“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.

Text of “Beyond Vietnam” April, 1967

11 thoughts

  1. Katie,

    Thanks for reminding us not to domesticate King’s prophetic and dangerous memory (and for the videos to aid that right remembrance!). King’s legacy is definitely one that should be wrestled with. For some rather idiosyncratic autobiographical reasons, I’ve been wrestling with and trying to learn from King’s memory for over half my life (I’m 24). I’d like to ask a question about a difficult aspect of King’s life that I have yet to see a good theological assessment of – his alleged pattern of infidelity. I’ve been following this blog for a while, and it seems like a good place to bring up such a question since it features a great group of contributing writers and many thoughtful commentators. From the accounts I have read, it seems like there is weight to the charges of infidelity, but I also could see how such charges might be false and have been propagated for the purpose of damaging King’s reputation and legacy. I certainly don’t want to continue spreading false notions about King’s life if these charges are baseless.

    So, I guess that’s the first question: do you (or other readers) think the charges of adultery have any weight?

    A second question: If King did engage in a pattern of infidelity, how should that be taken into account as we attempt to remember him rightly? I would really appreciate it if you know of any essays or books that attempt to treat this topic. King is a figure I think I should seek to learn from the rest of my life, but I believe this involves a critical assessment of his failures as much as humble attempts to live into his profound witness.

    Again, thanks for the post and for this blog!

    1. For a more thorough treatment of this issue, I would encourage you to check out Michael Eric Dyson’s I May Not Get There With You. http://www.yale.edu/yrb/summer00/review4.htm

      It certainly does seem as though King had extramarital liasons (about which we know only because the FBI was illegally bugging his hotel rooms and recording all his private activities in an attempt to discredit him.)

      In terms of a good theological assessment of his infidelity, I would just say what pretty much every human being, religious or not, would say: they were wrong. The fact that he was forced to spend the vast majority of his time on the road away from his family while under the stress not just of leading a battle against white supremacy but also of knowing that you would probably be murdered for it, certainly helps explain why MLK may have sought the ecstatic release and pleasure of extramarital sex. This does not make it ok, but it helps us understand why MLK was not a monster.

      In terms of whether this should affect his legacy–I don’t really think it should. All it tells us is what we already know and what is true of every human being, he was a sinner. His infidelities are not really linked to his prophetic ministry to incarnate a brotherhood of man so I don’t think his infidelities should make us think any less of him.

      What is relevant to assessing his the morality of his message and social impact, however, is the fact that he was patriarchal and homophobic. I do think we should take “points off” for this. But even this should not change our opinion of him too much for these opinions would make him identical to nearly every man that has lived–at least in the “civilized” West. Such attitudes are even more common among religious men, so, the fact that a Christian minister would hold sexist and homophobic views says much more about christianity than it does about MLK.

      I am reminded of what Rosa Parks said to John Paul II upon meeting him in 1999. She said, “My lifetime mission has been simple–that all men and women are created equal under the eyes of our Lord.”

      I would also encourage you to check out Civil Rights Movement leaders who were amazingly ahead of their time on the equality of women and gays. Bayard Rustin, a gay civil rights leader and Huey Newton of the black panthers who embraced both feminism and the gay rights movement in the 1960s, long before it became common to do so.

  2. This is interesting. It reminds me of a quote from Herbert McCabe: “the crucifixion of Jesus was simply the dramatic manifestation of the sort of world we have made, the showing up of the world, the unmasking of what we call, traditionally, original sin” (God Matters). His point, it seems, is that Jesus’ cross exposed the world for what it is – violent and destructive.

    It seems to me that MLK Jr. ended up doing exactly the same thing. But I have to hope that, as Revelation has it, that the death of the witnesses to Jesus, while seeming like a victory for the powers, are actually a victory of his witnesses.

    1. Austin,
      Thank you for your very thoughtful comments.

      What you say reminds me that so much of what it means to be Christian (at least in my understanding) is to witness to the lived truth of Jesus Christ as reflected in the lives of people like MLK, Jr. May we have the courage and grace to follow in King’s footsteps.

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  4. The “We” of this article needs to be defined. “We” sounds very suburban.

    This situation you describe is certainly not the case in many African-American communities who celebrate, reflect, and challenge themselves on Martin Luther King day and throughout black history month in February.

    I would recommend you spend next MLK day going to one of these communities and letting them evangelize you a bit instead of preaching via blog post. For instance, I spent yesterday listening to Mr. John Burrows, former Boston mayoral candidate, challenge black Catholics to reflect upon who is deserving and undeserving of charity in our communities. He challenged everyone there to expand their charity to all whether “we” think they are deserving or not.

    The community then had a Q&A about neighborhood problems and how to work with the city, institutions, and other communities.

    Now maybe, you did spend the day embedded in a community. If so, I apologize. But I would much have prefered a post on how the community you celebrated with challenged each other to not have cheap grace. Simply writing about a theological theme on a blog post is its own form of cheap grace. We certainly can do better. The people of God demand it.

    1. Hi Paul,
      Your point is a good one. Though I am not from a suburb and have never lived in one, I was writing to US Christians in general and not to black Christians in particular who have always been better at recognizing the connection between the gospels and Christianity.

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