Every once in a while I hear someone say something in passing that sticks with me for years, though I’ll never find the proper attribution. I think it was in an NPR interview years ago that I heard someone point out that as a society we tend to admire living conservatives and dead radicals.
That still rings true to me, and it bears some thought. Today is the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, and it also marks a tipping point— he has now been dead longer than he was alive. He died at the age of thirty-nine on April 4, 1968, three weeks to the day before I was born. I must have passed him in the waiting room.
Listen, as you hear the news stories and the tributes to the frequency of the phrase “slain civil rights leader.” That is how we identify him now, in spite of the fact that he spent the latter half of his ministry preaching more against the sins of poverty and war than racism.
We’ve made significant progress with issues of racism, and it is important to celebrate that, though we still have a long way to go. As a culture, though, I think we are less threatened these days by questions of race than we are by questions of war and poverty, and the inextricable link between the two, both in Dr. King’s time and in ours.
April 4, 1967, a year before his death, also happens to be the day that Dr. King gave his sermon A Time to Break the Silence, and it certainly still speaks to me in my time.
When I was in high school and college in Virginia, the state celebrated “Lee-Jackson-King Day, honoring two confederate generals on the same day. With that notable exception, though, Dr. King is at least officially respected by our nation these days. He has a national holiday. His legacy is taught in elementary schools. It’s hard to remember or to believe the truth that in his time he was widely reviled as a troublemaker and hated by most people in the United States.
But dead radicals are so much safer than living ones. We can sanitize their stories, emphasize the parts that have become safer, skip the parts that make us uncomfortable.
Dorothy Day, the famed activist and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, said “Don’t call us saints. We don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” I wonder if we have made Dr. King a saint— and thereby dismissed him.
In the words of Harvard professor emeritus Charles Willie:
By idolizing those whom we honor, we fail to realize that we could go and do likewise. As I have said on many occasions, honoring Martin Luther King Jr. would be dishonorable if we remember the man and forget his mission. For those among us who believe in him, his work now must become our own.
Considering the question of the sanitizing of Dr. King leads naturally to the same question about Dr. King’s guiding lights. Have we done the same to Gandhi? It seems to me that we have. He doesn’t seem nearly as dangerous as his teachings truly are.
And what about Dr. King’s primary teacher and mentor? Phillips Brooks puts it this way:
In the best sense of the word, Jesus was a radical… His religion has so long been identified with conservatism… that it is almost startling sometimes to remember that all the conservatives of his own times were against him; that it was the young, free, restless, sanguine, progressive part of the people who flocked to him.
Let me be clear that I’m not trying to make a political statement here in the sense of “that side is wrong, this side is right.” My point is that where conservatism equals preserving the status quo because of our fear or greed, we are failing to live toward justice. Dr. King said, rightly, that we cannot have peace without justice, or justice without peace.
Rest in peace, Dr. King.