Fifty years ago, we lost a great and genuine Christian prophet

Fifty years ago on April 4, 1968, the Rev Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis, Tennessee.

Apr 13, 2018

By Michael Sean Winters
Fifty years ago on April 4, 1968, the Rev Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis, Tennessee. His funeral is the first public memory I have, that is, a memory linked to a public event. I remember my mother was baking a pie and she used to roll up the extra dough with cinnamon and sugar. She brought some of these into the TV room where I was watching King’s casket drawn by two mules through the streets of Atlanta. I was 6 years old and did not understand the greatness of the man who was being buried, but I knew something extraordinary was taking place.

Regrettably, it was something seminal as well as extraordinary. The assassination of King was the first of many public memories for me, but also the first of many events that shook the nation to its foundation.

It was only a couple of months later that I remember kneeling with my family in front of that same TV as we prayed that Bobby would live. Another two months later, we watched our state’s senator, Abraham Ribicoff, get heckled by Mayor Richard Daley at the Democratic National Convention. Vietnam. Watergate. Reaganomics. Iran-Contra. Two Iraq Wars. Monica Lewinsky. Trump. It all seems a blur of social and cultural regression, starting on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis 50 years ago.

I did not know then, and did not know for many years, how great a man King was. Only when I read Taylor Branch’s magisterial three-volume biography of King did I recognise how great a man he was. I am a slow reader but I dashed through those volumes. I took them on the metro, read them in bed, did not finish the newspaper in the morning so I could return to them.

That is, until the last 100 pages. Until Memphis. I did not want to confront the dreadful ending of this man’s story. I did not want to be dragged back to my family’s TV room in 1968. Over the course of several days, I finished the book and understood how great was the loss this nation had sustained when it lost King.

King was a great civil rights leader because he was both a great American and a genuine Christian prophet, not the other way round.

A prophet does not simply point to some future of his or her own imagining. A prophet calls a people to return to their truest selves in order that they may return to a righteous path.

King did not tell the American people to stop being American. He told them to be true to the ideals that they claimed had shaped our national founding. His message was subversive of the ways those ideals had been betrayed, not of the ideals themselves. King evidenced none of the hatred of America that has marred the politics of the left since his death.

King also invoked, repeatedly, the universalist impulses of the Christian faith. His trip to Memphis that day was not only to support the striking sanitation workers in their fight with Mayor Henry Loeb. The month before, King had gone to Memphis and violence had broken out. A group advocating “black power” claimed credit for that violence. This was anathema to King’s deep commitment to nonviolence, obviously, but it also offended his Christian belief in the common brotherhood of all in the common fatherhood of God. His second, and fatal, trip to Memphis was also about reclaiming the leadership of the civil rights movement for the Gospel vision of inclusion.

I noted above the sense of decline in our national moral fabric since his death, but how disappointed — and befuddled — would King be by some of the sectarian tropes found among some leaders of the black community today. Let me offer one example. Last year, Jenn M. Jackson, a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago “with a graduate certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies,” who has published op-eds at The Washington Post, criticised other African-Americans for praising a performance by Bruno Mars at the BET Awards. She was concerned that Mars committed the crime of “cultural appropriation”. Jackson tweeted of Mars: “He is a non-Black person of color (POC) who has recently decided that singing Funk music is economically productive”.

I know I am biased because I enjoy nothing more than listening to a Spanish soprano singing an Italian opera conducted by a German. But, seriously, can you imagine King saying anything even remotely like that?

But let us not focus on the decline since King’s death, not today. Let us remember his courage. Today, when protesters get arrested, it is a public relations device. King did not know if he would survive his trips to jail.

His commitment to nonviolence required him to break with the president, Lyndon Johnson, who had done more for his cause than any other before or since, but the Vietnam War required him to do so. Similarly, and perhaps more hurtfully, he had to break with other black leaders who insisted that nonviolence and civil disobedience were not achieving the desired results.

(This article first appeared on NCRonline.org, the Website of National Catholic Reporter, and is being used with permission)

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