Over the weekend, I grabbed from my bookshelf A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., and literally dusted it off. I flipped through it looking for something profound with which to pay tribute to the day. There was so much eloquence to choose from, so many familiar, but nevertheless timeless speeches and essays defending the morality of non-violence and demanding racial justice, social justice and human rights. As I leafed through the book, I kept returning -- as Dr. King did -- to the theme of embracing "maladjustment;" refusing to be comfortable in an unjust world and insisting on action to achieve a better one.
In the summer of 1957, King addressed students at UC Berkeley, where he spoke of being maladjusted:
Now we all should seek to live a well adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But there are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon you to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to mob rule. I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic effects of the methods of physical violence and to tragic militarism. I call upon you to be maladjusted to such things. . . . God grant that we will be so maladjusted that we will be able to go out and change the world and our civilization. And then we will be able to move from the bleak and desolate midnight of man's inhumanity to man to the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.Dr. King reiterated this theme in 1958, in an article he wrote for a Christian publication. The article criticizes churches for failing to be more vocal in denouncing racism. He stated "it may well be that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition is not the flaring noisiness of the so-called bad people, but the appalling silence of the so-called good people . . . . What we need is a restless determination to make the ideal of brotherhood a reality in this nation and all over the world." King then reprised the notion of being maladjusted, almost verbatim from the speech he gave in Berkeley.
And then, in 1961, Martin Luther King gave the commencement address at Lincoln University, in which he talked about "The American Dream," "a dream where men of all races, of all nationalities and of all creeds can live together as brothers." (I'm sure he meant sisters too.) King urged the students to "not be detached spectators, but involved participants, in this great drama that is taking place in our nation and around the world." He concluded this remarkable speech with many of the same words on being maladjusted that he used earlier:
Every academic discipline has its technical nomenclature, and modern psychology has a word that is used, probably more than any other. It is the word maladjusted. This word is the ringing cry of modern child psychology. Certainly all of us want to live a well-adjusted life in order to avoid the neurotic personality. But I say to you, there are certain things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted.
If you will allow the preacher in me to come out now, let me say to you that I never did intend to adjust to the evils of segregation and discrimination. I never did intend to adjust myself to religious bigotry. I never did intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never did intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence. And I call upon all men of good will to be maladjusted because it may well be that the salvation of our world lies in the hands of the maladjusted.
So let us be maladjusted as the prophet Amos, who in the midst of the injustices of his day could cry out in words that echo across centuries, "Let justice run down like waters and righteousness like a might stream." Let us be as maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln, who had the vision to see that this nation could not exist half slave and half free. Let us be as maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth, who could look into the eyes of the men and women of his generation and cry out, "Love your enemies. Blequss them that curse you. Pray for them that despitefully use you."
I believe that it is through such maladjustment that 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 will be the day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last."