Mr Turner and Martin Luther King: Framing Visions of Social Justice

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of one of the key moments of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights leadership—an event that’s the subject of the film “Selma”, which is up for an Academy Award next weekend. Hardly anyone will note the connection between King and the subject of another biographical picture among the nominees, “Mr Turner.” But it’s a fascinating link which reveals a sadly obscured, yet most important, influence on King’s quest for social justice. It also reminds us of the powerful historical influence of pictures—and not just the moving kind but paintings.


JMW Turner, “The Slave Ship,” 1840. Oil on canvas, 36″ x 48″. (Originally entitled “Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhon coming on”.) Click image to view large.

The civil rights movement in America, which had no greater leader than King, is rooted in the undying spirit of African American slaves who endured and struggled to overcome slavery’s unfathomable inhumanity. It’s also rooted in the work of abolitionists moved by the cruelty of that institution. In 1840, JMW Turner painted “The Slave Ship” in support of the abolitionists’ campaign against the international slave trade. The painting’s based on a real incident involving ship owners throwing slaves overboard in a storm in order to make an insurance claim for the loss. Turner’s last words were, “The sun is God,” and at the center of this painting, the sun is casting its judgement on the great injustice of the slave trade.

It’s an image that particularly captivated a young John Ruskin (whose father bought the painting for him) and, according to Ruskin scholar Clive Wilmer*, was a key early inspiration leading the art critic to later become one of the greatest modern social reformers. Ruskin soon began to think about art as labor, and the fine arts as fundamentally akin to, not separate from, all human labor. As he saw it, the demise of art was simply part of the degradation and denigration of manual work in the modern, especially the industrial, era. With “The Nature of Gothic” of 1853 and especially with his publication, in 1860, of Unto This Last, Ruskin’s scathing protest against the injustices of industrial labor conditions and laissez-faire economics caught the attention of the industrialized world. Ruskin considered the book his most important, and its apparent failure to bring about immediate social change was a large factor in its author’s growing sense in his later years that his life’s work had been futile.

Despite his enormous fame in his day, Ruskin’s true character and contribution has, indeed, been to a large extent unfairly buried by history. His depiction in the film “Mr Turner” reflects this sad fate, being pretty insulting to Ruskin, as the New York Times and The Guardian rightly pointed out.

But the memory and influence of true prophets endures. And one person whom Ruskin deeply affected was a young Indian lawyer living in South Africa. In a chapter in his autobiography called “The Magic Spell of a Book,” Mahatma Gandhi described how a friend seeing him off at a train station handed him a copy of Unto This Last. “The book was impossible to lay aside, once I had begun it,” he wrote. “It gripped me… I could not get any sleep that night. I determined to change my life in accordance with the ideals of the book.” Of the books he’d read in his life, he went on, it was this “one that brought about an instantaneous and practical transformation in my life... I translated it later into Gujarati, entitling it Sarvodaya (the welfare of all). I believe that I discovered some of my deepest convictions reflected in this great book of Ruskin, and that is why it so captured me and made me transform my life.”

Gandhi found three key teachings in Ruskin, which were, as he described them:

1. That the good of the individual is contained in the good of all.
2. That a lawyer’s work has the same value as the barber’s inasmuch as all have the same right of earning their livehood from their work.
3. That a life of labour, i.e., the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman, is the life worth living.
The first of these I knew. The second I had dimly realized. The third had never occured to me. Unto This Last made it as clear as daylight for me that the second and the third were contained in the first. I arose with the dawn, ready to reduce these principles to practice.

As many people know, Martin Luther King was deeply influenced by Gandhi, calling him “one of the half-dozen greatest men in world history.” “If humanity is to progress,” he wrote, “Gandhi is inescapable. He lived, thought, and acted, inspired by the vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony.” In an article for Ebony Magazine in 1959, he wrote, “While the Montgomery boycott was going on, India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of non-violent social change. We spoke of him often.” And when the boycott was over, King went to “the land of Gandhi” and reported that “The trip had a great impact upon me personally.”

What’s widely understood is that King took from Gandhi his teachings on non-violence and civil disobedience (traced in turn to Hinduism, but indirectly so, curiously, through Henry David Thoreau). But these were strategies in the struggle, not the goal and aim of the struggle, which was social justice. And for this larger vision as well, no less than tactics of non-violence, King found in Gandhi powerful inspiration and wisdom. (In terms of how Ruskin’s thinking helped shape King’s, as much might be said for Walter Rauschenbusch. King biographer Stephen B. Oates emphasizes how King, as a seminary student, discovered Rauschenbusch’s writing and picked up from him late nineteenth century Social Gospel teaching. Ruskin, and especially Unto This Last, according to Donovan Smucker’s Origins of Walter Rauschenbusch’s Social Ethics, was a primary influence on Rauschenbusch.) King read Gandhi’s translation—translated back again into English—of Unto This Last, the  title of which refers to Jesus’s parable of the vineyard-keeper paying all his workers what we’d call a living wage; and we hear King invoking, in his stirring speech in Memphis during the sanitation workers’ strike of 1968, the same Biblical principles of economic justice toward all workers:

[W]henever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.

