I first wrote this several years ago and am republishing it today on Dr. King’s birthday.
Let’s get some things straight right off the bat: I’m a white male in my 50s with little or no experience through most of my life with any blacks/African-Americans other than incidental work relationships. My cultural outlook is white, whiter than snow, whiter than LiquidPaper™, whiter than polar bears in fog on an iceberg. My outlook up to this point has been we’re all Americans and we are all the same, diversity is really all about looking past any differences, and good people will agree on all the same things, and coincidentally that agreement will be to my viewpoint, and that all this talk about race and skin and oppression and holidays for Dr. King are simply unpleasant and unnecessary reminders of a past that no longer exists. They got black people on TV; one of the richest people in the world is black (Oprah), and we got ourselves a black president. So end of story.
What I say and think now comes from a process that started about a year ago when a black friend asked me point-blank several times: “You do know that I’m black, right?”
I considered it an extremely rude and provocative question, because I’d been trying for most of my life not to see black Americans as black, but rather some non-color, because in my heart I didn’t think skin color mattered, and so I simply wouldn’t see it.
Of course I knew he was black, but I wouldn’t let that affect my understanding, because I am a nice person who accepts everyone.
But still, the question rattled me. Why would he have to ask that question of me, a considerate, patient, loving person? What made him think I didn’t see that obvious fact about him?
But really, I wasn’t seeing him in any way. I didn’t consider his history or his experience or his life or his choices, instead evaluating him and what he did in the context of my own undisturbed life. My thought was that we’ve moved beyond all the unpleasantness of racial tension, and as believers in Christ there was more in common with us in our hearts than in our bodies, appearance, or even our minds.
I had to think about that – really think about that.
That one question sparked a thought process in me to examine what I really believed and thought and felt about the Other – the people that moved around me with unknowable motives, who had so many unspoken experiences, who chose and acted and talked in ways that simply didn’t make sense to me.
It was a long process to see how he lives in the America I live in, and yet has so many divergent experiences, experiences that I cannot comprehend as actually happening. And yet they happen, and continue today.
That discussion folded around in my mind, and I continued to think about what the question meant. Why would someone need to tell me that I was blind when I knew that I could see?
That led to the novel I’m working on, set in Texas in 1952, the story of a 13 year old boy who wrestles with racism, Christian belief, growing awareness of self, and his unfolding understanding of his own self. So I’ve been doing a lot of research and thinking about what it means to open one’s eyes, to look at the world for the first time, and to grasp the fact that we each can choose what we want to do with our lives and what values we want to hold. Take this, then, with a grain of salt – the ideas are still being formed.
I think a lot of white people don’t get the impact MLK had upon the souls of black people, people who were invisible for so long in our American culture. Most white people don’t know that the first black slaves came to the Americas in the 1500s; the first black slaves landed at Jamestown in (I think) 1619. Most white people don’t know – or don’t figure it out – that a lot of black slaves captured were Muslim, and thus brought Islam to America quite early – much earlier than popularly believed. Most white Americans think of what happened in the past as something perhaps unpleasant, but surely by now those black people should be over it, forgetting how black people had been pushed into a box of inferiority and invisibility for 400 years. Most white Christian Americans don’t think that black Americans have Christian souls or worthy Christian beliefs because their version of Christianity is so different from white American Christianity. (As some have said, the most segregated place in America today is still the American church on Sunday morning, and each side points their fingers at the other.) Most white Christians don’t think about the incredible cognitive dissonance required to teach black slaves about Christianity, a religion where there is neither slave nor free, and with the hand that holds the Bible to also hold the whip that beats them into submission as slaves, slaves for the simple reason that someone said “I have the power to own you and steal you away from your homes and families.” I can’t ever think of a time in church or in school where this was discussed: did anyone ever think Isn’t it weird that we call them our brothers and sisters and yet treat them like furniture or horses?
