Doing justice to the memory of MLK's faith and vision.
Special to The Times
IN the decades since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968, politicians and commentators have honored his birthday by celebrating his "mainstream" values — his commitment to the American Dream, his belief in equal opportunity and, above all, his hope that, one day, white and black children might be judged by "the content of their character ... [and not] by the color of their skin."
Yet, these celebrations fail to do justice to King's commitment to social justice, the complexity of his political convictions and the profound religious faith that enabled him to endure racism, as well as persecution by the FBI. Only when we understand the full scope of King's vision of equality can we appreciate his true legacy.
That legacy begins with the power of King's faith, which became searingly personal when, soon after agreeing to become the spokesman for the Montgomery bus boycott, he began receiving nightly phone calls from people threatening to kill his family.
Unable to sleep and tormented by visions of his little girl suffering, King broke down one night in his kitchen. As David Garrow writes in his biography of King, at that moment King heard an inner voice saying, "Stand up for justice, stand up for truth ... [It was] the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone." From that moment forward, the voice in the kitchen was King's personal anchor.
The second point to recognize is the tension King insisted upon between his embrace of the New Testament's gospel of unconditional love and the Old Testament's prophetic insistence on righteous justice. Latter-day King celebrants focus on his support for reconciliation without acknowledging his prophetic anger.
"It is not enough for us to talk about love," he told his followers. "There is another side called justice ... Standing beside love is always justice. Not only are we using the tools of persuasion — we've got to use the tools of coercion."
It was this co-existence of love and justice that led King to write his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" in 1963. To moderate white clergymen who pleaded for patience and a reduction in tension, King wrote: "[N]onviolent direct action seeks to create ... a crisis and foster such tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue."
King then drove home the point. "The Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom," he wrote, "is not the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers the negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice."
The third and final point is King's insistence that racial justice was inextricably linked to economic justice and international peace. "We are engaged in a social revolution," he proclaimed. "The evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism are all tied together, and you can't really get rid of one without getting rid of the others." That was why he condemned America's war in Vietnam, demanded "basic structural changes in the architecture of American society," and insisted that his dream of a just society required "a radical redistribution of economic and political power."
All these themes came together in the last months of King's life. Hounded by the FBI, which sent him tapes documenting his sexual infidelities and a letter suggesting he commit suicide, King became profoundly depressed. In the words of his wife Coretta, "[H]e didn't expect to live a long life."
But then there was that voice from the kitchen — a voice that gave him the courage to continue standing up for justice and love, and that sent him to Memphis to advance the cause of striking sanitation workers there as part of the Poor People's Campaign to which he was now devoted.
"It doesn't really matter with me now," he declared the night before his assassination, "because I've been to the mountaintop ... and I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."
So as we remember the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., let us recognize the full depth of his faith and vision — not just the antiseptic version that has now become part of our official culture.William H. Chafe is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of History at Duke University, and author of the recently published "Private Lives/Public Consequences: Personality and Politics in Modern America" (Harvard University Press).
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