A King among Christians
Now that another Martin Luther King Jr. holiday has come and gone, with all the predictable hoopla about who he was and why he's important, it seems only fair at some point to return Martin Luther King Jr.'s identity to its rightful owner -- Martin Luther King, Jr. himself. Since King's birthday was first celebrated as a national holiday in 1986, King's persona has been neutralized, sanitized, and homogenized to the point that he is now celebrated as everyone's hero for anything. Providing, that is, one doesn't bother much about the fact that King was a Christian minister.
Every year, my kids dutifully learned that King was a great man, a man of peace. Every year the media informs that he was a great American who changed history. Peaceniks adopt him as theirs because of his dedication to nonviolent political action, and since 9/11 friends have sworn to me that King would never have supported Bush's Iraq War. Other friends are sure that King would have been the ultimate Pro-Lifer along with his niece, Alveda. For the likes of Reverend Al and Jesse Jackson, King is a social justice guru and the consummate community organizer. For the Chinese sculptor who created the King national memorial, the Civil Rights leader is a glowering giant cum Chairman Mao emerging from a rock.
As he did in 2009, Barack Obama again gently melded his presidential inauguration with the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and asked us to honor King's legacy by participating in a National Day of Service (King's birthday as a day of service actually dates back to 1994). Various websites tell how to "transform Dr. King's life and teachings into community service" and how to get involved. Clean a park, volunteer in a soup kitchen. This year, even Governor Cuomo managed to exploit King's memory as the reason we need gun control.
Neither Cuomo, the Reverend Al nor a National Day of Service does justice to King's legacy. He did not spend his formative years preparing to be a good person who helps the poor and crusades for gun control. The son of a middle-class Baptist minister, King not only earned an undergraduate degree at Morehouse College, but was a graduate of Crozer Theological Seminary and later Boston University where he completed a doctoral degree in theology. Little is made of King's entry into public life as the head pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church or, later, his role as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Though he eventually became a the leader of a political movement, King's chosen profession was to be a man of the cloth, a Christian and a minister
Letting King speak for himself is one way to honor his legacy. We usually hear excerpts from his stirring oration at the 1963 March on Washington, but there's also King's Letter from Birmingham Jail written in April of 1963, a few months before the March. The letter, written on bits of newsprint and smuggled out of the jail in pieces, is a response to white clergymen who were critical of the upcoming demonstrations in Birmingham and critical of King's role in them.
In the letter, King likens himself to the apostle Paul in carrying the "gospel of freedom" to those places where segregation prevents black Americans from enjoying their "constitutional and God-given rights." He cites St. Augustine in his discussion of civil disobedience and just vs. unjust laws, the former being anchored in "eternal and natural law." King notes that legal does not mean just and cites the blows to religious freedom in Communist countries where laws 'legally' suppress the right to worship. (King adds that he would "openly advocate disobeying these anti-religious laws.") King likens himself and his freedom fighters to Socrates and the Hebrew and Christian martyrs all of whom, like King and his fellow freedom fighters are seekers of truth. He expresses impatience with those he calls white moderates, and he takes comfort in the view of himself as an extremist pointing out that he keeps company with the prophet Amos, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Jesus Christ.
The letter from King's Birmingham jail cell is hardly the stuff of the bland do-gooder my kids learned about year after year in school. He's a man steeped in and conversant with Western civilization and its Judeo-Christian heritage. Apparently, he believes in its rightness as well. Martin Luther King, Jr. writes as a scholar, an activist, a theologian, and a Christian minister.
King did not become great because he was born with black skin and advocated nonviolence. He did something to become who he was. Instead of the colorless generalities trotted out each year to mark King's birthday, teachers might instead talk about King's firm, deeply-held beliefs shaped by family and education. They might mention his skill as a communicator, his ability to extemporize at will and his familiarity with the great ideas of Western civilization. The media might mention his resolute and confident character which allowed him to act on history rather than be swept along by it. The Reverend Als might mention King's strong father figure, his intact family, his Christian faith. The Jesse Jacksons might mention that King rose to the forefront of the Civil Rights movement not because he had been an organizer in the community, but because he was a Baptist minister in the community. The peaceniks might note that King credited the "Negro church" and God for the nonviolent approach of the Civil Rights movement. And, instead of tepid requests for service and broad allusions to freedom, a Barack Obama might remind us that King served and died because he believed that personal freedom comes from God and when governments violate that freedom with unjust laws, those laws must be challenged.
It is forty-five years since King's assassination and we have managed to remake him in as many images as there are those who wish to adopt King as their mascot. Certainly the 50th anniversary of his death in 2018 will raise the rafters as the schools, the media, and politicians boost him once again as the American superhero. King was a great American but his story is far more interesting than the tired clichés we manufacture about him. We have five years between then and now to get it right, or at least come a little closer.
Amy De Rosa lives in New York City with her family and blogs at angelsinthewhirlwind.blogspot.com