As I recover from a busy late summer and fall, I expect to be back to blogging regularly in February. Today, I wanted to take some time as we as a country, and Messiah College as a campus, stop to remember the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to provide space for those of us who are part of the dominant white culture to listen to and learn from minority voices. I’ve decided to highlight three pieces today that I think provide food for thought.
First, my friend Drew Hart offers a reminder that King’s legacy has been co-opted by both sides of the political debates, and that this has cost us much and poisoned our ability to really understand his prophetic voice, which still has much to speak with us today. A taste (read the whole thing here):
“Our” Dr. King that we celebrate each year has been completely co-opted by the right and the left to further the shallow partisan ideological work in American society. Dr. King’s legacy has been thoroughly domesticated, like a house cat after being de-clawed and neutered. He is now safe. Safe to mold into our projections of who we want him to be. Dr. King is no longer a radical prophetic voice of a Christian preacher crying out in the wilderness. Instead, after he died, we built him a monument to adore, after our liking, and gave it a seat at the emperor’s table. However, the prophet never sits and fellowships at the table with an imperial ruler. The prophet is not accepted by the social order it speaks life into because he is always seen as a threat.
Dr. King, in actuality, was a great threat. As a devout Christian leader shaped by a prophetic imagination and the life and teachings of Jesus, he dared to speak untimely truths that were always seen as a nuisance. …
While it is not easy to hear what Drew has to say about the role that even northern whites played in the demonizing of Dr. King, it is a reminder to those of us who like to hide behind being on the “right side” of the Mason Dixon Line. While slavery died here first, racism has not died, even here.
Next I would like to point to another voice minority voice calling out to all of us to remember what Dr. King’s call was, and to not be so quick to assume that a minority president means that King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has been fulfilled. Once again, I offer a taste, but you should read the whole piece here.
In a recent lecture and subsequent q & a session with students at the University of Rochester, political studies professor and MSNBC analyst Melissa Harris-Perry talked about how a more human, less divinized, messier approach to King Jr.’s legacy should be the key to winning a more progressive future. Ideas are what matters, they are what last and change the world.
MLK Jr. wasn’t shot down for his beliefs. MLK Jr.’s and the women, the other adult men, and children who marched with him, their bodies were not tortured because of their abstract notions of equality, their patriotic love for the U.S. Constitution, or their religious fervor. Bodily encounters are what change the world through praxis. Liberating Praxis changes things. Battles of ideas are waged through the mediation of human anatomy.
In the full piece, Rod reminds us that Dr. King’s, and indeed the main thrust of the civil rights movement, practice involved nonviolence. This was a core value and commitment that was woven throughout the movement.
Finally, I want to point my readers to a letter written from one of King’s friends and allies in the civil rights movement. Each year, United Methodist Bishop Woodie W. White writes a letter to his friend Dr. King about the progress, or lack thereof, in the fight for equality. This years letter reflects poignantly the mixed feelings Rev. White has about the year just past. Again, I’ll share a bit here, but you should read the whole piece.
I write this year with mixed emotions. I am mostly saddened by the number of public acts of racial bigotry in the United States and a seeming numbing of racial sensitivity and commitment to continue a journey toward equal justice for all. I have been utterly disappointed by political efforts to disenfranchise African-American voters and others by many state legislatures and the lack of outrage by the citizenry in general and the media in particular. Further, Martin, there is the emergence of what author Michelle Alexander calls The New Jim Crow. (I call it the last plantation in America.) Her book reveals the consequences of what she describes as “mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness.” It is a growing national shame, largely ignored!
These and other events mar our landscape of racial progress and promise. They have pushed me from my usual hope and optimism to unusual discouragement.
I hope that this will draw out attention today to the real Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The version of King that we are shown through the media and our social networking feeds is too often a distorted view that doesn’t sound anything like the real man. I would suggest that after listening to the modern voices I’ve offered here, we should make time to periodically listen to the voice of the man himself, in his own words. Fortunately, many recordings of King’s speeches exist, and can be found for purchase or borrowed from your local library’s collection. Please take the time to get to know this modern day prophet. After taking some time last summer to do so for myself, I am convinced that King still has much to say to us … if only we will listen.