HONORING DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.
©Wendell Griffen, 2015
Each year people in the United States observe a holiday to honor the life, ministry, and memory of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Atlanta, Georgia black Baptist pastor whose dedication to social justice through nonviolence challenged our nation and world. People from various political, social, religious, income, ethnic, gender, and other identities pause to remember Dr. King’s life and work with more ceremonies and activities than they do for the holidays that honor U.S. presidents. Why is that so?
Perhaps Dr. King’s life, work, and memory are honored so much because he confronted our society and world with moral claims that cut across the boundaries of ethnicity, income, class, religious creed, nationality, and political ideology. Dr. King constantly preached and protested about social justice, equality, peace, and the need for us to create the “beloved community.”
Dr. King refused to compromise or water down his vision that all people are entitled to be free, fed, healed, educated, safe, welcomed, and hopeful. He refused to limit that vision to black people, people in Georgia, the U.S. South, or even the United States. King resisted attempts by politicians to coopt his vision. His vision was prophetic, not political. His value system was communitarian, not nationalistic or patriotic. We should honor the life, ministry, and memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. for those reasons.
However, Dr. King probably would not be pleased with the gap between the ceremonies and symbolism associated with the King Holiday and the policies and practices that determine how people are living today. While Dr. King would have welcomed the election of a black person as president of the United States, he would openly question President Obama’s refusal to address the poverty, classism, and militarism that infect our society and world.
Dr. King would question how U.S. national, state, and local leaders continue to do little more than pay lip service to the cancer of racism and brutality within law enforcement agencies. The preacher who penned the 1963 Letter From a Birmingham Jail that lovingly indicted the hypocrisy of religious leaders and the soft-mindedness of white moderates would probably not be impressed with talk about how much our society has improved concerning social justice.
Dr. King would probably remind us that the U.S. public education system continues to disserve children who are poor, not white, and unprivileged. Dr. King would not be impressed by how many black people are able to drive luxury automobiles and live in gated communities. Instead, he would question how a society can brag about being prosperous when so many more people from every ethnicity lack decent housing, are hungry, and are given only passing thought.
Dr. King would remind us that motion is not the same thing as progress. He would not ignore the vicious backlash that followed the successful campaign he was part of to protect the rights of black people to vote in this society. Dr. King would tell us that racial profiling and the “war on drugs” has disenfranchised many of the people whose right to vote he championed fifty years ago. Thanks to the “war on drugs” there are now more politically disenfranchised black people in 2015 than there were black slaves in 1860. Dr. King would trouble us with the idea that racial profiling and the current mass incarceration of black and brown people are simply current examples of political and social oppression suffered by people of color across U.S. history.
Dr. King would look on our world and be troubled. He would not be silent about or support how the United States subsidizes mistreatment of Palestinians by the government of Israel. He would denounce as hypocrisy attempts by U.S. politicians, religious leaders, and business champions to honor his lifelong commitment to peace while ignoring how Palestinians and other vulnerable people are brutalized, marginalized, and otherwise mistreated. Dr. King would see no difference between the wickedness of the Jim Crow system of racial segregation in the United States, the apartheid regime in South Africa, and present policies of the Israeli government toward Palestinians. And Dr. King would probably question, aloud, how black religious, political, and social leaders can be silent about, if not complicit in, the oppression of Palestinians given our own history.
It is fitting and proper that we honor the life, ministry, and memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But we must do more than hold solemn assemblies and listen to recitations of his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. Perhaps we would be better served by assembling to listen to Dr. King’s April 4, 1967 sermon titled “A Time to Break Silence” at Riverside Church in New York City. In that sermon Dr. King boldly urged our society to cease its military operations in Southeast Asia and, beyond that, to embrace what he called “a radical revolution of values” away from the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered exactly one year after preaching that sermon. He was not murdered for his “I Have a Dream” oration, but for breaking silence about those “giant triplets” and demanding that our society and world turn away from our addiction to them. It is clear that we have not broken that addiction since Dr. King’s life was taken on April 4, 1968.
We should not profess to honor Dr. King’s life, ministry, and memory today while refusing to practice the values for which he lived and died. Until our society and world does so, we do not truly honor Martin Luther King, Jr. We simply hype his name. Dr. King’s memory deserves better than that. But more importantly, so do our society and world.