MARTIN LUTHER KING, 1929-1968
Forty years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
He is one of my lifelong heroes. As a child, I was raised in the U.S. military life, the daughter of an Air Force officer. I went to my early years in elementary school to an integrated military school on a base in England. My class president in second grade was a seven-year-old Negro (that's what we called blacks in those days) boy who was the post popular kid in class -- he was also the smartest and the funniest. Our chaplain was a Negro Air Force Colonel, who remained close to my folks until he died. When I returned to the States to my segregated Southern hometown just as the civil rights movement was making traction, and discovered the controversy about letting five (FIVE) Negro students integrate the local high school, in my childish way I said, "What's the big deal?" When local Negroes held a sit-in at a local coffee shop (my friends' favorite for hot dogs and Cokes after school) because they couldn't eat there, I said, "Why can't they?" I joined an integrated musical group (the integrated part was that two Negro Airmen from the local base were a part), and counseled one of my pretty friends when she told me in confidence (because I was a weirdo hippie and probably would understand) that she felt an ATTRACTION for one of them. I snuck out one night and went to covertly watch a KKK meeting with a couple of my friends just to see if they really did dress up in robes and masks and burn fiery crosses. They did, and they did, and we lit out of there scared to death.
It was a time of upheaval, of fiery tempers, fears and barely-concealed hatreds. It could have all gone up in a fireball of violence. Yes, there was the occasional riot. But nothing like the sustained violence that has been experienced in spots across the world. I believe that was due to the efforts of one man, Martin Luther King, Jr., who along with his activism always preached nonviolence, who believed that progress could not be made at the point of a gun, but by changing people's hearts. He clung to that gospel even when challenged by hotter heads among his own movement, when suffering abuse at the hands of Southern bigots, when reviled and maligned by Hooverites as a Communist dupe or agent, when he witnessed his own home exploding and his family threatened. He refused to return evil for evil, and as a result achieved a level of greatness that has been recognized not only in his native land, but by peoples throughout the world.
A few years ago my husband and I were vacationing in England. On a walking tour of the great cathedrals in London, as we approached Westminster Abbey, we began looking at the statues of 20th century Christian martyrs that grace the west front entrance. Suddenly I couldn't believe what I was seeing. There was Martin among them. We were both thrilled that he had been honored in this way, that he was viewed by the world as the heroic figure he was. But he was also a man.
Who was he, really? Julian Bond wrote these lines 25 years after his death:
Today we do not honour the critic of capitalism, or the pacifist who declared all wars evil, or the man of God who argued that a nation that chose guns over butter would starve its people and kill itself. We do not honour the man who linked apartheid in South Africa and Alabama; we honour an antiseptic hero. We have stripped his life of controversy, and celebrate the conventional instead.
Young people may think of Martin as just leading marches, or for his passive resistance. It is good that they do so, for it shows how Martin combined his activism on behalf of social justice with his absolute adherence to nonviolent change, his focus on reconciliation and rejection of the politics of division. Martin was, at the bottom, a faithful follower of Christ -- the Christ who spoke out on behalf of all under threat of death, who forgave even his own assassins and betrayers, who would not bow to his attackers yet would not return their blows.
His social gospel approach insisted that Christians “must do more than pray and read the Bible” - society as well as individuals needed redemption. He was a politically concerned preacher rather than an activist, his speeches visionary rather than incendiary.
Martin was a lifelong admirer of Ghandi and his spiritual approach to non-violent confrontation. This was his way too, with the ultimate goal of reconciliation, “the creation of a beloved community”, rather than just winning.
This was the pattern for the rest of his life as he worked to promote freedom. Freedom for black Americans from the injustices of discrimination, racism, political and economic exclusion “to take their rightful place in God’s world”. Freedom for white Americans from their imprisonment in corrosive attitudes and unjust structures. It was a spiritual as much as a political imperative, a gospel based on the power of redemption - through suffering (including non-violent conflict), and through love. In spite of imprisonment, official harassment, public vilification, being stabbed, and constantly criticised for being too radical - or not radical enough - he always kept to that gospel. In ‘Forgive Your Enemies’ he wrote:
…Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform them. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption.
Martin was proof that progress is made not through division and fear, but through steadfast courage, faith and love. It was never about him. It was about his people -- and he considered that to be all mankind.