It is right that we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It is hard to name a more influential role player in Black America’s march toward full citizenship. Unfortunately, our nation also participates in selective memory about the man himself. Let us explore some things we choose not to celebrate.
First we must remember that King was a Christian pastor. It was in his role as minister of Ebenezer Baptist Church that he first made very public the need for action to truly free Black people in America. Furthermore, his writings and speeches made frequent biblical references. “Let justice roll down like a river” are the words of the prophet Micah. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech recalls Moses and the children of Israel’s approach to their promised land. In 1963 he tells us “…faith transforms the whirlwind of despair into a warm and reviving breeze of hope… Fear knocked at the door Faith answered. There was no one there.”
Another aspect of King’s leadership we choose to pay less than full attention to is his use of nonviolent tactics to achieve the goal of equality for all. Many people worked hard to learn how to remain peaceful during verbal and physical attacks. At the time it was obvious how effective these tactics were. Seeing pictures of peaceful and unarmed people attacked by police dogs and drenched with fire hoses made it clear there were those who feared the Black person more that they feared working for their full freedom.
King’s comments on the Vietnam War also illustrated his commitment to nonviolence. In 1967 he wrote “… they wonder what kind of nation applauds nonviolence whenever Negroes face white people… but then applaud violence and burning and death when these same Negroes are sent to the fields of Vietnam.” In other words, he recognized that this country viewed nonviolent protest as acceptable to the white majority when it applied to Black on White conflict but not when it applied to White on anyone else conflict. One wonders if it was King’s commitment to non-violence that really led to his untimely death.
King recognized economic violence as well. We no longer talk about his support of sanitation workers going on strike for adequate pay. At this point in our country’s life it is especially important that we remember the poor, the minimum-wage earner who cannot support his or her family, the unemployed who find it increasingly difficult to find employment the longer they are unemployed no matter the circumstances that led them to be jobless. King’s nonviolent action was acceptable as long as it did not affect all strata of society.
Here again, King’s faith was at work. He read and studied the gospels, chose to become true to Jesus Christ in all aspects.
Finally, we forget that Martin Luther King Jr. was a human being. He lived with all the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs all of us do. Moreover, he struggled with temptations, and yes, lusts, that were problematic. He was aware of his mortality. In his “I Have a Dream” speech. he admits he might not see the Promised Land of African Americans’ full participation in American society. In other words, he was not a god. The good news for us is this: it frees all of us imperfect humans to continue to carry on working for full freedoms for all. The frightening truth is that it also calls us to continue to take risks when we see injustice. We must look around us to recognize who is being oppressed. It is the responsibility of all of us to fight that oppression.
Some have reached the Promised Land. Others are still traveling. It is time we recognize those in our country who are dispossessed, oppressed and treated as less than human. Like the children of Israel, we face both ongoing and new chal-lenges. If we continue to meet these challenges, some day we can all say “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.”
Caprice Becker, a registered nurse, lives at 810 Sunset Ave. She and her husband raised three grown children here. She volunteers at Shepherd’s Crossing.