The observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday has become, after a rather contentious early history, an appropriate national celebration of one of the pivotal personalities and movements of modern times.
In addition to its reminder of the vision, leadership and courage of King, it also commemorates the dozens of close associates who planned, marched and went to jail with him, and the thousands of unnamed “foot soldiers” in the crusade, who endured the police dogs, fire hoses, billy clubs and other abuse of the frantic effort to preserve a way of life based on the injustice of racial segregation.
There were others as well, of both races, whose work for the cause is recognized by this holiday. Clergy, journalists, academics and community leaders contributed to the movement that brought the long history of racial oppression to public attention and called for its correction.
King himself reflected frequently on the cause as a communal one, with every ounce of courage of every participant counting as significant toward the long-term goal of reconciliation and community.
His best known public statements – the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, the “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, and his Nobel acceptance address – all point to the goal as not just a liberation of black people from the shackles of segregation, but more as a reconciliation of a fractured humanity and a new community of justice, peace and love.
There is another group, not often mentioned in the celebrations of the holiday, which played and continues to play a significant role in this reconciliation.
Southern church historian Sam Hill, writing in 1972, when the impact of the struggle was still fresh and its implications were still working themselves out, pointed to an aspect of the Southern context of King’s work that had a significant effect on its outcome.
Hill noted two features of the religious consciousness of the South that had an ironic impact. The most obvious of the two was the way Christian faith had sanctified the social system that surrounded it, and the passion with which it resisted change.
Stories abound and are still fresh in the memories of many, to the disbelief of our grandchildren, of the God-fearing and Bible-toting Christians who manned the fire hoses and police dogs, and cheered on those who did.
But there was another feature of the religious South, Hill observed: a lifetime of exposure to the Gospel had planted seeds in the hearts and minds of many that there was a right and a wrong way to treat others; the inconsistency of that principle with the social structure of their lives was probably hidden by an accepted way of life and the emphasis on treating people kindly whatever their place in the system.
When the system itself was challenged, some joined in passionate and violent resistance in an effort to preserve what they considered a God-given order of society.
But there were others – just as challenged, just as uncomfortable with changes to their way of life – who saw in those responses something wrong – terribly wrong. They chose to respond by letting their thinking start a journey toward change by listening to the voice of the Gospel deep within them that called them to march to a different drumbeat.
It was to this part of the human spirit that King was appealing. He believed that racial oppression had two sets of victims – the oppressed and the oppressors – and he believed God would use the movement to liberate both.
In 1963 he wrote: “One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”
The courage to listen to a voice that confronts us with an uncomfortable truth about ourselves and to take steps toward heeding it is a bit different from the courage that literally risks life and limb on the front line of a crusade for justice. But it is courage nonetheless; it is found around kitchen tables, in school classrooms, church pews, workplaces and neighborhoods, where people’s hearts and minds are shaped by the models of faithfulness that surround them.
No awards, special recognitions or holidays are established for that kind of courage, but its legacy is the cultivation of future generations that will think differently and more justly. King and his associates were a powerful prophetic voice that called American society to a new way of being.
The countless unsung heroes who heard this call and began to build a reconciled community by living a redirected perspective are part of that process as well.
Many of us are grateful heirs of those who reflected that kind of courage in that period. Maybe this year’s holiday is a good time to call the names and tell the stories of our own unsung heroes, and to reflect on the kind we might become for those who follow us.
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).