Each year the nation pauses to acknowledge the moral and political contribution of Dr. Martin Luther King to American society. In fact, MVNU celebrates the day with Kenyon College and any interested individuals in Knox County. I am old enough to remember him – I saw the “I Have a Dream” speech on the television. I remember that day with he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. This misguided attempt to silence his voice and influence failed to diminish his prophetic message. I have also lived long enough to read some of his sermons, essays and speeches, and they have greatly deepened my understanding of his legacy. Black History Month affords all of the opportunity to remember the legacy of Martin Luther King.
I grew up in the South at a time when segregation was evident everywhere. I have been on the bus when the line between the back and the front was especially clear. I have walked into J.C. Penny to see “White Men” and “White Women.” On the other side, to see “non” before the gender. It always seemed strange to me, but it was simply the case. Then came Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and the Montgomery boycott of public transportation. He was a good leader, but we must never forget that he was also human.
David Gushee and Colin Holtz have composed a book titled Moral Leadership for a Divided Age. The book is an ethnographic study of fourteen leaders who have exercised moral leadership. The chapter on King begins by recounting a time in 1956 in Montgomery when he was a young pastor. He is sitting with his wife Coretta at the kitchen table. He was 27 years old. A few days earlier someone, had bombed his home. Anyone would have been afraid. It just made sense to be cautious. He might have taken this as an opportunity to embrace violence and hatred or step away from the circle, but he remained true to his convictions.
Many hated King. Gushee writes, “Whites racists thought him radical, white moderates thought him aggravating, black militants thought him naïve.” The FBI hounded him. The KKK threatened him. Many people in America caricatured, ignored, and distrusted him. Anyone would have understood if King had stepped aside, but he continued to stand upon deeply held moral convictions. He embraced the prophetic and pastoral task of nonviolent engagement with injustice. His faith drove him to continue the struggle with racism in America.
America needed Dr. King then and we still need men and women to answer the call for racial justice who will provide a witness in the face of evil.
We celebrate the fact that Martin Luther King was first and last a Christian preacher and social activist. He never stopped believing in the power of God to redeem people. He never stopped believing that his message of non-violence could out narrate the evil/sinful message that seeks to dehumanize others on the flimsy basis of race. His legacy should be a call for those of us who intend to embrace the gospel to live faith in a way that provides a similar vision for the world. May all of us witness to his hopeful imagination. Hear King’s own words:
“I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction.”
“I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”
“I believe we shall overcome.”
Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King goes beyond sentimentality to a willingness to embrace his message. We live in a divisive time when it seems everyone is madly sprinting to claim the moral high ground. Some spend entirely too much time claiming innocence. MVNU intends to be a community that remembers with charity, invests in justice and walks with everyone with empathy. Martin Luther King had flaws, but the legacy reminds us that no one has to be perfect to make a difference. The prophet Micah reminds us that the Lord tells his people what is good. Then he asks a question, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (6:8b)? This month offers us the opportunity to act justly, love kindness, and walk humbly in a rancorous world determined to be the opposite. Let us be a community defined by similar values.
Caption: Dr. Henry Spaulding speaks to guests and community at the 17th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Breakfast. Photo from MVNU Marketing Department.