MLK – who was killed at 39 – accomplished so much to bring awareness to black people that they were human beings with dignity and worth. I don’t think his main accomplishment was to raise the consciousness of white people – although he did do that in some part. It was that he made black people believe they were worthy of their God-given rights and citizenship. At Malcolm X put it, “I shouldn’t have to ask for what’s mine”; it was MLK that brought that idea to the mind of ordinary black people – that they shouldn’t have to ask for their ordinary civil rights, the right to live as they wanted to live without permission or oversight of others, the right to just be treated as human beings. His hope, in my opinion, was that just by saying they deserved participation in their civil rights, ordinary white Americans, Christian Americans, would understand their plight and their longing and their need to participate in America – and would enable it, willingly, because it was the right thing to do. A bullet ended that dream, and it’s been 50 more years of talk and fights. We’re closer than we were, but we’re not there yet.
Was MLK a perfect man, an ideal man, even a moral man? Is he someone worth looking up to? Complex broken people are always found in situations where revolution happens; often they are the reason for the revolutions. LBJ – the man who is most singularly responsible for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – was a corrupt, selfish, adulterous, racist man who lied about things he didn’t even need to lie about, who destroyed people not just because they stood in his way, but because he could. (LBJ along with J. Edgar Hoover so thoroughly politicized the FBI that it’s hard to accept how much that tainted anything the FBI “discovered.”) LBJ cannot be claimed to be the friend of anyone because he could never be trusted to be telling the truth – and yet somehow he was the one who pushed through these two transformative acts – as well as the unknown Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first Civil Rights Act since Reconstruction. As leader of the Senate he finagled this ‘57 Act through the Senate, bypassing the liberals of the North who wanted more and the conservatives of the South who wanted not just less, but to take away even the rights blacks already had. (Essentially the ‘57 act was to grant jury trials to people convicted of federal crimes of suppressing voting rights; the law opened up the way for registration of blacks in the South that led directly to the marches on Washington and the Freedom Riders of the South.) LBJ bungled our way into Vietnam, one of the most wasteful and useless wars in our history. He made himself into a multimillionaire in office through the corrupt use of federal power to essentially steal TV and radio licenses in Texas. No one should hold him up as an example of a moral, caring, thoughtful, Christian man.
And yet – he was the central figure in the 50s and 60s to bring civil rights to black Americans. There is no one else who had the power he did, and no one else who had the capability to do what he did. It happened because of this broken, racist man. Churches that preached the love of God and the humanity of all mankind preached and taught – but it was the actions of a man without a church and without a governing principle other than “me first and me only” who initiated these transformative acts in the American political and cultural life.
In a similar way, MLK was broken and flawed and unfaithful. He likely plagiarized his writings while working for his degree at Boston University. He did not have extraordinary preaching skills beyond all other preachers. He didn’t even have a unique theological vision; indeed, I’d claim his theology was undeveloped and based more upon feelings than upon strict logical construction. As a Reformed believer, I find that his theology devolves into folk wisdom. His work is derivative, and it is set crisply in its time. Reading his work now requires work to understand the decades of the 50s and 60s; his writings seem now more worthy of research than of wide dissemination. (Howard Thurman and W.E.B. DuBois are much more readable today and require much less understanding of the times.)
But MLK found a way to emphasize to the American people the moral injustice of treating people as if they were trash, bringing an awareness to blacks that they were not trash and to whites that they would need to start considering blacks as if they were as truly human as whites were.
Like others who pointed out these hard facts, he generated opposition. I’m pretty sure his theology and political viewpoints weren’t well-thought-out; I’m pretty sure he hung around with people he shouldn’t have; and I’m pretty sure he didn’t pay careful attention to the motivations of the people who wanted to claim him as part of their movement. And while we celebrate (and ignore!) his words about racial harmony, we ignore his words about other great problems such as the propensity of America to wage war, and the almost incomprehensibly tragic effects of the vast social and economic disparity between classes in America. I think he used Marxist terms because Marxist terms are convenient for economic and social analysis; by doing so he made a mistake, because (in my opinion) instead of listening to what he said, we can conveniently look at the terms he used or the people he associated with to ignore what he said. Lincoln said a nation could not endure half-slave and half-free, and he was right; MLK said a nation could not endure where generations and races were locked in perpetual poverty and dead-end despair, and he was right, but Lincoln has had the benefit of being dead and elevated so that we have forgotten his very human foibles: MLK has unfortunately not been dead enough for us to wring out the essence of what he said from the mistakes and errors he made.
