Tomorrow people from all walks of life will gather, hopefully most virtually, to commemorate what would’ve been Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 93rd birthday. Though his actual birthday is Jan. 15, this is a remarkable day to behold given that in our still striving to be a more perfect union, yet to be “United” States, the third Monday of each January has been set aside since 1983 as the only federal holiday to recognize a person of Black African Heritage, and a religious leader to boot.
Truth be told, I have mixed feelings about this day each year. First, let me say I have the deepest abiding respect and admiration for the life Dr. King lived, the courageous leadership he exhibited, and the legacy of hope and love he left. To the dismay of many I have patterned much of my ministry, as a pastor and as an organizer on the work King did during his relatively short 39 years of life.
Every third Monday of January I cringe when preachers, politicians and pundits stand behind pulpits and podiums and, by their limited knowledge and words of King, turn him into a domesticated cat most would rather pet than follow.
I am not saying this is always intentional, though many of my colleagues would vehemently disagree with me and point to the multitude of performative acts done this day to preserve what’s left of the facade of American unity.
What I do know is that whether from comfort, convenience, a lack of courage, ignorance or adherence to the maintenance of the status quo, most who rise to speak today are only vaguely familiar with a few of King’s words and not the larger body of his work and writings.
So the low-hanging fruit of a single phrase within a speech, “I have a dream,” is most often quoted, isolated and untethered from the whole of King’s other words and works.
Ironically, this most quoted phrase, “I have a dream,” which speaks to his ability to be free as a Black man in America to dream and envision a racially just and equitable American society that could be better for his children than it’s been for him, has been used, either by benign neglect of malignant intent, to tether, tame and forever fixate King at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. But thinking folk know you don’t get murdered for dreaming.
The reality is most preachers, politicians and leaders of various constituencies held a low level of regard and great deal of disdain for King while he was alive. Many Black folk who learned to survive by going along to get along saw his actions of protest through nonviolent direct action as an embarrassment to the race and behavior that threatened their ability to “peaceably” coexist with their oppressors.
They were not totally wrong; King’s actions were like a mirror and a magnifying glass. They showed America a reflection of herself and made more visible to the world the atrocities of Jim Crow.
Still others who profited from maintaining America’s status quo of racial and economic inequities criticized King for being too political as a preacher, and wanting too much, too soon, too fast.
He addresses many of them in the spring of 1963 in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” when he writes:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the
absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says:
“‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”
It’s clear from King’s voluminous writings and larger body of work, including his “Beyond Vietnam” speech given at the Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, when he refers to an American hegemony built on racism, poverty and war, that King was a prophet of resistance, unwilling to be chaplain of an unjust empire.
So why would President Ronald Reagan, an unlikely ally to King’s work, in 1983 sign into federal law a national holiday, elevating King to near-mythic proportions?
While I don’t pretend to know the heart or motivation of any man, history is clear that it’s far more convenient, and less risky, to pass a law that forever memorializes a dead prophet than pass public policy and legislation to honor and further his work.
So, thank you President Reagan for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But given the sad state of racial and economic affairs in our nation, I’d rather have public policy and legislation that helps America move from racial indifference and towards democracy, liberty and justice for all.
I’m joining the King family and leaders across the nation tomorrow in demanding that Congress not take the day off and work to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
It’s time to liberate King from the foot of the Lincoln Memorial and move his work forward. Won’t you join me?
Demand this Congress get to work and pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act now.
Rev. Dr. Gregory J. Edwards is the senior pastor, Resurrected Life Community Church in Allentown; member of the Martin Luther King Jr. Board of Preachers and