A Reflection Commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. Day
January 19, 2020
In preparing for today’s worship, Rev. Janie, Rev. Oliver, and Patricia and I settled on Resistance as theme for honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in our time today.
Fitting given his leadership in nonviolent resistance to segregation and the subjugation of black Americans. Dr. King’s leadership was instrumental to organized resistance to the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, which were sustained an astonishing 385 days. (Can you imagine?)
He was invited to Birmingham in 1963 to help organized resistance to Jim Crow segregation. For months sit-ins and mass marches were met with violence from police, KKK members, and white citizens alike. King was arrested along with many others. Economic boycotts bolstered the efforts, eventually leading the city to compromise and desegregate.
Dr. King helped lead resistance to the intentional disenfranchisement of black Americans, joining with many others in the marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, where many endured extreme violence at the hands of police.
Yes, there is good reason why we might remember Dr. King as a symbol of resistance to racism, violence, and injustice writ large. His life and words remind us of the efficaciousness of sustained resistance, they prove that non-violence is a viable path to change, and his death reminds us of the costliness of standing up to powers and structures which threaten to establish a more just and equitable order.
There is no denying that it is good and just to commemorate Dr. King’s life and legacy.
Yet even in doing so, there is a temptation which we too must resist. We must resist the sanitized version of Dr. King so often touted in history books and by the media every year when his namesake holiday rolls around. Often what gets presented is the utterly inoffensive picture of a hero. His message of radical racial equality is easily co-opted by leaders who perpetuate to this day the very types of policies that Dr. King resisted. As the Voting Rights Act which was fought for and won with costly sacrifice is gutted with one hand, Dr. King’s message is lifted and distorted with the other hand as feel-good, anodyne colorblindness.
Judge Eugene Pincham has this insight: “I just happen to be one that believes that the power structure does this: make heroes out of dead folks. Because dead folks can’t lead no one nowhere. They made Dr. King a holiday, and he was the most unpopular person at the time of his death of any leader in the history of the nation. The moment he got killed–since he can’t lead nobody nowhere–now he’s a hero.”
It behooves us to remember that what judge Pincham says is true: that a 1966 Gallup poll found that nearly two-thirds of the population had an unfavorable opinion of Dr. King.
It behooves us to remember that he was radically opposed to the Vietnam War and incisively linked U.S. military action abroad to injustices at home. He noted this hypocrisy that some who praised him for non-violence at home but deplored him for it when he applied it to situations abroad.
It behooves us to remember that Dr. King was roundly criticized for broadening the scope of his concern and organizing to examine poverty across race, to include organizing of labor unions, and to call for a multiracial Poor People’s campaign. He was a supporter of the rights of Native Americans, naming the genocide inherent in the United States’ inception. This intersectional approach to justice did not sit well with many folks who thought Dr. King should, in the parlance of our times, “stay in his lane.”
And it also behooves us to remember that though today our national government lionized Dr. King with his own holiday, for years he was a direct target of the FBI. He had phone calls and hotel rooms bugged. He was labelled “dangerous” and called a “notorious liar” by J. Edgar Hoover. He received threats from the FBI and the government circulate fraudulent claims about him to undermine his organizing efforts. The FBI even sent him recordings of affairs Dr. King had with a letter instructing him to end his own life. And even in 1969, a year after his death, the FBI was still conducting misinformation campaigns and seeking to disrupt efforts to honor his memory.
So today as we honor Dr. King, we also resist the distortions that he is and has always been universally loved and respected. We resist the idea that his message can be reduced to the saccharine image of black and white people holding hands.
And we seek to honor his legacy as a followers of Jesus by recognizing the work is not done. There is still great need for people of good will and sound conscience to join together in resisting racism, in resisting a power structure that perpetuates generational poverty, in resisting U.S. imperialism and violence. We continue his legacy of resistance, and draw strength from all our forebears who created and affirmed community on the broadest possible scale to bring about a true peace and a lasting justice.
To close with one of my favorite quotes from Dr. King, he wrote: “Today’s despair is a poor tool with which to carve tomorrow’s justice.” Friends, even as we resist the powers of oppression, racism, war, and systemic injustice and the white-washing of history, we do so not from a place of despair from centered in hope, and Hope never disappoints.