My Perspective by Gary Damron, Liberal
Some years ago, I heard a minister speak at a Martin Luther King Day celebration. He reminded students at an urban community college that the person commemorated was “The Reverend Mr. King.” He repeated it again, emphasizing “The Reverend”. Last week we referred to one of King’s sermons delivered in Chicago August 27, 1967. Less than eight months later he would be assassinated.
The words spoken by King live on, and a printed transcript of the speech I have comes complete with responses from the congregation. In black churches, even the sermon is participatory. King himself explained that he was foremost a preacher. “This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment.” He went on to state that he saw civil rights leadership as an extension of ministry, and that he had no ambitions politically or otherwise beyond preaching the gospel.
Martin Luther King had a keen awareness that Christians needn’t wait for immortality for conditions to improve. “It’s … all right to talk about the new Jerusalem. But one day we must begin to talk about the new Chicago, the new Atlanta, the new New York, the new America.” Nearly 50 years later, have conditions in those places improved?
This week I attended a conference sponsored by the American Historical Association, with one session featuring a panel discussion on civil rights. To be honest, I hadn’t realized where the focus on civil rights has turned, and how King has been added to the list of charismatic leaders, such as Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, who are now being downplayed by historians.
The new approach was supported by one speaker when she stated that the civil rights effort was a grassroots movement, and that Rosa Parks came first and the boycotts started before King ever showed up in Montgomery. The thing that bothered me most was the idea that King’s non-violence approach wasn’t totally effective. Another panelist claimed that in fact the reason the protesters could be non-violent was because there were others standing by willing to inflict violence, or to protect them. To me the violence done to protesters - without any evidence of this violent protective group intervening - calls his statement into question.
In King’s most famous speech he referred to a “dream”, but many people don’t know what that dream consisted of. He spoke often of Jefferson and Lincoln and their concepts of brotherhood, freedom, and justice. He dreamed of safety for his children, and of character that would be evident and recognized regardless of the color of a person’s skin.
He spoke encouragement to those who’d followed him but had encountered great obstacles. “Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive,” he urged.
Current violence has increased tensions and caused people to be fearful. Conditions are undoubtedly different than they were then, but King’s words are contemporary. “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
Pastors, protesters, political leaders are not perfect. Each must realize we’re dependent on God who is perfect and supreme. The answer for which The Reverend Mr. King searched was a turning to truth, embodied in the Christ he served. Nonviolence to King might have been a method of bringing about a dream, but it was also actually an integral part of his dream.