“Amen, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his native place.” Luke 4:28
It is easy to forget that, at the time of his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a beloved figure. He was considered a public enemy by the FBI, who called him the “most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country” and therefore placed him under heavy surveillance in order to “neutralize [him] as an effective Negro leader.” He was disliked by segregationist whites and liberal whites, and, after his decision to speak out against the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam, he lost the support of much of the civil rights movement, who worried that his decision to take such a controversial stance would harm the appeal and credibility of the civil rights movement.
Sadly, we have forgotten all of this. Instead of a prophet, we have turned Martin Luther King, Jr. into a cheerleader–now, he is the ultimate feel-good story, a testimony to the American “can-do” spirit. Instead of the discipleship of the cross, he is the ultimate icon of cheap grace. Instead of his life serving as a “dangerous memory” which haunts and interrupts us, he is now used to assure us that we don’t have to look back, it’s all ok now.
We have forgotten the depth of his Christian witness just as surely as we have forgotten the depth of his critique of the United States of America. We have forgotten that he was the man who said, “for years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of the society, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values” (I May Not Get There With You. Michael Eric Dyson, pg 39.)
Much more have we forgotten that he was the man who not only rejected capitalism and denounced the U.S.’s role in the Vietnam War, but also called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” (“Beyond Vietnam, 1967).
I have included a link to both audio and text of that much overlooked speech on Vietnam so that we will see how we are very much still the same country he critiqued in 1967.