Note: Some version of this post appears on this blog every January.
On this day when we celebrate the life and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
, we should take an honest look at the man whom I consider the greatest American ever to have lived.
First, we should remember that King was a great American, precisely because he effected significant cultural and political change using only those tools granted by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: speech, religion, the press, assembly, and petition. He practiced nonviolence and never resorted to malicious or dishonest tactics.
But in the relatively short period of time since Dr. King's death, we have turned him into someone much safer than he actually was. While he remained true to the rights guaranteed by the first amendment, King and the Civil Rights Movement
distrupted life-as-usual, politics-as-usual, and faith-as-usual in the United States. King's efforts forced Americans to deal with issues of injustice and inequality immediately, without hesitation. Often, by forcing the hand of American culture and government, King and others in the movement knowingly put themselves at great risk.
His message was also much more radical than many people today realize. As a culture, we remember King as he delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963 and turn him into someone who simply wanted a color-blind America. But Dr. King wanted much more. Michael Eric Dyson, a Baptist minister, professor at Georgetown University, and scholar of race in American culture, writes in I May Not Get There With You
We have sanitized [King's] ideas, ignoring his mistrust of white America, his commitment to black solidarity and advancement, and the radical message of his later life. Today right-wing conservatives can quote King's speeches in order to criticize affirmative action, while schoolchildren grow up learning only about the great pacifist, not the hard-nosed critic of economic injustice. . . .
King was attacked within the civil rights movement and beyond for his daring opposition to war. He broke with other leaders in a dramatic but heartfelt gesture of moral independence. . . . Martin Luther King, Jr. opposed the Vietnam War because he was a profound pacifist and proponent of nonviolence, because he was a Christian minister, and because he was, as noted Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel said ten days before his death, a "great spiritual leader."
On the other hand, because of King's undeniable greatness, America made him a saint within two decades of his death and relieved him all of his faults. As a nation, we do not recall that King's commitment to his family was sporadic at best, that he cheated on his wife, that he was wary of putting women in leadership roles in the movement, and that he was somewhat of a misogynist in general.
Now that I have three children, I think a lot about King and other great prophets and their family lives. For me, having small children has meant spending less time changing the world and more time changing diapers, less time trying to bring an end to systems of oppression and more time trying to bring an end to fights over who gets to be Alvin and who has to be Simon, less time building God's kingdom and more time building with Legos®. I regret that, in the past few years, I've done little to raise a prophetic voice or get my hands dirty for the sake of equality and justice. Of course, neglectful parents are one cause of poverty and injustice (along with a host of other problems), and one should not underestimate the importance of strong family relationships.
King was a prophet, a great leader, and an American hero. We should celebrate his life and work, and we cannot credit enough the Civil Rights Movement for making the United States a better, more moral nation. And while the folktale version of King that we have created may have a place in our society, we should not neglect to take an honest look at the real
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his great contributions in the struggle for equality, his radical message, and his shortcomings.