[I have watched in horror over the past couple weeks at the continued violence against the black community in the United States and in Canada. In the interest of amplifying black voices, over the next week I’ll be promoting black theology past and present, with as little commentary from me as possible. May we all hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church through these powerful voices of faith.]
Today I want to hear the voice of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a towering figure in the history of American race relations and one of Western history’s greatest orators. But precisely because of his rightful fame, his legacy has in recent decades been tarnished — one might even say ‘whitewashed’ — by the ways white American culture has appropriated and misappropriated his message. So let’s get one thing straight before we start: Dr. King was no shrinking violet who simply dreamed non-violently of a better day. He was a firebrand who believed in direct action, protested injustice wherever he saw it, was harassed by the police and FBI, faced off against police dogs, and by the time he was assassinated, was among the most hated people in his country. Anyone who is uncomfortable with Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, or with saying the words “Black Lives Matter,” should think twice before quoting Dr. King.
In many ways, King’s thought was in continuity with what came before him. His language was filled not only with the words of the Scriptures, but also of the Spirituals; and his speeches and sermons carried on in their traditional themes of freedom (“Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!), the Exodus (“I have been to the mountain top and I have seen the Promised Land!”), and hope (“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal'”).
But what I think is more interesting and important for us to hear today is the more challenging side of King’s thought, which put a spotlight on the failures of dominant (white) culture.
When Dr. King was arrested after a demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama ended in police violence, many leaders in the white church – even those opposed in principle to segregation – criticized King for his tactics, nonviolent as they were. (As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.) He penned a response from his prison cell, which — to our shame — remains as relevant and challenging today as it was almost sixty years ago. And it is well worth hearing at length (and if you have time, please follow the link above and read the whole thing).
First he addresses the idea of ‘timing’:
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was “well timed” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “wait.” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.” It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration. … I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; … when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
Then, in what is probably the most famous part of this letter, he addresses the silence or hedging of white moderates:
I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom … We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.
Over the last few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. So I have tried to make it clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or even more, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. I wish you had commended the Negro demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer, and their amazing discipline in the midst of the most inhuman provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes.
He ends the letter by addressing the accusations of extremism leveled against him:
But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love? — “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice? — “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? — “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” … Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist? — “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist? — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?
Despite being labeled an extremist by many whites, Dr. King had to face accusations within the black community of being too soft and unfocused: Soft, for making nonviolence an absolute condition of seeking justice, and unfocused, because he saw beyond the needs of black Americans and fought against injustice wherever he saw it. One of the flash points for this was his opposition to the Vietnam War, which some thought was a distraction from the cause at hand. But, believing that injustice against one person was an injustice against every person, King refused to be silent:
I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin… the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
And so, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had much to say, both to this own time and to ours. His words and witness worked, inasmuch as they led to important and needed legislative changes. And yet, like the prophets of old, so many of his words and so much of his dream remain unfulfilled.
And so he remains a witness to the cause of justice in the world, his words popping the self-satisfied egos of a culture that wants to bask in how far it’s come while only paying lip-service to how far we have to go.
Hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church.