Martin Luther King, Jr.: Sometimes to Move Forward, We Have to Go Backward


On February 28, 1954, Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) boldly declared to the congregation at the Second Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan:

“There is something wrong with our world, something fundamentally and basically wrong. I don’t think we have to look too far to see that. I’m sure that most of you would agree with me in making that assertion. And when we stop to analyze the cause of our world’s ills, many things come to mind.”

Nearly 65 years later, in a world remarkably different from the one in which King lived, these words still resonate with a chilling potency. 

Faced with a whole new set of challenges, ushered in by a global economy, technological revolution, and unprecedented political landscape, questions abound with a desperate urgency as to how we can solve our world’s ills – and how it is we became so ill in the first place.

Yet, for all the theories and postulations being bandied about, few seem to have unmasked the essence of our plight with the profundity that King put forth in his own time, in a sermon entitled “Rediscovering Lost Values” (as transcribed in A Knock at Midnight, 1998).

MLK quotes about God

We must start by looking within:

“If we are to really find [the real cause of man’s problems and the real cause of the world’s ills today] I think we will have to look in the hearts and souls of men.

Problem is with the men. Within the heart and the souls of men. That is the real basis of our problem.”

And by assessing the progress we have made…not intellectually, but morally and spiritually:

“The trouble isn’t so much that we don’t know enough, but it’s as if we aren’t good enough. The trouble isn’t so much that our scientific genius lags behind, but our moral genius lags behind. The great problem facing modern man is that the means by which we live have outdistanced the spiritual ends for which we live. So we find ourselves caught up in a messed-up world. The problem is with man himself and man’s soul. We haven’t learned to be just and honest and kind and true and loving. And that is the basis of our problem.”

In other words:

“My friends, all I’m trying to say is that if we are to go forward today, we’ve got to go back and rediscover some mighty precious values that we’ve left behind. That’s the only way that we would be able to make of our world a better world,and to make of this world what God wants it to be and the real purpose and meaning of it.”

Which values?

Simply put, (1) that “all reality hinges on moral foundations” and (2) that “all reality has spiritual control.”

Martin Luther King sermons

(1) Just as there are physical laws that govern the universe, so there are moral laws:

“…this is a moral universe, and…there are moral laws of the universe just as abiding as the physical laws. I’m not so sure we all believe that. We never doubt that there are physical laws of the universe that we must obey. We never doubt that. And so we just don’t jump out of airplanes or jump off of high buildings for the fun of it – we don’t do that. Because we unconsciously know that there is a final law of gravitation, and if you disobey it you will suffer the consequences – we know that.


I’m not so sure if we know that there are moral laws just as abiding as the physical law. I’m not so sure if we really believe that there is a law of love in this universe, and that if you disobey it you’ll suffer the consequences.”

The problem is compounded by our adoption of a “relativistic ethic”:

“But I’m here to tell you this morning that some things are right and some things are wrong. Eternally so, absolutely so. It is wrong to hate. It always has been wrong and it always will be wrong. It’s wrong in America, it’s wrong in Germany, it’s wrong in Russia, it’s wrong in China…[s]ome things are right and somethings are wrong, no matter if everybody is doing the contrary. Some things in this universe are absolute. The God of the universe has made it so. And so long as we adopt this relative attitude toward right and wrong, we’re revolting against the very laws of God himself.”

And a wrong attitude:

“If you don’t get caught, it’s right. That’s the attitude, isn’t it? It’s all right to disobey the Ten Commandments, but just don’t disobey the eleventh, ‘Thou shall not get caught.’ …That’s the prevailing attitude in our culture. No matter what you do, just do it with a bit of finesse. You know, a sort of attitude of the survival of the slickest. Not the Darwinian survival of the fittest, but the survival of the slickest – whoever can be the slickest is the one who [is] right. It’s all right to lie, but lie with dignity. It’s all right to steal and to rob and extort, but do it with a bit of finesse. It’s even all right to hate, but just dress your hate up in the garments of love and make it appear that you are loving when you are actually hating…That’s the thing that’s right according to this new ethic.”

This mindset ultimately contradicts the moral foundations established by God:

“All I’m trying to say to you is that our world hinges on moral foundations. God has made it so. God has made the universe to be based on a moral law. So long as man disobeys it he is revolting against God.” 

So, here’s what we need:

“That’s what we need in the world today: people who will stand for right and goodness. It’s not enough to know the intricacies of zoology and biology, but we must know the intricacies of law. It is not enough to know that two and two makes four, but we’ve got to know somehow that it’s right to be honest and just with our brothers. It’s not enough to know all about philosophical and mathematical disciplines, but we’ve got to know the simple disciplines of being honest and loving and just with all humanity. If we don’t learn it, we will destroy our ourselves by the misuse of our own powers.”

MLK quotes

(2) God is the ultimate orchestrator of the universe:

“In other words, we’ve got to go back and rediscover the principle that there is a God behind the process…[w]e must remember that it’s possible to affirm the existence of God with your lips and deny his existence with your life. The most dangerous type of atheism is not theoretical atheism but practical atheism –that’s the most dangerous type. And the world, even the church, is filled up with people who pay lip service to God and not life service. And there is always a danger that we will make it appear externally that we believe in God when internally we don’t. We say with our mouths that we believe in him, but we live with our lives like he never existed. That is the ever-present danger confronting religion. That’s a dangerous type of atheism.”

And materialism, money and worldly success can never become substitutes for God:

“We just became so involved in things that we forgot about God…in a nation as ours where we stress mass production, and that’s mighty important, where we have so many conveniences and luxuries and all of that, there is the danger that we will unconsciously forget about God. I’m not saying that these things aren’t important; we need them, we need cars, we need money; all of that’s important to live. But whenever they become substitutes for God, they become injurious.

And may I say to you this morning that none of these things can ever be real substitutes for God. Automobiles and subways, televisions and radios, dollars and cents can never be substitutes for God. For long before any of these came into existence, we needed God. And long after they will have passed away, we will still need God.”

Because God is Mighty:

He is…the “God who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death”, the “God who threw up the stars to bedeck the heavens like swinging lanterns of eternity”, and “the God who threw up the gigantic mountains, kissing the sky, as if to bathe their peaks in the lofty blues.”

And exists outside of time and space:

“Storms might come and go. Our great sky scraping buildings will come and go. Our beautiful automobiles will come and go, but God will be here. Plants may wither, the flowers may fade a way, but the word of our God shall stand forever and nothing can ever stop him….The God that I’m talking about this morning is the God of the universe and the God that will last through all the ages. If we are to go forward this morning, we’ve got to go back and find that God. That is the God that demands and commands our ultimate allegiance.”

In conclusion:

“Sometimes, you know, it’s necessary to go backward in order to go forward. That’s an analogy of life.”

MLK books

In reading/listening to “Rediscovering Lost Values“, the sermon from which these words are taken, one gets a glimpse into King’s extraordinary prescience. Apart from a few dated references, his message – namely that humanity has lost the spiritual and moral compass underpinning our reality – is one that we might do well to revisit in the unsettling world of the 21st century.

You can listen below, or read the full sermon in A Knock at Midnight (1998), a collection of King’s 11 most powerful sermons. 

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