Martin Luther King Day for 2016 has come and gone. Given the current racial tensions in our society and the reinterpreting of history, it’s always fascinating to me to see how Dr. King and his dream are remembered—perhaps this year more than most recent ones. I watched as people of all walks of life, economic statuses, levels of leadership, and faith backgrounds posted their favorite quotes, new memes, commitments to reconciliation, and celebration of Dr. King’s dream. We are witnessing a retelling of history where Dr. King is heralded as a hero and national leader in America. We have forgotten that while he is accepted widely today after his death, he was thoroughly rejected in life. It was Dr. King who warned America of the dangers of “white power” and “black power” and was labeled prejudice and an “Uncle Tom” for it. It was Dr. King who asked Black people not to become violent in their protests and quests for justice and was booed in some cities towards the end of his life. It was Dr. King who wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to a group of white Christian pastors who asked him to both not come to Alabama and cease involvement in the Civil Rights Movement there. It was Dr. King who spoke out against the Vietnam War. None of these items are mentioned when remember Dr. King—sorry, Rev. Dr. King. He has been reduced to a dream, a myth, a larger than life character and not the Baptist preacher who served as one of God’s prophets to a racist, segregated society. As we enter 2016, there are a few myths about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that must be clarified, not just for his legacy, but for our future as a society.
Martin was More than a Dream…He was a Man.
His famous “I Have a Dream” speech is regarded as one of the most famous sermons ever given. Robert Abernathy, after Dr. King’s assassination, had a stone engraved which quotes Genesis 37 and the story of Joseph, “Here comes the dreamer…let’s kill him and see what becomes of his dream.” After that message and long after his death, Dr. King is regarded for his dream. He dreamed of a diverse world of equality, a world where character and not skin color were the tools for evaluating a person. However, he was more than a dream.
He was a man.
He was arrested—numerous times. He was hated by many white people in the United States—including white Christians. The Black community was not one hundred percent unified behind him. (It was only less fractured than it is today.) He did not make substantial amounts of money and therefore had significant financial hardships, had his life threatened daily, and eventually was killed for the dream he dared to tell us about.
He was a man with a fire inside of him to speak boldly and prophetically into communities, churches, and a country that were satisfied with the legal oppression of multiple groups, and the supremacy of one. He was a man that wanted to eat wherever he wanted when he got hungry, go shopping in any mall when he needed clothes, and sleep in his choice of a hotel during difficult travel seasons.
He was a man who had lived in an oppressed society. His was the dream of a man who could be free in the waking the world.
Martin was about more than Non-Violence…He was about Justice.
Dr. King is the go-to Christian Black leader whenever there are racial tensions and/or riots in society. Everyone quickly finds a non-violent quote from Dr. King and calls for peaceful protests. What is omitted from historical memory is that Dr. King didn’t advocate for non-violence for the sake of non-violence. He was advocating for justice, and non-violence was the method through which he called for marginalized, oppressed Black people and their allies to fight against injustice.
There was a time in the United States when my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and every generation of my family in this country were not seen with or treated with dignity. They weren’t allowed to walk through the front doors of buildings, eat in restaurants of their choosing, have access to proper medical care, or receive a quality education that would prepare them to lead in and leave their mark on the world. There was (is?) a time in America when police could kill unarmed Black people in America without consequence. There was a time when Black people were the last hired and first fired. There was a time when some Black people in America could not vote and other Black people had nothing for which to vote.
America’s history of slavery, segregation, economic exploitation, and mass incarceration of Black people is appalling. It is not shameful for Black people to acknowledge our ancestors were slaves. It is shameful that there were systems and people who unapologetically benefited from slavery. These systems of oppression extended beyond chattel slavery to the Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, and Indigenous peoples to our utter historical horror and shame.
