Lessons on Love from Martin Luther King Jr.: A psychologist’s dream

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

On January 21st, the “Peace Prophet” and Civil Rights Champion would be 90, a good time to reflect on his eternal contributions to our lives.  To my delight, not only are we indebted to his civil rights activism but to his lessons about love. 

King graduated in 1948 at the age of 19 from Morehouse College with a B.A. degree in sociology and then went on to much theological study, but in fact, some of his sermons make him a psychologist’s dream. Like his “Levels of Love.”

The Levels of Love

“Love is the greatest power in all the world.”

When you think of the brilliant sermons of Martin Luther King, surely “I Have a Dream” and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” come to mind.  Less talked about, but certainly powerful, were his words about love.  As a psychologist, I resonate greatly with his “Levels of Love” sermon series. The wisdom fits perfectly with psychological principles.  Several others make him a psychologist’s dream. 

King did a sermon series on love at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.  He wanted to do so because love is certainly most sought after but also misunderstood. 

His series included preaching on “Loving Your Enemies” and “Love in Action,” based on the prayer of Jesus Christ on the cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

His “Levels of Love” sermon on September 16, 1962, describes six levels, from the lowest to the highest.

1. Utilitarian love.  

“Here one loves another for his usefulness to him. The individual loves that person that he can use…There are some people who never get beyond the level of utilitarian love. They see other people as mere steps by which they can climb to their personal ends and ambitions, and the minute they discover that they can’t use those persons they disassociate themselves, they lose this affection that they once had for them.”

This type of love is the lowest form according to King. He warned that it’s selfish and conditional, being based on what someone can do for you.

Refuse to use others or to be used.  Instead, strive for the opposite.  Instead of depersonalizing someone as an “it,” King urged, attain the “I-Thou” relationship described by Jewish philosopher Martin Buber where equals are honored and respected.

2. Romantic love.  

“There is something beautiful about romantic love. When it reaches its height, there is nothing more beautiful in all the world. A romantic love rises above utilitarian love in the sense that it does have a degree of altruism, for a person who really loves with romantic love will die for the object of his love. A person who is really engaged in true romantic love will do anything to satisfy the object of that love, the great love.”

King considered romantic love as real love, where you would go to extremes and even die for your loved one like in the classic love stories of Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra, and Tristan and Isolde.

In King’s allusions to Greek words for love, this type of love is eros. But, King warns, this love is also selfish, because it is based on how the person attracts you – their looks or intellect – and can also lead to jealousy.

I note that psychologist Dorothy Tennov coined the term “limerence” in her 1979 book, Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love, describing the infatuated thrill of falling in love and becoming dizzy, love-sick, and deeply obsessed with a love object. When it ends, the lover feels the world has come to an end.

Psychologist Robert Sternberg’s triangular Theory of Love posed three components: intimacy, passion and commitment.

In my “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to A Healthy Relationship,” I explain essential dimensions, including self-love, compatibility, cooperation, communication, commitment, romance, and spiritual love. Keeping the romance alive is crucial to a long-lasting relationship.  It’s the most common question people asked me in my years as a radio advice host, “How do we keep the love life alive?”

3.  Mother’s love.

“Oh, when life presents it in its beauty, it gives us something that we never forget, for there is nothing more beautiful than the loving care, the tender concern, and the patience of a real mother.”

Mother’s love brings sunshine into dark places. No matter how low the child sinks, if it’s a real mother, she still loves him.”

But even this love has a degree of selfishness, King said, in the act of adoring one’s own child as the product of oneself.

Developmental psychology describes many stages of the mother-child bond, starting from symbiotic attachment when the child is fully dependent on mother, to the “separation-individuation” phase, popularly known as the “terrible twos”, where the child starts pulling away from mother, to define one’s independence and self.  Attachment theory proposes that needs for closeness or separation continue to be negotiated throughout life.

A mother’s unconditional affection without limits or expectations is considered in psychology as the healthiest basis for later successful adult relationships. King describes this quality of unconditional love later, as the highest state of love.

4.  Friendship. 

“It moves a little higher, not because the love itself is deeper, not because the person who is participating in the love is any more genuine of concern, but because its scope is broader, because it is more inclusive…

In romantic love, the individuals in love sit face to face absorbed in each other. In friendship, the individuals sit side by side absorbed in some great concern and some great cause and some great issue beyond themselves, something they like to do together. It may be hunting. It may be going and swimming together. It may be discussing great ideas together. It may be in a great movement of freedom together. Friendship is beautiful.”

True friends united in common interest rise above the jealousy and absorption in each other of romantic love, King claimed. But while appreciating this type of love, the Greek philio, even it is selfish and limiting, being based on liking someone.

5. Humanitarian love.

“It gets a little higher because it gets a little broad and more inclusive. The individual rises to the point that he loves humanity. And he rises to the point of saying that within every man there is a divine spark. He rises to the point of saying that within every man there is something sacred and so all humanity must be loved.”

But danger lies here too, says King, in the fact this love is an abstraction, and excludes any one person.  To support his point, he quotes the Russian novelist Dostoyevsky, that “I love humanity in general so much that I don’t love anybody in particular.”

