How much of Dr King can we claim?

I’ve have a personal tendency to claim Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy when it is convenient to do so.  This is especially true each year on the third Monday in January, when our nation celebrates Martin Luther King Jr Day.  In the time that has passed since Dr King’s death, his words and actions have often been over-simplified to the point that hardly anyone does not embrace the civil rights leader.  As it is with other such cultural icons, there are times when we publicly praise Dr King as a way of showing that we “get it,” that we would have stood on the right side of history in Dr King’s day.

Have you observed the tendency to selectively claim Dr King?

Painting by Robert Lentz, 1984.

There are many problems with my selective and convenient association with Dr King.  For one, by choosing to take seriously the man’s thought and effort only occasionally am I not betraying the privilege and power that would have encouraged me to oppose the Civil Rights Movement had I been alive at the time?  Also, when snippets and sound bytes are taken as an adequate representation of Dr King I have then so caricatured him as to have removed the power of the full trajectory of his life.

This morning one my congressmen broadcast his attendance at an MLK event on his Facebook page.  Unfortunately this same leader has shown little interest in the civil rights issues of our day, including his recent “nay” vote on the DREAM Act.  His association with the Civil Rights Movement is culturally acceptable and politically expedient only because of the superficial symbol Dr King has become.

So what is the alternative? How might we celebrate this holiday such that Dr King’s accomplishments aren’t reduced to once-a-year, context-less accolades?

Those like myself with a limited understanding of Dr King can begin by learning more about the scope and depth of the man’s life.  Dr King’s thought ranged far and wide, generally within the framework of equality and justice.  How much of his perspective are we familiar with?  Economics and foreign policy were important parts of his civil rights philosophy; are you familiar enough with this side of Dr King to claim his legacy?

In addition to learning more about Dr King, we can begin engaging the Civil Rights Movement’s most prominent leader throughout the year.  The more I read his speeches, letters and publications, the more I see how much Dr King has to say about the struggles in our day.  Isolating his prophetic insight to a yearly holiday diminishes the man and impoverishes our own efforts towards justice.

Finally, we can take seriously the theology and Biblical presence behind Dr King’s eloquence and courage.  It was Dorthy Day who first said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”  We can avoid so easily dismissing Dr King when we notice that his moral conviction and spiritual insight came from somewhere and Someone.  Those of us who claim membership in the same Christian family as Dr King have a lot to learn about our faith from a man who worked out his own faith in such a tumultuous time.



7 thoughts on “How much of Dr King can we claim?

  1. Good stuff, David Swanson. I agree that most of us downgrade Dr. King’s thought and practice of ministry, especially the full spectrum of civil rights. I think it’s easier to slice up a person’s career and life the way we do this man. I think great people are only palatable that way. Who they are serves as a measuring rod for us. And when they measure beyond us–as they often will–we change who they are. We perceive them and their life messages differently. Otherwise, the enormity of their lives overwhelms us while it humbles us. Who wants to be both overwhelmed and humbled by a person? It’s easier to craft an image based upon the current climate. I hope I can follow your lead in continuing to go back to the powerful passages of Dr. King’s life. I’m still caught in the Letter frankly. Can’t seem to get out of it. Thanks for the critical post.

  2. Watching video of Dr. King earlier today I was struck by how radical he still sounds:

    He was actually dangerous in his willingness to speak truth to power, and I imagine he would still be regarded as dangerous today, if he were here now saying some of the same things. It makes me re-examine whether my life has any of that dangerous quality that those walking in faith and publicly speaking/ acting on the truth exhibit. Compared to how much I admire Dr. King, my life isn’t dangerous at all, and not what I want it to be. Thank you, Dr. King.

  3. I agree Byron and David. The man lost the confidence of an overwhelming majority of Americans (and a good majority of African Americans) when he began denouncing the Vietnam War – long before it was popular to do so in the mainstream. (cf., my post on this the other day: )

    And all types of people lay lazy claim to his legacy when it’s pretty obvious that they do not support equal rights or economic justice (cf, Rand Paul).

    But yet, what about those of us who clearly advocate for social justice, yet have yet to sacrifice our bodies and lives for the cause? It’s easy for me to point fingers, of course…

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