generation into the fight. Those students are now in their 70s and 80s. They did not see this daybreak realized.

And we won’t either. Not entirely. But it is ours to be creatively maladjusted to our world: to be part of that invisible international society for the advancement of maladjustment, even as we welcome the “bright and glittering daybreak” from afar.

Thus, on April 3 of 1968, one day before his death, King would tell an auditorium of people in Memphis,

Well I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter to me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.

So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything! I’m not not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord!

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