Rev. Dr. King did not call simply for non-violence. He called for the destruction of systems of political, economic, social, and systemic oppression through non-violent disruptive means. It’s heartbreaking to what people and systems delay change while inviting peaceful demonstrations. (Dr. King also said “Justice delayed is justice denied…Wait too often means never.”) The truth is a peaceful demonstration costs no one in power anything. However, when Blacks boycotted the bus system and other big businesses that overlooked the unheard, that’s when legal and social change came.
We should pursue non-violent avenues of justice, but not because it keeps everyone calm. We pursue non-violent means of justice because violence begets violence and as people in the subdominant group, we are outgunned, outnumbered, and out-resourced. Non-violence exposes the evil and sin in our oppressors, whereas violence exposes the evil and sin in us all.
Martin was more than a Civil Rights Leader…He was a Christian.
There are quite a few statues of Dr. King around the United States. The two that are the most striking to me are the one on campus at the University of Texas at Austin and the one in Washington, DC. The one at UT has Rev. Dr. King in his preacher’s robe, holding a bible. In both sovereignty and irony, Dr. King’s back is to the university and his hand is reaching out to East Austin which is predominately African-American (although that is currently changing because of gentrification). The statue depicts the reality of Dr. King: he was a Christian, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus. The gospel of Jesus which called for food for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and dignity for all life on earth—including Black lives—this was his message. The statue in Washington, DC is devoid of any Christian references. He is depicted as an American leader who was widely accepted in the country and it omits the core component of his life: his faith.
As a Christian, I am ever committed to not just accomplishing God’s goals, but to pursue them using God’s methods. If we pursue God’s goals without using his methods, it leads to anger, burnout, hubris, and the idolatry of self. It will lead us as Americans as it relates to our donors and not the Divine, especially in our churches and parachurch ministries. If I pursue God’s methods but I do not have God’s goal in mind—the establishment and expansion of his kingdom—then I become useless to the Lord. I am salt without flavor, a light with deep darkness. I can speak in different languages, have numerous seminary degrees, have the deepest theological and epistemological frameworks, I can give away all my money, and even suffer for the sake of the gospel—but I won’t have love.
And God is love.
We are called to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). That call only becomes difficult when my goals and methods don’t align with the Lord’s.
It used to be strange to me that Christians were so divided on issues like segregation and racism in the United States 50 years ago. However, as I look at the appalling silence of Christians today around issues of injustice in America today, including but not limited to all the components that led to the #BlackLivesMatter Movement beginning, it is no longer a surprise. What I have seen from too many of my fellow Americans and too many of my fellow evangelical Christians is that if it does not affect me on a personal level, then it is not worth paying attention to. If it’s a story that is not common to my experience, then not only do I have the right to not believe it, I can also dismiss it.
Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. was more than a myth. He was a child of God and preacher of the gospel of Jesus and, for a brief time, he proclaimed that good news on the earth. It wasn’t regarded as good news by everyone who heard it, only those who dared to make his dream their dream and ultimately, to make that dream a reality.
50 years from now, I suspect the laws in the country will have changed again. Crime will still be illegal and the guilty will be punished. I hope that law enforcement who break the law will also face penalties to which they are called to enforce. I do think there will be a re-telling of history that the #BlackLivesMatter Movement was this beautiful, peaceful, well received national movement that helped reshape America into a brighter future. If I am still kicking, I will be good and old, but I will remember the movement the same way I remember Dr. King—not as a dream, but as a man who so desperately believed in what God said he was, he was willing to fight politicians and pastors, critics and fellow Christians until the vision God he saw in the Scriptures was the reality our children live here on earth.
- Read Why We Can’t Wait by: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Ask an elder, preferably one of color or one who has been displaced, what it was like to witness the Civil Rights Movement. Ask them what are the similarities of then and today. (If you can’t talk to the living, read their words. Google Howard Thurman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisolm).
- Ask yourself, “What story have I heard” about Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. Begin the journey on discovering if the story you know is the story of what really happened.
Sean M. Watkins