Presentation given by Rev. David Brown as part of the Odd Mondays Series at Folio Books on January 21, 2019
Spring, 1968. My first year of bible school in Chicago. From a small town in Colorado, I was just beginning to grasp the complexity and diversity of the city. Unlike many of my classmates, to me Chicago was quite compelling and exciting. It was in Chicago where I first began to discover who I was.
But I must say, when I heard the news that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated on that fateful April day, I was not too shaken up. Sad, yes, but not too distraught. Given my conservative church background and all-white childhood, I had virtually no appreciation for Dr. King’s civil rights efforts. My fundamentalist bible school certainly didn’t think much of Dr. King. He was a troublemaker, after all. Didn’t he associate with known communists? So, I have to admit I didn’t appreciate Martin Luther King, Jr. while he was alive, while he toiled in the struggles of the civil rights movement.
It was not until years later, living and working in the inner city of Denver, seeing for myself the hard reality of structural racism and discrimination, did I learn to appreciate the life and words of Martin. As I considered him anew in the context of my own ministry, I realized that Dr. King represented a courageous response to the call to discipleship. Out of his life situation, as a Christian minister, he felt that to follow Jesus meant a serious engagement with the injustice, poverty, and discrimination he experienced in Alabama. Being a Christian for Martin was not just a private affair between him and God. Discipleship for Martin was a call to political and social action on behalf of others. For this reason he was a dangerous and wild presence in an unjust and racialized world.
So, we try to tame Martin. This day often only focuses on a public image that places him on a pedestal, safe and unthreatening. That image is the 1963 March on Washington. The Baptist preacher announces to the nation, in unparalleled, magnificent oratory, “I Have a Dream.” But if we leave him there in that moment, we are in danger of what one writer calls a “dangerous collective amnesia.” In desiring a Martin who is easy to handle, we want him to stay right there, static, bound to the podium with his beautiful words and familiar cadences. Poet Carl Wendell Himes, Jr., who was only twenty when Martin was assassinated, captures this sentiment eloquently:
Now that he is safely dead
Let us praise him,
Build monuments to his glory
Sing hosannas to his name.
Dead men make
Such convenient heroes:
They cannot rise
To challenge the images
We would fashion from their lives.
It is easier to build monuments
Than to make a better world.
Martin stepped down from that podium and for five more hard years—searching, experimenting, stumbling, sometimes lonely and often beleaguered – tried to find the way toward a more humanized America. That journey took him to places that by his final year of life, as one scholar later described, he “represented a far greater political threat to the reigning American government than he ever had before.”
King, the revolutionary, challenged not only political and economic systems, but also our own internal understanding of ourselves and of the world. He called not just for new structures in power, but new kinds of power, rooted in democratic empowerment of all persons with dignity and possibility. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he said this:
I still believe that one day [human]kind will…be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive goodwill will proclaim the rule of the land. Most of these people will never make the headlines and their names will not appear in Who’s Who. Yet when years have rolled past and when the blazing light of truth is focused on this marvelous age in which we live — men and women will know and children will be taught that we have a finer land, a better people, a more noble civilization — because these humble children of God were willing to suffer for righteousness’ sake.
“A finer land, a better people, a more noble civilization”? How naïve, Martin. Have you seen what’s going on these days? We have a president who is personally undoing all of the civil rights accomplishments you fought so hard to win. We have a president who blatantly talks about people of color in the most disrespectful and vile ways. We have a president who has emboldened racists to proclaim him their champion – racist attitudes we naïvely thought were a thing of the past. Martin, do you realize that we are no closer to your “redemptive goodwill” today than in your day? Martin, it would appear that your dream of “a finer land, a better people, a more noble civilization” has a longways to go.
In Martin’s very last speech, the day before he died, he promised the crowd that they would get to the Promised Land. But he also said this: “Let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.” That challenge still stands.
I, for one, desire to take up this challenge – to make America a better nation. I, for one, desire to be the risk-taking disciple that Martin strived to be. I, for one, will not let the dream die. Martin, thank you for inspiring me to strive for the redemptive goodwill of us all.