By Tom Krattenmaker
Featured often in USA Today, Religion News Service
Whenever we remember the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., some people inevitably pull out a piece of sandpaper and try to smooth the sharp edges of the great civil rights prophet.
“Don’t politicize him,” they say.
As if that were possible without erasing the man himself and his vital place in history.
Fox News and its devotees tried to domesticate King in classic fashion back in January on MLK Day. In a commentary for the network’s website, Jeremy Hunt played up one side of King’s life and legacy — that he was a Christian minister who spoke of inner spiritual transformation—while ignoring the political nature of what King spent much of his time pursuing: specific changes to policies and practices to elevate African-Americans.
“It’s a day for national unity, not political division,” the headline read.
Lest we forget, King was in Memphis on the day of his assassination to fight for better pay and working conditions for the city’s sanitation workers. That’s political. This followed a year in which he took a controversial position against the Vietnam War and the societal sins of poverty and militarism, incurring bitter pushback. That’s political.
During the civil rights movement, King led marches and similar actions that infuriated protectors of the status quo; this, so that black people could vote and enjoy other benefits of equal citizenship. That’s political.
And even though he waxed spiritual in the famous “I Have a Dream” speech — the moment in the King story most palatable to the masses — King’s soaring address evoked the dream only after highlighting the nightmare: the “manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination,” as King put it that day in 1963.
When not promoting the hoariest shades of MLK, some politicians attempt to wrap themselves in his stature in a version of “one of my friends is black.” A prime example played out in Arlington, Texas, earlier this year when Republican Gov. Greg Abbott was announced as an honorary grand marshal for an MLK Day parade.
In view of Abbot’s less-than-stellar record on issues important to many African-Americans, activists threatened boycotts and called on Abbott to withdraw. “It’s a shame,” the governor’s office responded, “that some are politicizing what should be a unifying event.”
Unity is a worthy goal. But appeals to it ring hollow in the absence of justice — especially when those calling for unity are perpetuators of injustice.
Equally dubious are attempts to inflate King into what author and professor Jeanne Theoharis describes as a jolly, blandly lovable parade float figure. In making King larger than life, this sentimentalizing shrinks him to less than he was. “One of the things that people erase from history is how scared of Dr. King most Americans were,” Theoharis rightly notes.
Along with this comes an attempt to play up only the spiritual side of King. Jeremy Hunt is right that King spoke movingly about spiritual transformation, about “fighting the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit,” as King phrased it in his famous book “Strength to Love.”
But sentimentalizers are well off the mark when they say, as Hunt did, that we ought to dwell only on “his teachings on love, his commitment to ministering the Gospel, his dream of equality for all people.”
Those of us who want King remembered in his fullness ought to applaud efforts being undertaken this season in Memphis, Tenn. Led by the National Civil Rights Museum — located on the site of King’s killing — a racially and religiously diverse coalition has been working to turn the April 4 anniversary of his death into a catalyst for long-stalled progress on issues King cared about.
These Memphians are especially intent on addressing the city’s poverty — an issue that galled King in 1968 and continues to vex the city today. Memphis is one of the nation’s poorest cities. It’s also, not coincidentally, a city with one of the highest percentages of African-Americans, highlighting the inextricable link between race and poverty.
“The museum and local faith community are not going to allow folks to come to Memphis on April 4 and remember King without facing the facts on the ground there today,” notes Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, who is helping lead a King-style Poor People’s Campaign and has authored a new book called “Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom From Slaveholder Religion.”
Remembering King’s political dimensions should not come at the expense of his religious and spiritual sides. Secular activists would do his legacy a disservice if they obscured the fact he was a Christian minister and preacher whose activism drew deeply from his faith.
Nor should King be made out to be a mascot for either side in the current political stalemate. It’s true that his activism usually veered left, even radically so. But he challenged and confounded liberals and Democrats in his lifetime. You can bet he would do the same today.
Like it or not, Martin Luther King was controversial — and political. To depoliticize King is to change King, domesticate King. This is no way to honor the legacy of one of our nation’s greatest prophets. Especially when so much of his work remains unfinished.
(Tom Krattenmaker is a religion-in-public-life writer and communications director at Yale Divinity School. He is the author, most recently, of “Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
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