Prophet, Philosopher, Tragic Hero
Vincent Kavaloski, Ph.D., Edgewood College, Madison, Wisconsin 2010
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929 – 1968)
Every year in mid-January, around the time of his birthday, we see the image of him standing there amidst the historic 1963 gathering at the Lincoln Memorial, telling us about a magnificent Dream that he had for America, a Dream of love, justice and equality for all, a Dream founded in the American Dream. But his Dream pushed well beyond this, to its logical and necessary fulfillment in the Beloved Community: “where all God’s children will be able to join hands.”
It seemed to his wife, Coretta, that for one brief, beautiful moment, “the kingdom of God seemed to have come on earth.” But only for a moment. Who was this Dreamer, who had roused the sleeping conscience of the nation, who had come so far, down an arduous road to this place? Was he the plastic saint that some would like to see now safely dead and irrelevant – a mere relic of history? Was he just another utopian dreamer? Was he a prophet of Biblical proportions? Who really was Martin Luther King, Jr.? How had he come to this historic place? And what lay beyond, in the five tumultuous years left to him? Should we just leave him standing there at the Lincoln Memorial and ignore the evolution, enlargement, and radicalization of his Dream after 1963?
In honoring his memory, do we somehow forget his still radical challenge to materialism, militarism, and racism, his prophetic challenge to us today for a “revolution of values?” He was, first and foremost, a child of the Black Baptist Church, his father, and grandfather both powerful preachers at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He said he “grew up in the church.” and always insisted, that he was not primarily a social activist, still less a political figure, but a “minister of the Gospel.” Faith was the vital center of his being. But even in the midst of his loving and supportive family, the boy could not escape the humiliation and injustice of racial segregation, and like any child, he was tempted to hate back.
His parents and influential grandmother taught him at an early age a profound lesson that shaped his life: to “never stoop so low as to let anyone make you hate.” Entering Morehouse College at the precocious age of 15, he was befriended by the president, the great Benjamin Mays, who had visited India and often referred to Gandhi and India’s freedom struggle in his lectures. Thence his insatiable thirst for knowledge led him to Crozer Seminary in Pennsylvania and on to Boston University School of Theology where he absorbed ideas of pacifism, Thoreau’s civil disobedience, personalism – the vision of the infinite and sacred worth of each human person – and the social gospel, which focused not on the after-life, but on bringing Jesus’ vision of justice and mercy to this earthly life. Here in Boston he also met and romantically courted Coretta Scott, a talented singer studying at the New England Conservatory.
They were married in 1953 and decided, out of a sense of shared mission, to return to the segregated South, despite other offers. In 1954, the same year as the momentous Brown versus Board of Education challenged the legality of the entire apartheid system, Martin and Coretta moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where the 25 year old Martin took-up a pastorship at the prestigious Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, just a few blocks from the Confederate flag-waving capitol of the old Dixie. The next year, Rosa Parks made her historic refusal and the Black Women’s Political Council (under the leadership of Jo Ann Robinson) called for an immediate bus boycott. Out of this arduous 381-day struggle, (won, as MLK said, by the redemptive suffering of the 50,000 African Americans), Dr. Martin Luther King emerged as the inspired and prophetic leader, calling people to a loving, disciplined nonviolent struggle for social justice. “Christ furnished the spirit while Gandhi furnished the method” he often said.
His home was bombed and daily threats were made on his life but his faith was renewed by the “miracle of Montgomery.” The victory in Montgomery inspired similar civil rights struggles throughout the South and Dr. King, guided by a sense of prophetic mission, responded by helping to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference(SCLC) to support those freedom struggles. The goal was to awaken the sleeping conscience of the country and thus “to save the soul of America.” Dr. King did not create the Civil Rights Movement – but in a way it helped to create him, the towering and tragic person he became. His trips to Ghana (1957) and India (1959) caused him to see the U.S. Civil Rights Movement as part of a larger global freedom struggle for basic human rights.
There were spectacular victories in Birmingham (1963) and Selma (1965)culminating in the Civil Rights Act (1964) outlawing all racial segregation and the Voting Rights Act (1965). But there were also defeats in Albany, St. Augustine, and Chicago. At every stage sacrifices were made, marchers were beaten, churches burned and bombed, lives lost. And through it all MLK strode on, struggling with exhaustion, bouts of depression, frequent ‘jailings’ and the virtual loss of his family life. In1964Dr.King was honored internationally with the Nobel Peace Prize–the youngest person ever to receive it. He accepted the award in the name of the thousands of ordinary people who had risked everything to struggle for freedom.
As the Civil Right Movement neared victory, he advanced to Economic Rights, including the right to a job and to a minimum decent standard of living for all Americans. As his vision of the Beloved Community became more global he also alienated many by denouncing the unjust war in Vietnam. Dr. King declared the U.S. as the “greatest purveyor of violence” in the world. Suddenly most of his supporters (even the then leaders of the NAACP and Urban League) and the “liberal” New York Times turned against him for becoming too radical, too extreme, and even a “traitor” to his country.
The head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, publicly excoriated him as a “communist” and “ the most notorious liar in America” and carried on a covert campaign to destroy him. It is important to realize that Dr. King was not always admired, but like Jesus was scorned and rejected at the end of his life. In 1968 he was in the midst of campaigning against the Vietnam War and planning a nation-wide Poor People’s March on Washington, D.C. bringing together Blacks, Latinos Native Americans and Appalachian Whites to demand an economic Bill of Rights. They planned to shut down the nation’s capital through massive civil disobedience in the name of a “revolution of values,” putting people before profits. Dr. King echoed Gandhi who said God has given enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed. The war-system must be transformed into a peace-system.
Threats on his life increased, but he refused to relent on his radical vision of the “Beloved Community” that went beyond both capitalism and communism. In the midst of all this organizing, he was asked to come to Memphis to support the sanitation workers in their struggle to organize a union and decent working conditions. On April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel, he was shot to death in circumstances that have never been fully explained. Dr. King was 39 years old. The night before his death, in his last public speech, he spoke movingly of his own prophetic mission and martyrdom, as a Moses to the modern world:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may does not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
More about Dr. Vincent Kavaloski 2018
Also visit the Civil Rights Museum: http://mlk50.civilrightsmuseum.org/
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis, Tennessee. “The National Civil Rights Museum, located at the historic Lorraine Motel, recognizes that the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination demands a significant commemoration. Because of Dr. King’s influence not only for minorities, but also for all people in the United States and worldwide, we are observing his legacy year-round with signature events and activities aimed at remembering Dr. King while motivating and activating change”. – National Civil Rights Museum