Above: Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, 1964
Photographer = Marion S. Trikosko
Image Source = Library of Congress
Reproduction Number = LC-USZ6-1847
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (JANUARY 15, 1929-APRIL 4, 1968)
Civil Rights Leader and Martyr
A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
–Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1967
I refer you, O reader, to the following biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Martin Luther King, Jr., was a prophet; he spoke truth to power and to society when doing that was dangerous and unpopular. He was also a human being, with virtues and vices. The totality of his vices did not begin to approach the totality of his virtues. King was sufficiently threatening (despite his nonviolence) to many racists and other defenders of the status quo that he had to endure numerous false accusations and an attempt by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to blackmail him into committing suicide. (It can happen here. It has happened here.) For example, some accused King of being a Communist. He was actually neither a Communist nor a capitalist. Communism, he said, assumes falsely that people lacked souls, and capitalism misunderstands the proper value of a person also. A moral society, King argued, is person-centered, not thing-centered; human rights ought to matter more than property rights. King was actually a Christian Socialist and a man who became more radical as he aged; he was not the figure of the “I Have a Dream” Speech frozen in the amber of comfortable white historical memory. On the other hand, Malcolm X mellowed in his final years. The two moved toward each other politically as they approached death.
My reading of primary sources regarding how many people perceived King from the middle 1950s to his death in 1968 and immediately afterward has confirmed the generalization (found in many secondary historical sources) that many white people feared King and understood him to be threat to their way of life. How ironic is it then, that many people who are the political descendants of King’s opponents have embraced the King federal holiday and the naming of streets after him? He has become a non-threatening figure converted into a statue and placed on a pedestal. This reality has blunted his prophetic power in contemporary politics.
Michael Eric Dyson is correct; the non-threatening, friendly King of the federal holiday and all those roads is not the person our saint really was. For example, of one reads King’s anti-Vietnam War speech of April 4, 1967, one reads an address that cost him dearly politically during the last year of his life. One also reads a scathing critique of the bipartisan Cold War consensus in U.S. foreign policy. One also reads a timeless condemnation of militarism and institutionalized racism that is at least as potent today as it was in 1967. That King makes many people squirm in their chairs, however; they prefer to play reruns of the “I Have a Dream Speech” and feel good about agreeing with him on those points.
A prophet is preferable to a mere hero immortalized as a statue, a holiday, and a plethora of street names, I am convinced, for a prophet speaks to the present, regardless of when he spoke originally. A prophet does not let us off the hook. We ignore a prophet at our risk, but we get to pat ourselves on our backs for admiring a mere hero. Furthermore, a martyred prophet challenges us to ask ourselves for what cause we would be willing to die.
Dr. King was a prophet.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
THE FEAST OF SAMUEL JOHN STONE, ANGLICAN PRIEST AND HYMN WRITER
THE FEAST OF ARTHUR TOZER RUSSELL, ANGLICAN PRIEST AND HYMN WRITER
THE FEAST OF SAINT HILDA OF WHITBY, ROMAN CATHOLIC ABBESS
THE FEAST OF JANE ELIZA(BETH) LEESON, ENGLISH HYMN WRITER
Almighty God, by the hand of Moses your servant
you led your people out of slavery, and made them free at last:
Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet Martin Luther King,
may resist oppression in the name of love,
and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
—Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 307