By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – This weekend the nation honors the birthday of its most celebrated civil rights leader, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Monday will mark the 25th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan signing into law a bill proclaiming the third Monday in January a national holiday in King’s honor. The slain civil rights leader would have been 82 today.
Since King’s assassination in Memphis in 1968, he’s ascended into a pantheon of legendary human rights champions. He’s often mentioned in the same sentence with the likes of Mahatma Ghandi and Mother Theresa.
The origins of King’s near mythic persona, however, are rooted in an experience that was anything but poetic, in a time and place where the ugliness of racism and violence were all too familiar.
For those who lived through the civil rights era, and witnessed King’s rise and later, his murder, the meaning of their experience is something they’re still unpacking decades later.
For those of the younger generation who are concerned about civil rights, they live and work within the horizon of hope King helped create.
Although by the time of his death King had achieved worldwide fame, he started out as a student and pastor in Atlanta.
“People forget his rather simple, Southern roots,” said the Rev. Will Rogers, a former faculty member at Morehouse College, from which King received a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1948.
“He was there in the early days of the movement, kind of from ground zero, the epicenter, Atlanta, and even when he started getting famous his roots were really always in the small, black church experience in the South,” said Rogers, who now is pastor at Christ the King Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Tupelo.
King’s leadership during events such as the boycott of public buses in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955, as well as the March on Washington eight years later catapulted him into the national spotlight, making him a bellwether for the civil rights movement.
As the world began taking notice of King, some Southerners weren’t sure what to think. According to some who lived through the era, like Tupelo businessman and civic leader, Jack Reed Sr., the passing of time sometimes leads people to wonder what those who’ve since been judged to be on the wrong side of history were thinking.
In the years since King’s death, many who didn’t experience the racial turbulence of the 1950s and ‘60s have wondered how anybody could have been less than enthusiastic about King’s work.
Accepting King didn’t come easily to some, even among forward-thinking people, according to Reed.
“It’s hard to appreciate this now, but a lot of people thought he was a troublemaker,” said Reed, who along with his friend, former Gov. William Winter, and some civic and religious leaders throughout the state spoke out for the fair and equal treatment of blacks, even when it brought them the disapproval of most of their contemporaries.
“I think many people, even those of us who believed strongly in what King stood for, including myself, look back on that time and believe we could have done something more,” said Reed.
Rogers, paraphrasing and compressing various currents of German, Christian theology, said that the sins throughout human history emphasize the power of redemption, and culpability depends on the extent to which a person acts freely, unencumbered by circumstance.
“There were a lot of Christian ministers who stood by and watched things unfold,” said Rogers. “They were afraid of speaking in favor of King for fear they’d be ostracized by their congregations.”
According to Reed, the exigencies of history won’t excuse those who failed to stand with King and against racism, but learning from the past is the only way forward.
For Bishop Kenneth Carder, the path forward for whites includes recognizing they can’t simply wipe the slate clean. In today’s world, he said, racial reconciliation too often gets translated into an ‘I’m OK, you’re OK’ approach.
“There has to be repentance before there can be reconciliation,” said Carder, who served as bishop of the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church from 2000-04.
According to Carder, reconciliation means whites have to continually own the injustices they once visited upon blacks, and keep that sin always before them.
Over the years Carder, who is now a professor at Duke Divinity School, has worked hard for the cause of racial reconciliation, but he said part of his journey has meant coming to terms with his own racism.
Never again, said Carder, can any church or minister claiming to be Christian fail to stand beside those who, like King, proclaim the dignity of every person.
“For the church to be faithful to its mission, it has to be a center of reconciliation,” said Carder. “Of all the institutions in society, the church has this mission, mandated to it in the New Testament.”
King’s contribution to the cause of justice for blacks in America is the most obvious hallmark of his legacy, but according to Dr. Echol Nix, the civil rights leader’s message transcends race and culture.
Nix’s studies abroad have turned up admiration for King in some surprising places. An Alabama native, Nix, who now teaches comparative religious ideas at Furman University, studied in Frankfort, Germany, where he once attended a candlelight service in commemoration of King’s birthday.
The connection between King and a country steeped in the Protestant theological traditions shouldn’t surprise people, Nix said.
King and his father were named after the famous German and father of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther. King’s 1955 doctoral dissertation, which he completed while a student at Boston University, was a comparative look at the concepts of God in, among others, the German theologian Paul Tillich.
Nix followed King’s educational path, starting at Morehouse and moving on to Boston, and he said that, due in large part to the civil rights leader’s broad interest in the philosophies and theologies of the world, his message demonstrated a universal concern for the human condition.
“King’s vision was broad, flexible, one in which there are multiple ways of belonging,” said Nix. “What is the experience of being human? This is the question he asked, and it really speaks to all religions.”
King’s friendship with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has been well documented, and the Jewish leader marched alongside King in Selma, Ala., in March of 1965.
According to Bob Schwartz, a member of Temple B’Nai Israel in Tupelo, who is an acquaintance of Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, King was planning to share a Seder supper with the Heschel family the night after he was killed.
Schwartz said that King’s friendship with those in the Jewish community was based partly on a sense of shared identity in oppression. King’s appeal for many Jews, Schwartz said, was his ability to articulate a theology, drawing upon the Exodus experience of the Old Testament, that spoke of the journey from bondage into freedom.
“Who are the people who can speak outside their own traditions today?” asked Schwartz. “Who has that kind of broad credibility?”
The answer Schwartz said, is almost no one.
Like Schwartz, Carder too lamented the strident tone of today’s public discourse, and said King’s legacy, in comparison, is one of thoroughgoing civility.
That civility, Carder said, sprang from King’s theological grounding. Unlike many contemporary public figures, Carder said, who use theology in service of their politics, any political position King took sprang from his religious convictions.
In the current debate over issues like health care reform and immigration, Carder said, people often talk about justice, but they speak of justice in terms of the famous statue, the blindfolded woman holding a scale. Justice in this sense is impersonal and detached. That isn’t biblical justice, Carder said, and it isn’t the kind King stood for.
“Justice isn’t about protecting the benefits of the franchised,” he said. “In the biblical world-view King held, justice is always defined by whether the least and most vulnerable are able to flourish. Justice doesn’t trickle down, it bubbles up.”
King’s vision, according to Carder, was concerned with the kingdom of God. When Jesus spoke of that kingdom, Carder said, people either scratched their heads or got very angry. It was often the same with King.
“In that marvelous ‘I have a dream’ speech, King was able to articulate a vision of another world,” said Carder. “We’re called to live in the light, in the possibility of that new world. If we do this, we’re not always going to be applauded for it.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org