Another year has come where we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday. I remember the day always being significant as a child. Television stations aired footage of his speeches the Civil Rights struggle for the better part of the day. Stevie Wonder composed a song expressing outrage at those who fought against a day of observance for his contributions. We had programs in the schools and churches expressing our thanks. It was a pretty big deal. The significance of Martin Luther King’s life was not lost on me. Being an age he never lived to see makes it all the more poignant.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first march to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a federal holiday and the 25th anniversary of its observance. We have gotten so comfortable that school children now view him as a mythical figure with merely great oratorical skills.
I cringe a bit every time I hear the famous sound bites from his “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s not because of anything inherently wrong with the speech. It was pure genius. My discomfort is because America had reduced him to a spiritual Rodney King beckoning us to “all just get along.” He was interested in greater things than having white people like black people.
If the Negro is to be free, he must move down into the inner resources of his own soul and sign, with a pen and ink of self-asserted manhood, his own Emancipation Proclamation. Don’t let anybody take your manhood.
The heart of Martin Luther King’s mission can be summarized in the following quote from him:
The Christian religion must not be concerned only with saving the individual soul, but also dealing with the social evils that corrupt the soul.
His mission was more prophetic and profound that anyone could have imagined at the time. This was a man who clearly heard the voice of the Lord cry out over the land in the way of Isaiah saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?" Then he said, "Here am I. Send me!" (Isaiah 6:8). As with the prophet Isaiah, God does not address Martin Luther King in particular. The Lord announced over the entire land that the dehumanization of His children had to stop. Martin Luther King responded, as did thousands more.
God prepared him of head and heart to lead the movement. The dexterity and depth of his speeches and writings demonstrate that he did not have a vanity doctoral degree. Martin Luther King was a thinker par excellence. He addressed social evils beyond racism, examining them with keen sociological, economic, and theological insight. His speeches on structural poverty and the Vietnam War cut to the bone and marrow of American ills.
The messages resonated in the hearts of many of all races not just because the brother had game. They struck so deeply because he was truly one of God’s anointed messengers. That’s the nature of real prophecy. It stops you in your tracks, calls you to repentance, and compels you to pursue God’s will in earth as it is in heaven.
It’s amazing how woefully absent the footage of the Civil Rights movement is in the media today. The images of peaceful marchers being beaten brutally by officers of the law were partly responsible for bringing global shame to America.
The courage that it took for men, women, and children to rise to the challenge with their dignity intact is astounding. Martin Luther King expressed the core of his method as:
Nonviolent resistance has two sides. The non-violent resister not only avoids not only external physical violence, but he avoids internal violence of spirit. He not only refuses to shoot his opponent, but he refuses to hate him. He stands with understanding and good will at all times.
America doesn’t like its ugly past. Not only that, it has not truly repented. Repentance has three characteristics: recognition of sin (woe is me), restoration from sin (your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven), and retreat from sin ("Here am I. Send me!").
Don’t get me wrong, America has made great strides in improving its racist heritage. However, it’s a far cry from genuine repentance. Case in point: a group of newly-elected members of legislators read from the Constitution during the opening of the 112th Congress claiming to want to honor the nation’s roots. However, they conveniently omitted the section considering slaves three-fifths of a person.
Unfortunately, prophecy moves God’s enemies to steal, kill, and destroy all means of promoting the advancement of God’s will. Like prophets of old, Martin Luther King was murdered. His blood still cries out from the land proclaiming the inherent worth of all God’s children that cannot be denied.