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Which Martin Luther King to Honor?

by Ira Chernus on Jan 21, 2002

Ira Chernus

Which Martin Luther King Jr., will we honor this year?  The Southerner who broke the back of legalized segregation?  Or the American who denounced what he called “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” throughout the nation, North and South? Unless we give both sides their full due, we will be honoring only a bloodless, comforting reflection of the whole troubling man. 

Most Americans remember King the Southerner and heartily thank him for helping to dismantle the Jim Crow system of racial segregation. That work was only the first part of his career, however. As terribly hard as it was, it was the easier part.

Laws that restricted schools, pools and voting booths to “whites only” were so obviously unjust that they cried out to be broken. Who could criticize young black students for simply sitting at a “white” lunch counter and ordering a burger, though it was illegal? King had little trouble explaining the philosophical and religious reasons for his call to disobey, nonviolently, the South’s racial laws. The hard thing to understand was that King and his followers, who opposed white racists with such good reason, still tried so hard to love them.

After Sept. 11, 2001, it may be harder than ever to act on the biblical injunction that guided King’s career: “Love your enemies.” Yet it made sense to him. He taught that each of us is tied to all other people in “a single garment of destiny.” Only by loving that whole garment, including our enemies, can we ennoble our own lives. Only by treating our enemies as children of God, not inhuman monsters, and making them more secure, can we make ourselves more secure.

After defeating segregation in the South, King took this vision to the North. Just as the civil rights movement was achieving its greatest triumph, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the black community of Watts in Los Angeles erupted in riots. More inner city violence followed. Studying the North carefully for the first time, he came to believe that people can be just as oppressed by low-wage dead-end jobs, inadequate overpriced housing and inferior schools as by racist laws.

King grew to see racism and poverty as two branches of the same root problem: the American way of life had become “thing-oriented” rather than “person-oriented.” Losing the materialistic rat race left millions of Americans in poverty. A disproportionate number of them were people of color. He preached that poverty and racism would not be healed as long as people worshiped the almighty dollar rather the Almighty.

By the spring of 1967, King was standing in the pulpit of New York’s Riverside Church, denouncing the Vietnam War. He astonished many by proclaiming his own nation the world’s greatest purveyor of violence. The war was no aberration, he charged, but the logical culmination of the American way. The white power elite had long been serving its interests by oppressing and destroying people of color here at home. It was only logical to extend that pattern around the world.

This is a vital part of his legacy to us. Even when the United States was engaged in war, he refused to cast the enemy as an abstract force of evil, to be hunted down by America’s forces of righteousness. Rather, he recalled that we, too, have supported murder and oppression, both abroad and at home. He insisted that racism, materialism and militarism were inseparable and a legitimate target for nonviolent civil disobedience. That was why he was in Memphis in 1968, supporting the striking sanitation workers, when he was killed.

This message of resisting economic, social and military oppression is not the side of MLK most white Americans memorialize. Yet this side, too, is still relevant. Were King alive today, such words might well get him condemned as unpatriotic, perhaps even a traitor, as many called him in the last year of his life.

Only by remembering his entire life, including those last three years, do we hear the fullness of his message. Love means more than a warm feeling in the heart. Love means concrete political and economic policies that provide a decent, humane life for every person. Love means solving all of our problems — even terrorism — in nonviolent ways that care for the well-being of even the most violent among us. Love means organizing politically, and occasionally even breaking the law, to create a better world for all.

It is no dishonor to recognize the full life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and then offer reasoned arguments against his more radical views. He would have relished the debate. He would have asked us only to keep an open, loving mind and to remember him as the whole man he really was, not as a comforting fiction.

Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a writer for History News Service.