August 28, 2011 in Question of the Week, What is Martin Luther King, Jr.'s spiritual legacy and influence? by André Johnson
The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial will be dedicated Sunday in Washington. It will be the first monument on the National Mall to honor a non-president.
What is Dr. King’s religious and spiritual legacy? How did his ministry influence your own?
Despite not dedicating the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on Sunday as planned because of Hurricane Irene, that fact that King will be the first non-president enshrined on the Mall is a perplexing event. It is perplexing because King was arguably one of the most hated people in America when he died at the hands of an assassin’s bullet. In his last year of his life—which starts April 4, 1967, with his “Vietnam” speech and ends April 3, 1968 with his “Mountain Top” speech—King’s prophetic persona had shifted from an optimistic prophet to a pessimistic one. He would call America a “sick society,” and had he lived, would have preached a sermon titled, “Why America May Go to Hell,” on Easter Sunday. He had long since moved from “I Have a Dream,” and started using Malcolm’s language of “nightmare” to describe society’s dealing with the poor and marginalized. Why would we celebrate his legacy?
When he died, he was embarking on a poor people’s campaign—to highlight to the world the poverty in the “greatest country on earth.” That is why he was in Memphis, because King told anyone who would listen that the sanitation workers in Memphis and all workers have dignity and purpose and that people should treat them fairly. He called for a revolution of values, ones not focused on materialism, militarism, racism, and poverty, but ones focused on the Beloved Community. This love would seep through all areas of life and would ground itself in the Golden Rule—treating others, as you would want others to treat you. So again, why celebrate his legacy?
I ask this because if anyone today attempt to promote, share, preach, or live this legacy, society quickly regulates one to the margins. The one attempting to be faithful to the legacy of King will find oneself called names and motives questioned. People will charge them with trying to make money, promoting oneself, or accused of trying to sell books. They would lose friendships and support that came in the past, will be woefully lacking. People would loved them in the past when the critiques were aimed at folks and situations which they agreed on, will quickly turn their backs on them and deny ever knowing them. It happened to King and it happens to others who dare stand against the dominant narrative that undergirds America.
So, why again we celebrate this legacy?
Maybe we celebrate it because we know deep down inside that King was right. We know that our country needs a new narrative, one that not only talk democracy, liberty, freedom and justice for all, but one that implements these principles. We appreciate King because he stood for principles, and though unpopular, he was willing to die for those principles. Maybe we celebrate this legacy because, for many of us, we cannot pick up this mantle and we need to feel close to someone who did.