Everybody loves Martin Luther King Jr., or at least they love the idea they have of him. There is nothing provocative about naming him as one of your favorite American heroes, quoting lines from his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, or referring to him in one way or another to suggest how we can become that “beloved community” he often spoke about. In fact, our usage of Martin Luther King Jr., more times than not, would be in direct conflict with Dr. King himself, and the actual life and commitments he held to.
“Our” Dr. King that we celebrate each year has been completely co-opted by the right and the left to further the shallow partisan ideological work in American society. Dr. King’s legacy has been thoroughly domesticated, like a house cat after being de-clawed and neutered. He is now safe. Safe to mold into our projections of who we want him to be. Dr. King is no longer a radical prophetic voice of a Christian preacher crying out in the wilderness. Instead, after he died, we built him a monument to adore, after our liking, and gave it a seat at the emperor’s table. However, the prophet never sits and fellowships at the table with an imperial ruler. The prophet is not accepted by the social order it speaks life into because he is always seen as a threat.
Dr. King, in actuality, was a great threat. As a devout Christian leader shaped by a prophetic imagination and the life and teachings of Jesus, he dared to speak untimely truths that were always seen as a nuisance. In the south, Dr. King was always labeled “an outside agitator” because he came and organized in areas, where according to local whites, there was peace and everything was fine. At the time, they thought he unnecessarily stoked the fire. Obviously, their definition of peace was the accepted social order of racial oppression and segregation - not true peace at all.
The Northerners like to pretend like they all loved Dr. King, as though they all supported and marched with him. This was not true either. In reality, when Dr. King came north he was confronted with equal vitriol as in the South. For example, towards the end of his life Dr. King moved to Chicago to try out his nonviolent resistance to injustice. During the march he led at Marquette Park, there was a line of some of the angriest protesters King had ever seen. The crowd was out of control, gunshots were being fired into the air, and Dr. King was struck in the head with a stone. Marchers’ cars were vandalized and the whole event was a disaster. Dr. King would later explain that the only moment equally as dangerous and scary as that one, was down in Philadelphia, Mississippi, when they were surrounded in the middle of the night during a rally.
We often show clips of Dr. King in a whole plethora of dangerous situations in the south, and Northern white Americans look on with a sense of paternalistic condescension. However, in the late 60s, Northern whites responded eerily similarly when faced with the possibility of ‘negroes’ moving into their ‘vanilla’ neighborhoods.
Finally, Dr. King passionately and continuously offered untimely prophetic utterances against American militarism, economic injustices, and of course the ongoing challenge to America’s past and current racist practices. This triplet proved to be a devastating combination to a Nation that likes to re-imagine itself as the innocent Christian nation sent here to bring salvation (read that as Neo-liberalism and western governance) to the “uncivilized” world. Americans claimed to be followers of the Prince of Peace, but didn’t like Dr. King’s speaking against America’s war in Vietnam, seeing it as un-American. Even many Black leaders found him to be untimely, wanting him to ‘stay in his lane’ and only deal with race, rather than larger issues like the idolatrous military spending our nation was actively engaging in while so many people went hungry.
So, what do we do with the legacy of Dr. King now? It seems there is a choice we each must make. We can continue to blindly (or if you read this, not so blindly) endorse a Dr. King that has been made to be more suited to our liking, to the American Dream and the American way of life. Again, the Conservative and Liberal Dr. King both fall into this first category, because they make him suitable within the social order, just of a variant form or face. The other option, the one I believe is the more faithful route, is to dig into the life of Dr. King. Read the books, watch the documentaries, and even speak to those who actually knew him (I have had the chance to meet several of them; you would be surprised to know how many are still alive), and above all consider the Jesus he came to know that inspired his life, words, and actions. In that way, Dr. King can whisper to us like the apostle Paul did almost 2000 years ago, when he said “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” And then, as followers of Jesus, Dr. King might help us re-imagine how we might follow Jesus faithfully into our world today.
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