Forty-two years ago today Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
One can scarcely be alive without recognizing his immeasurable legacy as the leader of the 20th-Century Civil Rights Movement in the United States. He spoke with more passion and eloquence than anyone on matters of segregation, inequality, voting rights and (increasingly in his later years) the issue of poverty and economic justice.
What is somewhat less known is that King had a great deal to say to psychologists regarding their role in the Civil Rights Movement. Just 7 months before his death he addressed the American Psychological Association’s annual convention.
In particular, he engaged the concept of maladjustment. While the word itself has fallen largely out of favor since he gave this speech in 1967, the mission of treating and repairing maladjustment is still central to the work of psychologists (and psychotherapists–who practices psychotherapy has changed a bit since 1967 as well).
What he raises, beautifully as always, is the question of whether or not it is good to promote adjustment to those products of an unjust society that have made us collectively ill.
This is my favorite part of the speech:
There are certain technical words in every academic discipline which soon become stereotypes and even clichés. Every academic discipline has its technical nomenclature. You who are in the field of psychology have given us a great word. It is the word maladjusted. This word is probably used more than any other word in psychology. It is a good word; certainly it is good that in dealing with what the word implies you are declaring that destructive maladjustment should be destroyed. You are saying that all must seek the well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities.
But on the other hand, I am sure that we will recognize that there are some things in our society, some things in our world, to which we should never be adjusted. There are some things concerning which we must always be maladjusted if we are to be people of good will. We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation. We must never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry. We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. We must never adjust ourselves to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence.
While the last 42 years have seen much progress, I believe that King’s challenge to psychologists (and to all of us) is every bit as relevant today.
People come to me for therapy from all walks of life: many (far too many) have been victims of childhood abuse or neglect; others have experienced the pain of intense poverty. All have lived in a world that, in spite of our progress, is profoundly unjust. None of them have had an easy time living with this injustice.
The question of how to help is methodological (and particular to each patient) to be sure. But it’s also a moral question, and one which, in my practice, is deeply informed by King’s challenge. Psychology is ripe with tools for promoting adjustment. While I recognize the profound demand for helping patients get along better in the world, I question the dominance within the field of psychology on adjustment–it appears that psychology, as a whole, has too quickly dismissed King’s words. We must raise and re-raise with one another, and with our patients, the question of what constitutes sanity in a deeply troubled world.
Here’s a clip from a speech King gave four years earlier where he speaks of his pride in being maladjusted (the date on the clip is actually incorrect):
King’s proclamation in favor of maladjustment is a beautiful starting point for engaging this critical question.
It is every April 4th that I’m reminded that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a mere 39 years old when he passed. It’s hard not wonder what sort of world we’d be living in had he had the opportunity to continue his work into old age. At the same time, he was deeply prolific, and much of what he had to say warrants a second look by psychologists and psychotherapists–we still have a great deal to learn from what he said to us 42 year ago.
You can check out the full text of Martin Luther King, Jr’s speech address to the American Psychological Association convention in 1967 here.