I’m not sure of the motivation of people who feel the need to point out MLK’s flaws, though he had many. I think there’s a time for that, just as there’s time to point out Washington’s flaws regarding slavery or Lincoln’s desire to save the union whether blacks were freed as a result or not. (Pointing out those flaws doesn’t take away from who they were. It simply points out that Washington, Lincoln, and others were humans who sometimes rose out of their own times in a spectacular fashion.) I suspect the need to point out the flaws of Dr. King (who was no saint) is a way to say “he does not deserve respect or attention” and then we can move along with our lives without pausing to think what drove this man to live a life with such privation and fear? What drove him to walk and march and preach when so little changed? I wouldn’t elevate him above any other person – he was just a man, like us – but with the few tools he had he moved a nation. Whether we like him or not, he has been a powerful man in our American life, an almost unwitting agent of the essence of the American experiment “to form a more perfect Union.” What he did was profoundly American in spirit: he looked at what we were and what we could be, and decided not to settle for what we are.
Dr. King was a minister of the gospel who preached and acted in a style familiar to the American black church. And being a minister doesn’t guarantee sanctity (although one would hope that the salesman would use his own product; a preacher who doesn’t act under the light of the gospel seems to be questionable.) But I don’t see that the gospel guarantees the moral superiority of any believer in either thought or action when compared to any other person; the essence of the gospel is that it saves sinners and makes them whole and gives them working tools to better their lives until their homecoming. (As C. S. Lewis pointed out, you don’t compare person A to person B to see if the gospel is true and powerful; you compare person A before and person A afterwards to see if it’s true and powerful in that person’s life.) I won’t excuse moral failings, because we are called to a holy life, and when a minister who purports to preach the true gospel of a holy God misbehaves, it hurts people and hurts the message of the gospel. But let’s not think that only ministers fail, or focus on their failures and ignore their service. As you and I both know, God uses flawed and broken people – sometimes critically flawed people – to bring the message of the cross in order that no man can boast that salvation came by his own power, but only by the power of God.
There are wounded people in the church of Christ who carry their wounds deep inside and use them to explain their behavior, hiding behind words of sanctity and fruit-checking. I’m sure none of us could stand up to the scrutiny of others to such a degree; I’m sure all of us have stories to tell that would explain why we fail where we do and when we do. I would only offer that, as a class of Americans, black people have been put down and shut down and kept down, kept away from education and access to ordinary lives where they could assume safety and control, not knowing whether their kids would be safe or well-educated or fed or protected. The ordinary experience of blacks in America for 400+ years has been one of complete disruption and exclusion from what the rest of us just assume we’ll have – from the assumption that we can walk down any street we want, go to any hotel we want, eat in any restaurant we want, buy from any store that we want, see any doctor we want, send our kids to any school we want – you get the drift. I would expect that as we excluded our black Christian brothers and sisters from ordinary life, they have, as a result, developed their own patterns of living and beliefs that to us seem destructive and unhealthy and even unchristian; I don’t see how we’re going to help them or respect them if that’s the first thing we focus upon.
You might be interested in the viewpoints of Dr. Boyce Watkins, a black political analyst, who shares the viewpoint of the necessity of seeing the flaws in our heroes. His take is for, I think, different reasons.
Here I’ll quote a bit from his article:
[B]y pretending that Dr. King was perfect in life, we are making his legacy vulnerable to those who can prove that he made mistakes. For example, there are some who simply wish to pretend that there was no possibility and no reason to even mention the fact that Dr. King was not always faithful to his wife, Coretta. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that African Americans keep on our religious figures has not only ruined lives, but it makes all of us look silly. It also heightens the impact of the scandal when the truth finally hits the light of day. I had a friend in the south whose 19-year old mother was impregnated by a 45-year old married pastor. The pastor forced my friend’s mother to keep the love child secret, which she did for over 20 years. So, my friend grew up watching her “sanctified” daddy walk right past her in public places without even acknowledging her. You think that might have affected her psychologically? Yes, it did.
Honoring Dr. King doesn’t mean deifying him. It simply means we acknowledge that for all his many flaws, he affected us. He was not perfect. No man is. But he did show that an imperfect man with imperfect dreams and goals can accomplish great things.