I vividly remember the exact moment. I had fled my native South to New York City to finish college and seminary, embarrassed at being a Baptist, at being a white Southerner, and not entirely sure if I was a believer. But the “God question” wouldn’t go away.
A mighty wrestling match was underway in my soul, trying to come to terms with my adolescent “youth revival” preacher days. Neither the Civil Rights nor the anti-Vietnam War movements had disturbed my piously furrowed brow.
Several years earlier, on a Saturday in high school, just before dawn and at the beginning of a 12-hour Saturday shift pumping gas and washing cars, I was transferring product displays and stacks of new tires. I overheard the radio saying something about Martin Luther King Jr.
“That Martin Luther King, he ain’t no Christian,” the station owner muttered toward the radio. “Everywhere he goes, there’s trouble.” Years later, I would eventually realize the same things were likely said about Jesus.
Entering seminary, I became a voracious reader of the history, details and figures of the Civil Rights Movement era. Then came that vivid moment.
I had purchased a book of photographs featuring Dr. King, other civil rights luminaries and moments. Flipping through the book, I turned to a photo showing Dr. King and his wife, Coretta, sitting at a piano, their infant daughter Yolanda perched on Martin’s lap. He and Coretta sang from an open hymnal.
The cover title was clear. It was the Broadman Hymnal, the hymnal I grew up with.
It was published by the Southern Baptist Convention, the same body whose Executive Committee refused a resolution of sympathy to members of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, one day after the terrorist bombing in 1963 that killed four young children.
I could once quote, from memory, the page number of dozens of titles in that hymnal. As I came to discover, a good many churches that hosted Civil Rights Movement mass meetings—churches that were threatened by cross-burning Klan torches—did their singing from the Broadman Hymnal.
And I also learned that terrorism on American soil has a long history.
That moment—that photo—stands among my life’s greatest epiphanies. I realized that the language of faith can have many different, even competing, meanings, just as any chemical compound can become something else by removing just one element.
The annual commemoration of Dr. King’s birthday provides a perennial occasion to remember the dream that still beckons both church and civil society. And this is not just in the U.S. I’ve listened to children in Baghdad sing “We Shall Overcome” in Arabic and read similar accounts from the Berlin Wall and Tiananmen Square in Beijing to South Africa’s Soweto Township.
A comic book-style telling of the Montgomery bus boycott, first published in 1958, was translated into Arabic in 2008 and circulated widely during the “Arab Spring” democracy movement in North Africa.
Yet Dr. King was not assassinated because he was a dreamer, though the national holiday-makers have largely domesticated and smoothed over the threat he represented– “The most dangerous negro in the country,” according to the FBI’s assessment.
We forget that, by the time he was assassinated, his favorable public opinion polling had plummeted to 33%. We forget that in his last major speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” in which he openly condemned the U.S. war in Vietnam, he charged our nation as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”
After prophets die, we mold their memory to suit our purposes. We ladle praise and put them on pedestals, often as a way to distance ourselves from them. There is some truth in that old canard: “A conservative is someone who admires a dead radical.”
Admiring Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream is not the same as being captured by it. It is not only possible but common to respect the man but relinquish his mission, to revere the dreamer but renege on the dream, so much so that the mission and dream turn into something else entirely.
The most significant mistake we make is using the observance of King’s birth as the occasion to heap accolades on his memory. Diane Nash, one of the many unheralded leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, says it well:
“If people think that it was Martin Luther King’s movement, then today they—young people—are more likely to say, ‘Gosh, I wish we had a Martin Luther King here today to lead us.’ If people knew how that movement started, then the question they would ask themselves is, ‘What can I do?’”
Curator of prayerandpolitiks.org, an online journal at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action, and author of, most recently, In the Land of the Willing: Litanies, Prayers, Poems, and Benedictions. He was the founding director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and founding co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, North Carolina.