The United States has made Martin Luther King Jr. a national icon by sanitizing his legacy and by erasing from its memory his importance as a prophetic voice.

Most commemorations of King’s birthday concentrate on his “I Have a Dream” speech. Some recall his Memphis speech, in which he spoke, the night before he was murdered, of possibly not getting to the Promised Land with his followers. And these are important elements of King’s legacy. They should be remembered.

Other important elements of that legacy, however, have been either conveniently or deliberately forgotten – the opening paragraphs of the “I Have a Dream” speech, his initial success in forming a coalition of poor whites and blacks, his opposition to the Vietnam War, and his insistence that these were all intricately related.

The “I Have a Dream” speech began with the reminder that 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the “Negro” still was not truly free. The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, said King, were a promissory note for all Americans, but still in default for “citizens of color.” His “dream” was that the check eventually would be cashed. Despite the persistence of the default, he was optimistic; the March on Washington was a manifestation of that optimism and a call for the check to be cashed.

Especially erased from our collective memory is King’s sermon at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967 – exactly one year before he was assassinated. The sermon, “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” is too long to summarize here, but the thing that enraged many was his characterization of the United States as “the greatest purveyor of violence today.”

All the major news reports, of course, overlooked the complete context in which the words were spoken. King described how he had spoken to young men in the ghettos of the North, who believed violence was the only solution to their problems and how he had attempted to convince them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. They had responded by asking him whether “our own nation” was not using massive violence to solve its problems. King said that he realized then that he could never again raise his 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.” The history of the Vietnam War lends credence to King’s words without regard to their strict statistical accuracy or inaccuracy.

King’s reference to the U.S. government as “our own” and “my own” also should be noted. It was his love for the nation, he said, that compelled him to speak so boldly, and his words suggest that he did not see himself as somehow apart from the nation’s sin. At the same time, King saw himself as a child of God, with a responsibility to the entire human race, all members of which are children of God. It should be no surprise then that his preaching against violence within the nation led to preaching against violence by the nation and to criticizing all nations for assuming that violence can lead to some secular form of salvation.

In the sermon, King asserted that by its actions in Vietnam, the United States had betrayed its own character and identity, and he called, in effect, for the nation to live up to its own better nature. Time magazine, which had featured King as the Man of the Year in 1964, after he won the Nobel Peace Prize, said his sermon at Riverside sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.

Were King alive today, no doubt, he would be engaged in opposition to U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and in favor of some form of universal health care. Consequently, just as he was half a century ago, he would be denounced by conservatives and misunderstood by liberals. Much of our celebration of him today is possible only because we have forgotten who he really was.

Gene Davenport is professor emeritus of religion at Lambuth University in Jackson, Tenn., and theologian in residence at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jackson. It is reprinted here courtesy of the Jackson Sun.

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