Unmuting the the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I saw three “capitalism in honor of Martin Luther King Day” commercials this week. Sears, Kmart and some mattress company really wants us to celebrate the life of the martyred Civil Rights champion by spending money we don’t have on crap we don’t need. And you might say… what’s the problem? We celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection by buying and consuming bunnies filled with high fructose corn syrup. Why should Martin expect better treatment? That’s a good point sarcastic voice in my head.

But I guess like Jesus I am worried that what Martin Luther King actually said and did has gotten lost a glaze of rhetoric. And we all laugh and scoff at the corporations who choose to put commercials out there asking to come shop at their “MLK Day Sale.” But I don’t think KMart and friends are the only ones complicit in what Cornell West calls the “Santaclausification” of Martin Luther King.

And while I am happy to spend this whole post complaining about the people selling me mattresses in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., I’m going to leave that behind and pick on some people who are closer to my home: the progressive church.

I’ve been on a little bit of a rampage for the past few months. As much as I love the progressive church and the fact that it welcomed me and my call when we were both homeless, I have some challenges for them… us? And my challenge as it pertains to Martin Luther King Jr. is to not ignore race and racism when it comes to celebrating his legacy.

Now, this seems like a really dumb thing to have to say. But unfortunately it is necessary. Yes Dr. King spoke out against Vietnam and yes he was organizing the poor people’s campaign. Yes he saw the connections between many kinds of oppressions and many types of violence. But the root of his ministry and mission was to the freedom and dignity of people of African decent in the the US. His words very distinctly cut to the core of America’s racial history. In very specific terms he named and spoke out against the legalized physical, social, psychological and spiritual violence that was waged against African Americans every day.

He did speak about the war and about poverty because he saw the connection between various forms of oppressions. But one did not trump the other. But all these years later, majority white progressive churches, tend to lean heavily on his anti-war and anti-poverty angle while muting the struggle against racial oppression. I really am not sure why this has begun to happen. Is it because we are “post-racial”? Is it because Obama is president? Or is it because it is easier to talk against poverty and war than it is to talk about race? Is it the fact that if we spoke about the work that Martin Luther Kind did to end segregation, we’d have to admit that we didn’t really get finish doing that work in our churches?

I think it’s a kind of fear and guilt based denial that makes us want to make Dr. King into a man whose racial commentary didn’t go beyond speaking in vague terms about people of different “skin colors” getting together and singing a spiritual. It’s scary to think that some of what he actually said about racism in American may still be socially if not legally relevant.

As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only”. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.-Some other words you probably have not heard from the “I Have a Dream Speech”.