If Martin Luther King hadn’t achieved a kind of secular sainthood by his death, I doubt he would be near-universally acclaimed the way he is today. James Cobb writes:
“According to an early 1968 Harris Poll, [MLK] died with a public disapproval rating of nearly 75% . . . The basis for today’s approval rating north of 90% for King can be captured succinctly in carefully cropped newsreel footage of his countless confrontations with vicious, inflammatory bigots and his magnificent oratory that day in August 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial when achieving his ‘dream’ seemed largely a matter of rallying his countrymen against institutionalized racial persecution in the South. Overly narrow historical memories typically serve a purpose, and in this case it is far more comforting to focus on Dr. King’s success in making a bad part of the country better than to contemplate his equally telling failures to push the whole of America to become what he knew it should be.”
It’s certainly true that MLK stood for love against hate, practiced nonviolence, and believed in the power of forgiveness, but it is also true that he stood for a complete transformation in society. Consider the call to action in his 1967 address, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence:
“[I]f we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin…we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
King also spoke of oppressors and the oppressed, just as advocates of social justice do today:
“To accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system; thereby the oppressed become as evil as the oppressor. Non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. The oppressed must never allow the conscience of the oppressor to slumber.”
Those who praise Dr. King but condemn any modern calls for racial and economic justice are caught in a contradiction: how could his cause be just and theirs not?
Jesus’ words are worthy of consideration here, I think:
“Woe to you as well, experts in the law!’ [Jesus] replied. ‘You weigh men down with heavy burdens, but you yourselves will not lift a finger to lighten their load. Woe to you! You build tombs for the prophets, but it was your fathers who killed them. So you are witnesses consenting to the deeds of your fathers: They killed the prophets, and you build their tombs…'” (Luke 11:46-48)
I am not saying that all those who call for social justice now are legitimate in their demands simply because they use language similar to Dr. King’s, and we praise him, but I am calling people to consider: We praise Dr. King now, decades after his death, but we forget that he was not a popular man for much of his lifetime. The dead are not a threat to us in the way that the living can be, because we can claim them for our cause without fearing they can disavow us.
But I don’t think Martin Luther King Day was created as a day we could rest and congratulate ourselves for the finished work of addressing injustice in America, or even as a day where people could serve at soup kitchens or clean up public parks (good as that may be).
If King is to be useful to us at all, it should be as a reminder that we need to be out in front of social change, taking courageous stands, not simply resting on the laurels of what others have done.
And it is scandalous to me to see how predominantly white evangelical churches can claim that “the church” was transformative in ending segregation in the South while conveniently forgetting to mention that plenty of churches were just fine with segregation. It was the Black church, with some liberals who were not necessarily even Christian, and a few courageous evangelicals, who fought to end segregation. But the majority of white evangelicals in King’s day either actively supported segregation (like Presbyterian leaders J. Gresham Machen and Morton H. Smith) or else didn’t want to speak out against it, citing doctrines like the “spirituality of the church.” (Charles Marsh’s The Last Days, which I read in college, is a good illustration of this.)
There is no glory in defending Christianity through ignorance of the darker parts of its history. People like Jemar Tisby may be wrong about certain arguments they make, or may be intemperate in their language at points, but so was King in his day. And yet his message was prophetic and necessary to end a great moral evil. It would not have ended simply through the efforts of the “white moderates” whom King critiqued in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
It is easy for people to say that “Jesus Christ is the answer” when faced with social problems, as if that mention people just need to believe the Gospel and then social problems would be solved. But that doesn’t answer the question of how Jonathan Edwards could be a slaveholder or Martin Luther an anti-Semite. Given those facts, there are only two possibilities. Either they are not saved, and didn’t believe the Gospel (which most conservative Christians would deny), or that there are significant ways in which they did not live out the full implications of the Gospel.
And, if the latter is true, then could that not be the case for us today? I think that is a question we always ought to be willing to ask ourselves. We should consider who today is reviled that in 50 years will be revered, and what we could do to be on the right side of history.
Evan Donovan lives in Boston, MA, and is an academic administrator at an online Christian college. He has also been a lay leader in his local church, Christ the King Dorchester (PCA), since its founding 15 years ago. He has a BA in English from Covenant College and an MS in Technology and Social Entrepreneurship from City Vision University. He is passionate about using the principles of Christian community development and Catholic Social Teaching to transform our world, as well as about increasing mental health awareness among Christians. He and his wife have two children, aged one and five.
[Originally published on Substack under the title Martin Luther King: A Prophet Without Honor in His Time?]