I wrote this in 2008.
In 1983 Ronald Reagan signed into law a national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At that time, I was a newscaster at a radio station in northern Indiana. I remember the debate that raged—yes, raged—in America over that holiday. I would watch the AP wire feeds as politicians and pundits argued about whether or not it was appropriate to honor Dr. King in this manner. Some of the arguments seemed a little disingenuous. Some opponents said that the country could not afford another national holiday. They claimed that our economy could not withstand another day of the year in which production would shut down and the banks and post offices would close. Yeah, right.
However, the majority of the outspoken opponents were up front about the reason for their resistance. King was a radical. Most people have forgotten that. Today people tend to see his mission solely in terms of race relations, and in our day, an overwhelming number of Americans would never want to return to segregated lunch counters and “whites only” water fountains. In fact, when we see the video footage of the battles for voting rights, the opponents of civil rights strike us as ignorant, hateful or both. So, most people today feel like they are in sync with Dr. King’s message. But they are not.
Dr. King’s mission—which began as the Montgomery Bus Boycott to end segregation on city transportation—broadened significantly over the years. He focused on economic issues for all Americans—black and white. He tried to be a voice for the poor. And he took on the war in Vietnam. His most significant anti-war speech was delivered on April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York. In no uncertain terms, he stood squarely with the clergy that had gathered that day to affirm their opposition to the war. Again, by today’s standards that may not seem exceptionally controversial. But things were much different in the sixties. King was condemned as a Communist, and not just by some crazy pundits. The FBI considered him a threat to our country. He was the most hated man in America.
I’m always a little amused when I hear some people praising King or commemorating his holiday, when it is clear that they would have hated his values. I heard it again today, as leading politicians put out statements for the King holiday. But the statements I heard were coming from people who reject King’s idea of nonviolence. Those military hawks would find the real King outlandish. Consider these words…
“I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos, without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.”
“What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe?”
Those who preach the gospel of American Exceptionalism would also reject the real King. That day at Riverside he said…
“This is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent, based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.”
“I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continue to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.”
He called the war an “enemy of the poor.”
Martin Luther King articulated what all advocates of justice eventually learn. Justice and peace are inseparable. When you listen to or read King’s anti-war speeches and sermons, you hear him saying that his passion for racial and economic justice compelled him to speak out against the war. He knew that his work for justice would be meaningless if he did not also work for peace.
Perhaps the message of peace is the most difficult one for us to hear. Peace does not seem possible. The methods of peace do not seem practical. And the message of peace requires us to put aside our feelings of exceptionalism and superiority. Tough stuff. People hated King for it.
Our historical amnesia helps make King a likable figure. But in 1983—a mere fifteen years after his death—his holiday was not without controversy, because many people still remembered their visceral reactions to the man who challenged their deepest values with the messages of racial equality and nonviolence.
As you think about Martin Luther King’s legacy, think about justice and peace. And remember that, for all of his flaws, King found that message of nonviolence in the gospel of Jesus Christ.