I grew up in the Deep South. I probably first heard Dr. King’s name as a child in conversations among adults. I remember hearing two adults talking at a lunch counter saying they thought that King was a trouble maker. “He goes in and gets black people all riled up about the way things have been for generations.” He seemed to have a reputation, at least among the white population I moved in, that he was in it for his own fame and for the limelight and that what he did caused more trouble than did any good.
In high school, in the days after Roots aired with high ratings for whites and blacks alike, the dismissal of Dr. King among adults was a little more nuanced. They would say things like, “Well, he is their hero. Every people need a hero and he is theirs. No one really spoke out against him until a national holiday in his name was proposed. I can remember teachers and peers openly scoffing at the idea that he deserved such a holiday. People often threw in that they heard J. Edgar Hoover had caught him cheating on his spouse and had it on tape. I can easily say I left for college thinking of Martin Luther King as nothing more than a polarizing racial figure with questionable personal morals.
All this began to change for me in my early twenties. In college, I became fascinated with the tale of another American, Robert F. Kennedy and would read anything I could get my hands on about his life. But in reading about RFK, I began to see Dr, King in a different light. Kennedy greatly respected Dr. King’s work and as Attorney General worked hard to protect the safety of the Freedom Riders. He met with King and encouraged him in his work. And when King was assassinated, RFK went into a inner city Detroit neighborhood to share the hard news. Watching tapes of that speech, you could feel the gravity of what had happened. I can easily say I left college thinking of Martin Luther King as a deserving civil rights icon.
In graduate school, and in my early years in the USAF, I began to read King’s speeches. I was fascinated to see the depth of how he wrote and the skill he had in verbal delivery. I could easily understand why people gravitated to him. I also began to see more fully why what he wrote about was about far more than just the civil rights of African Americans (although freeing American of its institutionalized segregation and racism was surely a motivating point for him). King’s speeches really dealt with how the powerful treat those with far less power. And he saw our entire nation as it was, the most powerful nation in the world, and he held up the mirror to us. By my thirties, I saw him as one of the most profound thinkers in American life of a generation.
In seminary, when I gained access to reading his sermons, Dr. King came into even more distinct focus for me. What motivated King was his Christian faith and who Jesus called human beings to be. His Letter from a Birmingham Jail remains for me his most memorable work. It surely highlighted not just our nation’s ability “to look the other way” when people are suffering sometimes but especially for the church to be complicit in that. This surely is the last thing Christ called on people to do with their lives. And, the more I learned of J.Edgar Hoover, the more peculiar a person he was to me than King. I have no idea how faithful King was in his personal life. But I decided any “dirt” that Hoover supposedly had on him did not deserve great thought. Ever since seminary, I have had a portrait of King on my office wall. I have collected many of his works. When my USAF duty sent me a number of times to Montgomery, I even got to stand in the pulpit of his old church.
It is therefore dismaying to me when I hear people disparage him today. And it is easy to want to “go off” on them as narrow minded people. But then, I try to remind myself that I too was there (or at least not too far from there) at one point in my life. And it honors King little to start arguing with someone else about his legacy. The best I can do is share his ideas in my sermons, tell his story to people who may be unfamiliar with it (which is hard sometimes because most people already think they know as much as they need to about him), and go on marches in his name.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a profound Christian. He was a great American. He was willing to suffer in order to “to give a cup of cold water to the least of these.” He will always be one of my heroes.
I hope you have a chance in your community, wherever it is, to discuss his story and his legacy.
Until next time,