MLK Day is a holiday in the United States but not here in Canada. While our neighbours to the south stage walk-a-thons and street parties and day-long speakers’ series, a friend who helps those inclined to find the theology in all things publishes a piece called ‘Prettifying Prophets’. Ken Sehested recalls for us a memory from his Southern US gas-pumping youth, hearing Dr King on the radio and the response of his boss: ‘That Martin Luther Coon, he ain’t no Christian. Everywhere he go, there’s trouble.’ Ken goes on to say: ‘It would be years before it occurred to me the same was likely said about Jesus.’
One of the ways in which we have prettified or made palatable the words and deeds of Dr King is to focus on one speech, leaving him frozen on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before an audience of a quarter million people in August of 1963, forever the Dreamer. It was a memorable speech, no doubt. But it was not his best nor his most important. That one took place in Riverside Church in New York on 4 April 1967. With words that were intense, uncharacteristically unrestrained, Dr King made explicit shifts within him and the movement he led.
As long as the focus of civil rights confined itself mostly to an earnest appeal to White people to be nice, to make room for Black people, he would be permitted to rail. But from that pulpit in Riverside, Dr King made clear: his work stood at the intersection of war, poverty and racism: to work on one of those was necessarily to work on all three. ‘I knew’ he thundered that day in New York, ‘that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.’ He called Vietnam ‘the symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit; left to fester untreated, ‘we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.’
Now marked, he arrived in Memphis a year later to draw attention to the suffering of sanitation workers in that city. Having assessed Martin Luther King, Jr, as the ‘most dangerous negro in the country’, the FBI knew him to be much more than a Dreamer: he was a threat. Unleashed, there was no going back for him, despite the advice of even close advisors and the rebukes that followed. The trouble-maker’s crucifixion had become inevitable.
To listen to those Riverside-pulpit words is a journey both into the past and down the road and across the street. In Trump’s America, King has been scrubbed, tamed, domesticated, the crime scene swept up, an alternative verdict filed away in a Memphis court house, the broad avenues renamed, saccharine tributes to dreams postponed for some post-pearly gate banquet table. And today, gun rights activists, white nationalists and militia groups are marking MLK Day in Richmond, Virginia, their intent to support Republican-proposed legislation that would allow people to carry concealed weapons without a permit and to take a gun to church.
The ‘giant triplet’ to which King referred that April day in New York not only remains; the weight of a still-resistant white supremacy, of consumption and militarisation threatens our very existence. Speak out, stand up; abandon apathy and complacency in favour of vigorous and positive action. Courage. Courage.