The Shot Felt Around the World and the Love That Transforms It

by Rev. Aaron Payson

“…the gospel deals with the whole man, not only his soul but his body; not only his spiritual well-being but his material well-being. It has been my conviction ever since reading Rauschenbusch that any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the social and economic conditions that scar the soul, is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried. It well has been said: ‘A religion that ends with the individual, ends.’” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., My Pilgrimage to Non-Violence (1958) – continued below.


Fifty years ago today “a shot rang out in the Memphis sky” that reverberates still around the world. On this day, the mortal life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s was ended, like so many before him and far too many since, with a gunshot.  This event, in light of the continuing pandemic of gun violence in this country, especially as it relates to the devastation of communities of color (a fact is all too often made invisible by the white supremacy that continues to control the corporate interests of our media and politics) has helped to shape the social consciousness of generations since.  On the anniversary of his death, we pause to remember him through his own words and witness.  May we not only remember this moment in history; may we be moved, as so many have been, to recreate our communities and world. – Aaron


“Then I was introduced to the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.  As I read his works I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance.  The whole Gandhian concept of satyagraha (satya is truth which equals love and graha is force; satyagraha thus means truth-force or love-force) was profoundly significant to me.  As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my sceptiscism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time that the Christian doctrine of love, operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence, is one of the most potent weapons available to an oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.  At that time, however, I acquired only an intellectual understanding and appreciation of the position, and I had no firm determination to organize it in a socially effective situation.

When I was in Montgomery, Alabama, as a pastor in 1954, I had not the slightest idea that I would later become involved in a crisis in which nonviolent resistance would be applicable.  After I had lived in the community about a year, the bus boycott began.  The Negro people of Montgomery, exhausted by the humiliating experiences that they had constantly faced on the buses, expressed in a massive act of noncooperation their determination to be free.  They came to see that it was ultimately more honorable to walk the streets in dignity than to ride the buses in humiliation.  At the beginning of the protest, the people called on me to serve as their spokesman.  In accepting this responsibility, my mind, consciously or unconsciously, was driven back to the Sermon on the Mount and the Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance.  This principle became the guiding light of our movement.  Christ furnished the spirit and motivation and Gandhi furnished the method.

The experience in Montgomery did more to clarify my thinking in regard to the question of nonviolence than all of the books that I had read.  As the days unfolded, I became more and more convinced of the power of nonviolence.  Nonviolence became more than a method to which I gave intellectual assent; it became a commitment to a way of life.  Many issues I had not cleared up intellectually concerning nonviolence were not resolved within the sphere of practical action.

My privilege of traveling to India had a great impact on me personally, for it was invigorating to see firsthand the amazing results of a nonviolent struggle to achieve independence.  The aftermath of hatred and bitterness that usually follows a violent campaign was found nowhere in India, and a mutual friendship, based on complete equality, existed between the Indian and British people within the Commonwealth.

I would not wish to give the impression that nonviolence will accomplish miracles overnight.  Men are not easily moved from their mental ruts or purged of their prejudiced and irrational feelings.  When the underprivileged demand freedom, the privileged at first react with bitterness and resistance.  Even when the demands are couched in nonviolent terms, the initial response is substantially the same.  I am sure that many of our white brothers in Montgomery and throughout the South are still bitter toward the Negro leaders, even though these leaders have sought to follow a way of love and nonviolence.  But the nonviolent approach does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it.  It gives them new self-respect.  It calls up resources of strength and courage that they did not know they had.  Finally, it so stirs the conscience of the opponent that reconciliation becomes a reality.”