As a child of the post-civil rights era, for me Martin Luther King Jr. has always been a dead man still speaking, already gone but eerily present. Perhaps this sense of haunting presence is attributable to the fact that my first memory of him involves seeing his picture on a hand fan distributed at church. The location of this fan in the house of worship and its imagery, which included not only a picture of the assassinated Martin King himself but also one of his martyred mother, Alberta Williams King, made him an icon, a symbol of religious significance.
As I grew older, I became increasingly aware that the man on the fan had been a preacher and orator, and that what he was saying bore witness to a hope and vision for America that still resonates.
This mastery of what it means to make words live intrigues me as a preacher. Every preacher’s job is to take the ancient record and apply its teaching to contemporary matters. King was masterly in mining the depths of wisdom from Scripture and, coupled with the founding documents of American national identity, crafting them into testimonies of hope in the promise of Beloved Community that had not yet emerged but nevertheless seemed possible.
He saw a world whose justice, though delayed, is still at hand. As such, then, he is a source and touchstone for all who share his conviction that justice is indivisible, that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” His assessment of this nation seems as apt and applicable as ever, his hopes for its reform as necessary now as in his own time. Far from making the contribution of King less relevant, the distance between our moment and his death a half-century ago emphasizes the power of his ideas and vision. Like the biblical prophets he so frequently invoked, King responded to time-bound struggles for human life and thriving in timeless language. In this way he joins the prized tradition of those heroes (and a few heroines) whose words and deeds embody the definition of faith and faithfulness.
In speeches and sermons toward the end of his life, King pointed in a direction that resembles our own conversations about intersectionality. Although notably missing a much-needed acknowledgment of the role of patriarchy and misogyny in the construction of oppressive systems, his attention to the triple evils of racism, militarism, and poverty still resonates as a truthful diagnosis of our national ills.
In fact, recent months have demonstrated a resurgence of the kinds of old-school racism and xenophobia that would have fit well in King’s own time, with the Ku Klux Klan and other white nationalists marching unhooded in the streets, and hate crimes against people of color spiking around the nation. At the same time, endless military engagement saps the financial resources of our nation and diverts us from the material attention that needs to be given to growing poverty, especially for the young.
As our thoughts turn from the 89th anniversary of his birth next week to the 50th anniversary of his death in April, there is no better time to review his opposition to the Vietnam War, his commitment to the Poor People’s Campaign, and his death in Memphis in support of sanitation workers who were on strike for a living wage. We should take this moment to assess our commitment and progress on matters of justice nationally and internationally.
Finally, to remember King, not only in a generic sense as a champion for justice but specifically in the context of his religious commitment, is especially important after a decades-long association between religious activism and the right wing in American politics and religion. Those of us who identify as religious, and especially as Christian, would do well to attend not only to the political King but also to the prophetic pastor. Just as the preacher King wed his exegesis of Scripture with his interpretation of the Founders in the production of sermons and speeches to accompany his activism, religious adherents would do well to couple the writings and activism of the pastor and theologian Martin Luther King with Scripture as we imagine Beloved Community in our time and for the future.
The 11th chapter of Hebrews records a litany of ancient exemplars whose lives speak of faith beyond the grave to light a path for those who follow. The first martyr of the biblical story, Abel, is identified there as one who still speaks even though he is dead. That is the legacy of any martyr, to bear witness both by and beyond their death. That too is the still relevant witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Leslie Callahan is a pastor at St. Paul’s Baptist Church.
NewCORE and its partners are presenting 80 days of conversation events throughout Philadelphia, from Jan. 14, in remembrance of King’s birth, through April 4, in remembrance of his death. Join the official kickoff discussion, “Does Dr. King’s Life, Legacy, and Hope for America Matter?” on Jan. 15 at Philadelphia Media Network, 801 Market St., in Philadelphia. The event is free, but registration is required.