Today would have been the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s 90th birthday, and it marks an important holiday in the civic calendar of the United States (though, like other federal holidays, is observed on a Monday).
This time of year, many people post quotes from Rev. King: sometimes to simply mark the day, sometimes to call their fellow citizens to act for social justice. If you get on Facebook or Twitter over the next few days, expect to see quotes from the “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered during the March on Washington. Expect to see the famous line, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” excerpted from the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Expect, on rare occasion, to see his final public address, in which he declared, “I’ve been to the mountaintop.”
Rev. King was undeniably one of the greatest speakers in American history and one of the greatest preachers in the entire Christian tradition, capable of summarizing the historical situation while drawing in biblical imagery, hope for God’s coming reign, and the call to a sanctified life.
Almost universally, though, these popular quotes present a sanitized version of Rev. King’s legacy; they focus on his struggle for voting rights and integration. They omit his condemnation of the Vietnam War and his work on the Poor Peoples’ Campaign. They conveniently neglect that Rev. King was in Memphis in 1968 to protest unsafe working conditions for sanitation workers. All too often, our selective quotations undercut this preacher’s prophetic political witness. (By political, I do not mean merely partisan. That is to say, Rev. King proclaimed a message that necessarily touched on the unjust ordering of the entire society, including laws.)
Because Rev. King was a political preacher, he often came into conflict with other Christians — and not just those who were at Klan meetings on Saturday and in the pews on Sunday but also self-styled “moderate” white clergy.
One of Dr. King’s best-known pieces of writing, so often quoted, is the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (see the quote on injustice above). But this letter is not simply a short piece of prose aimed at stirring on marchers and Freedom Riders. It’s not a sermon for a Sunday service, nor is it a speech to be read at a rally. It’s a lengthy argument written in response to “moderate” white clergy who questioned his tactics.
Yes, racism is a problem, they said. But why must you go about causing such a scene? Why take actions that you know will get you arrested?
It is the same rhetoric heard today among those who seek the respectability “moderates” are afforded. Why close down highways? Why specify that black lives matter? Why not just write to members of Congress and wait for a reply like respectable people do?
King’s rebuttal is as striking now as it was in 1963. The phrase quoted above, so often removed from this context and reduced to a generalized call to unspecific action, is a specific rebuke of white inaction in the face of systematic oppression. He writes:
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
Later, he writes:
I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes.
In our present age, white moderate Christians like to quote the “respectable” Rev. King, the one in a suit and tie preaching about his dream of a beloved community. We too often ignore the dangerous and controversial work that must be done to secure such a beloved community. We may quote the suit-and-tie King, but we ignore him when he writes to us from a jail cell in Birmingham.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King — the real one, the Rev. King who wore handcuffs and went to Memphis to strike with the sanitation workers, not the King from sanitized quotes — would be anywhere injustice still holds sway. Today, he would be on the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore, at the March for Our Lives, and at the detention centers on the southern border.
And he would still be praying that we white moderate Christians may finally join with him at the demonstrations, recognizing the real heroes.
May God grant us such courage today.