They say “misery loves company,” whoever “they” are, and I experienced a little “comfort” from being in the majority yesterday, MLK Day. NPR did an excellent job all day of doing interviews about people who influenced Dr. King and vice versa. I was listening while driving so couldn’t take notes, but I was struck by one professor’s comment. He said (I’m paraphrasing) that it’s important to remind people today who rightfully honor King for being the great civil rights leader that he was that he was not loved and was even reviled by a majority of Americans while he was alive. He cited stats indicating that about 60% of white Americans regarded MLK as a rabble rouser and trouble maker during his lifetime, and a bit surprising, that 50% of black Americans disagreed with King’s tactics and felt he was making their lives more difficult.
Those stats helped ease some guilt I’ve carried for 50 plus years for being one of those whites who dismissed Dr. King as a troublemaker. I even remember thinking the horrible thought that “he got what he was asking for” when he was assassinated. Given my upbringing in an all white, very conservative family and community where in the words of a Rodgers and Hammerstein’s song from “South Pacific” I was “carefully taught to hate all the people my relatives hate” that is not too surprising. In fact I learned just a few years ago that there was a KKK chapter in my NW Ohio community and that one of my great uncles was one of the leaders in that ugly movement. My younger self had no chance but to breathe in the putrid stench of racism.
I was a senior in college, however, when King was gunned down in Memphis and should have begun to know better. My old worldviews were being stretched a bit at that point, but I still remember hearing a sermon the Sunday after Dr. King’s murder where the preacher referred to King as a “Christ figure.” That was more than my puny mind could handle back then, and in hindsight I think it might have been too much for his congregation too since he was soon forced out of that church after only two years there. And that was one of Methodism’s more “liberal” churches. Ironically that pastor became a good friend, colleague, and mentor to me 5 or 6 years later when I was appointed associate pastor to that same congregation after graduating from seminary.
By then I had been converted to a social gospel theology by my seminary professors, and I too got in some hot water for crossing the imaginary line between church and politics. A few years later when I went back to grad school to study rhetoric, which classically is the art of persuasive discourse, I wrote a paper I titled “They Shoot Prophets, Don’t They?” That paper was partly my excuse for not being a more outspoken social critic and partly my more scholarly attempt to understand the very real historical phenomenon I had lived through in the assassinations in Dallas, Memphis, and L.A. in just 5 years between 1963 and 1968.
Prophets are much easier to love from the perspective of history — when they are not goring our current oxen. Lincoln was reviled and hated in his lifetime. Gandhi was assassinated. And let’s not forget about Jesus. We’ve sanitized his crucifixion with the flawed doctrine of substitutionary atonement when the cold hard truth is that Jesus was executed because he was a thorn in the side of the Jewish and Roman authorities who had to go.
One other thing I remember about grad school 30 plus years ago is that I wrote a different paper analyzing the rhetorical effectiveness of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. My argument then and now is that the reason that speech was so powerful is because the dream MLK delivered so eloquently on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 was not a new dream. King’s dream speech was brilliantly built on the foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition all the way back to Amos and Micah and Isaiah. Those visions of “righteousness rolling down like waters,” of “doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God” were also woven into the founding documents of our nation by Jefferson. King reminds us all in his powerful voice and vibrant images of those very values our common life aspires to.
That dream has survived crucifixion, persecution, crusades, pogroms, Holocaust, genocide, and systemic racism for over 2800 years. It is so easy to be discouraged that the forces of evil have risen up in recent years to seemingly defeat that dream, but the lesson of history is that truth and justice will prevail someday. It’s very frustrating that we have regressed in our pursuit of the dream Dr. King lived and died for. Our schools and neighborhoods and churches are still segregated. Alabama and Mississippi still celebrate Robert E. Lee day on King’s birthday. White supremacy has polluted the political mainstream and taken over the party of Lincoln. But we still have a dream that is stronger than hate, and “deep in my heart I do believe, that dream will overcome someday.”