On Sunday Aug. 28, the world will witness a major chapter in American history: a man who 40 years ago was vilified, even by members of the clergy, for calling on the conscience of the nation to rise against Jim Crow and other forms of human indignity that African Americans were subjected to, will finally join the pantheon of architects of American history like George Washington when the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is officially dedicated in West Potomac Park in the nation’s capital.
For the young Baptist preacher from Atlanta who rose out of a conviction to lead a movement to challenge injustice and oppression, the honor that will be bestowed on him in Washington this week can best be captured in the Biblical phrase, “The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”
King was seeking to build America. He believed that America was
greater than it was and that those who were spewing hatred with their lips “dripping with the words of interposition and nullification” did not know any better. They needed to be cured while the movement tackled oppression in a nonviolent way.
He was not a perfect man, but he carried with him a powerful moral force that could compel even those who did not agree with his views to listen. He always placed the movement ahead of his own personal benefit and that was demonstrated when he donated his Nobel Prize gift to the Civil Rights Movement.
In doing so, King taught us that fighting for human dignity and sounding the alarm about the grinding poverty that had entrapped innocent Blacks and non-Blacks alike required a sacrificial approach. That anyone who dares to be a voice for the poor and underserved must first show an example of how personally committed they are.
On Dec. 10, 1964, King went to Oslo, Norway, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize that would later designate him as America’s premier peace officer.
In his acceptance speech he questioned why the prize was being given to him and a movement that was in a battle that had yet to win the peace that was being sought, the essence of the prize.
“The tortuous road which has led from Montgomery, Alabama to Oslo bears witness to this truth. This is a road over which millions of Negroes are traveling to find a new sense of dignity. This same road has opened for all Americans a new era of progress and hope. It has led to a new Civil Rights Bill, and it will, I am convinced, be widened and lengthened into a super highway of justice as Negro and White men in increasing numbers create alliances to overcome their common problems,” King said.
In Oslo King continued, “I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events, which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”
King was determined, and four decades later he is been vindicated by a political system that was in conflict with him. A system that was visibly disturbed with his famous 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” in which he used his moral authority as a minister of the gospel at the Riverside church in New York to question the war.
“We were taking the Black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem,” King said. “And so we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and White boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. And so we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”
King was concerned about justice and the underprivileged and it came out very clearly during his prophetic mission on earth.
“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” was how King summed up his view of justice and why he was unrelenting in his fight against oppression.
It is important to understand King’s prophetic calling in our current social and political context to see why he did what he did with courage and fearlessness.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book “The Prophets” writes that “the distinction of the prophets was in their remorseless unveiling of injustice and oppression, in their comprehension of social, political and religious evils. They are not concerned with the definition, but with the predicament, of justice, with the fact that those called upon to apply it defied it. The urgency of justice was an urgency of aiding and saving the victims of oppression.”
Heschel’s succinct explanation of the role of the prophets reflected in the life of King provides a searchlight for our today’s political leaders and pastors who claim inspiration from King.
Many of them say they look up to King but how many are actually following his work?
How many are setting an example like the one he left for us?
Aside from the statue that will be unveiled in Washington, what kind of pragmatic everyday memorial are our leaders willing to build to honor his life?
If we care about the poor as he did, what specifically have we done to address the widening gap between the rich and the poor?
If we want to be “Kingian” in tackling the inherent problems in our political system, we will not just talk, but demonstrate real action to address the economic malaise we are in.
King paid his dues. It is up to to us to make the dream come true.
Bankole Thompson is the author of the new book, “Obama and Black Loyalty, Vol. 1,” a trilogy on President Obama. His new book, “Obama and Christian Loyalty,” will be released soon.. Listen to his weekly analyses Thursdays at 11:15 a.m. on “The Craig Fahle Show,” WDET -101.9FM-NPR affiliate. He is a member of the “Obama Watch” roundtable program, Sunday evenings, on WLIB-1190AM-New York which is simulcast in New Jersey and Connecticut. E-mail him at email@example.com.