Not enough people appreciate the emphasis King came to place on economic justice as well as racial justice. “[I]t is a crime,” he declared, “for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.” King identified the basis for the degradation of blacks in their degradation as laborers, but even more fundamentally, in the degradation of manual labor itself. The theme, in King’s message, of the dignity and nobility of manual work is frequently overlooked. But it’s extremely important and underpins his teachings. It’s also directly attributable to King’s reading of Gandhi (and Rauschenbusch), and in turn to Gandhi’s reading of Ruskin. Even before Unto This Last, in his introduction to The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Ruskin was finding the basis of true art in its expressive possibilities, rooted in the inherent nobility of all work. “However mean or inconsiderable the act, there is something in the well doing of it, which has fellowship with the noblest forms of manly virtue,” he wrote. “There is no action so slight, nor so mean, but it may be done to a great purpose, and ennobled therefore…that chief of all purposes, the pleasing of God.” Similarly, King preached that “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” A poem (by George Herbert) quoted by Ruskin would be echoed by King more than a century later in a Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine;
Who sweeps a room as for thy laws,
Makes that and the action fine.

In his sermon, King said that

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.

He told of “a fellow…that used to shine my shoes, and it was just an experience to witness this fellow shining my shoes. He would get that rag, you know, and he could bring music out of it. And I said to myself, “This fellow has a Ph.D. in shoe shining.”

Even larger themes in King’s message appear reminiscent of Ruskin. In “Stride Toward Freedom,” King echoed Ruskin’s repudiation, in Unto This Last, of “the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill”. He wrote,

Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. Love for Gandhi was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation. It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking…

But Gandhi’s idea “to lift the love ethic…to a powerful and effective social force” might be traced to the very first sentence of Unto This Last:

Among the delusions which at different periods have possessed themselves of the minds of large masses of the human race, perhaps the most curious—certainly the least creditable—is the modern soi-disant [so-called] science of political economy, based on the idea that an advantageous code of social action may be determined irrespectively of the influence of social affection.

At the heart of Ruskin’s critique of classical economics was his denouncement of its proposition that narrow economic self-interest could ever serve as a governing principle of human societies instead of the eternal moral principle of charity. Living in a racially homogenous society, Ruskin naturally had little to say about race. He did, however, have a great deal to say about the terrible abuses occurring between groups living in the same society but harshly separated and exploited—in his case, the rigidly defined social classes of Victorian England—and strived as few of his contemporaries did to mend the social fabric and gain justice for Britain’s working class. If British workers were not slaves as blacks in America were, they were nonetheless treated as commodities. Ruskin identified “things which are not, and which it is criminal to consider as, personal or exchangeable property. Bodies of men, land, water, and air, are the principal of these things.” Late in his life he founded the Guild of St George, devoted to slaying the dragon he identified as “the Lord of Decomposition”—the destroyer of the bonds of social affection and the rule of cooperation and charity. The Guild was a utopian dream, but one shaped by an admirable faith and reading of the Gospel that rejected heaven as a matter of afterlife and insisted on the promise of a just and happy society and life here on earth. In the final chapter of his five volume Modern Painters, which he’d undertaken as a defense of Turner against an art establishment that had spurned the painter, Ruskin wrote that in the Lord’s Prayer, “there is not anything about going to another world; only something of another government coming into this; or rather, not another, but the only government,—that government which will constitute it a world indeed.” “[T]he Kingdom of God means,” Ruskin wrote in the preface to a late edition of Sesame and Lilies,

not meat and drink, but justice, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost… [S]uch joy is not by any means, necessarily, in going to church, or in singing hymns; but may be joy in a dance, or joy in a jest, or joy in anything you have deserved to possess, or that you are willing to give; but joy in nothing that separates you, as by any strange favour, from your fellow-creatures, that exalts you through their degradation—exempts you from their toil—or indulges you in time of their distress.

This warning, which pervades Ruskin’s thought, against social insularity and separation is the same ethical understanding that objected to segregation in the American South. It’s the same stirring vision punctuating and climaxing one of the very greatest speeches in American history—King’s “I Have a Dream” speech—calling on the world to

speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, 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!

But more, it’s the same embrace of a just and charitable society not in the ever-after but the here and now that led King to refuse to be patient for the fulfilling of his dream. And if Turner had offered an image of profound despair and injustice, then the end of the slave trade, the emancipation of the enslaved, and the achievements of the civil rights movement had elevated King to heights impossible for Turner to imagine—heights from which a vision of profound hope and justice obtainable in this world and in the not-too-distant future, could, even now, be seen. In the famous “Mountaintop” speech he gave the night before his assassination, God has, he said, “allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. 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.”

King would not be the King we know but for Gandhi, and Gandhi would not be the Gandhi we know but for Ruskin. For both Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., John Ruskin was a singular teacher, upholding for the world the ideal of love as a guiding principle and light, the lamp of social justice they would follow. It’s a light lit in no small part by Mr Turner’s witness against the slave trade—the sun burning down in fierce judgment upon the masters of “The Slave Ship.”

*Introduction to Clive Wilmer, John Ruskin: Unto This Last and Other Writings (Penguin Classics, 1985)

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