U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“Survival of the Slickest”: “A Knock at Midnight” and Martin Luther King, Jr’s Early 1960s

Today’s MLK speech is another sermon. This time, it’s 1962 and Dr. King is giving a sermon installing his friend and right-hand man, Ralph Abernathy, as pastor at West Hunter Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. King’s sermon is another excellent example of his worldview. He speaks not only to America’s color line problem, but to the Cold War and what he saw as a morally corrupt society in the United States. The sermon is one of King’s most important addresses because it reminds us, once again, that he was already putting the Civil Rights Movement in context of world affairs. “A Knock at Midnight” also reminds us that King favored a version of religion in the public sphere that, in light of recent reflection about the life and legacy of Billy Graham, is important to think about today.

King argued that the United States was “poisoning the atmosphere with the continuation of racial prejudice,” comparing it to the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere in the early 1960s. Again, for King and other civil rights activists, the threat of a Cold War turned hot was never far from their minds. Nor—and this is probably more important—was their knowledge that the federal government (in this case the Kennedy administration) did not want the embarrassment of Jim Crow segregation bringing down America’s position on the world stage in a confrontation with the Soviets.

The imagery of midnight permeates the sermon. For King, it was midnight for the world due to the nuclear arms race. But it was also midnight in America due to many Americans grappling with “crippling anxieties and paralyzing fears.” The fact that it seemed, to King, that so many people struggled to deal with the realities of modern (1960s) society was proof to him that it was “midnight in the psychological order” as well. It was, too, midnight in the moral order as well—moral relativism is a theme King hammers time and again in the speech, railing against utilizing polling to figure out what people supported and, by extension, what was “right” to do.

This is where his “survival of the slickest” line comes in. It was a critique of a moral falling he saw across American society, beyond but especially including the problem of Jim Crow segregation. This view of society informs his concerns about poverty that would be more forcefully argued in 1967-68. King argues that the church can be the “knock at midnight”—the social and moral force that can be heard in even the darkest of moments.

However, King points out that the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa had been complicit in the rise of Apartheid there. People there asked for help to achieve justice, but in King’s estimation, the Dutch church in South Africa simply said, “Leave me alone. I’m busy with my creeds; I’m busy with my worship of God. Leave me alone.” Of course, he doesn’t simply leave his critique of the church to South Africa—it is in this sermon that he calls Sunday church service “the most segregated hour of Christian America.” Again, King keeps up his critique of the church, ultimately indicting the African American church for not doing enough to be socially active.

In a sermon like this, we see King at his rhetorical best—not content to simply talk about the racism of the church in South Africa or the United States but critiquing the church closest to his own experience. He criticizes both the atheism of the Soviet Union and the complacency of religious life in America. We see in “A Knock at Midnight” King grasping with so many key issues that he and the movement, not to mention America as a whole, would have to face in the last six years of his life.