6. Unconditional love.

“The person may be ugly, or the person may be beautiful. The person may be tall, or the person may be short. The person may be light, or the person may be dark. The person may be rich, or the person may be poor. The person may be up and in; the person may be down and out. The person may be white; the person may be black. The person may be Jew; the person may be Gentile. The person may be Catholic; the person may be Protestant. In other words, you come to the point of loving every man and become an all-inclusive love. It is the love of God operating in the human heart. And it comes to the point that you even love the enemy.”

The highest level of love King claims is Christian love (he refers to as the Greek term agape), the love of God that is most inclusive of everyone.  In this state, love conquers hate.

King’s concept is akin to the psychological principle of “unconditional positive regard” popularized by humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers as the best foundation for relationships and in counseling, characterized by genuineness, authenticity, openness, acceptance, empathy and approval. 

 “Christian love does something that no other love can do. It says that you love every man. You hate the deed that he does if he’s your enemy and he’s evil, but you love the person who does the evil deed.”

According to psychological theory and practice, this principle King describes is the best way to raise a child, or to reprimand anyone. You always love the child, but can disapprove of a behavior.  Never criticize the child by naming a quality, saying, “You are lazy” but rather specify the action that is unacceptable troublesome, saying, “When you don’t do your homework, it shows laziness,” and add what would be better.

Love Yourself and Others

Another speech of King’s –my favorite – speaks eloquently to love of self and others. In the “Street Sweeper,” the message aligns with what I have been telling people, especially youngsters, for years in my role as a life and relationships advisor in media and for worldwide audiences. 

” If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven played 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.”

He elaborated.

“Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better. If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley but be the best little shrub on the side of the hill. Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.”

Go for excellence in whatever you do. Whatever your supposed social status, value and respect yourself and your work at the highest level and for the highest good.  In surveys, over eight out of ten Americans dread their work and wait for retirement. Instead, find joy in every action and live each day to the fullest.

Also, help others also be their best, especially those who serve. Compliment your mailman, store clerk, and bus driver as if they too were Michelangelo, Beethoven or Shakespeare.

King delivered the Street Sweeper sermon in a Baptist Church in Chicago on April 9, 1967.  He gave the same message to a group of students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia on October 26 of the same year, six months before he was assassinated. He implored them to be their best, and also to stay in school.

He used the parable of the street sweeper to stimulate the youngsters to answer the question: “What is your life’s blueprint?” Your life’s blueprint is your life plan, like an architect designs a building. 

King’s life blueprint to fight against racism was first triggered when he was six years old.  A three-year friendship with a white playmate ended when they entered segregated schools and the boy’s father demanded they not play together anymore. Greatly shocked and asking his parents for an explanation, King learned about racism, and, in his own account, “from that moment on, I was determined to hate every white person. As I grew older and older this feeling continued to grow.”

His blueprint later morphed into an urge to serve humanity. King enrolled into a theological seminary and became a pastor at a Baptist Church. He even got romantically involved with a white woman (before marrying Coretta Scott) but broke it off to prevent interracial tensions.  His leading role in the famous Rosa Parks bus boycott lifted him into a national figure as a civil rights hero.  Guided by his faith, he was striving for the inclusiveness of human rights he valued.

In this way, he can be seen to have reached the highest level of love he described. 

In this way, King reminds us that love is the greatest force in all the world.


BIO: Dr. Judy Kuriansky is a noted international clinical psychologist on the faculty of Columbia University Teachers College. At the United Nations, she is a main NGO representative of the International Association of Applied Psychology  and the World Council for Psychotherapy, and advisor to the Group of Friends of Mental Health and Well-being of UN Member States, led by Canada, Belgium and Bahrain, who partnered with  the Ambassador of Palau to the UN, Dr. Caleb Otto in the successful intergovernmental campaign to include mental health and well-being in the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. She moderates and speaks at many UN events, e.g., for Commissions on the Status of Women and the Commission for Social Development, the World Day of Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, and WHO World Health Day, and is a member of the Committee on Migration and others. A trustee of the United African Congress and board member of Voices of African Mothers, she has hosted a U.S.-Africa Business Expo and the First Ladies of Africa Health Summit;spoken at the Africa Diaspora Investment Forum in September 2018; co-developed a Girls Empowerment Camp in Lesotho; and provided psychosocial support in missions worldwide, including in Sierra Leone during and after Ebola, in China during SARS as well as in China, Japan, Sri Lanka, Haiti, Iran, and Sint Maarten after natural disasters, and for Syrian refugees in Jordan. Her Global Kids Connect Project and Stand Up for Peace Project does trainings, symposia, and concerts worldwide. An award-winning journalist, reporter and producer on TV, radio, print and the internet, she has been a columnist for the Singapore Straits Times, the South China Morning Post and New York Newsday; hosted a top-rated radio advice show; and hosted the “Money and Emotions” television show on CNBC-TV. Her many awards include the Humanitarian Award for Lifetime Achievement in Global Peace and Tolerance. 


“The Psychosocial Issues of a Deadly Epidemic: What Ebola has Taught us about Holistic Healing”

“Beyond Bullets and Bombs: Grassroots Peacebuilding between Israelis and Palestinians”

“The Complete Idiots Guide to A Healthy Relationsip”

“Ecospychology: The Intersection of Psychology and Enviromnetal Protection


Reach her at [email protected]




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