Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would’ve been 85 years old today. As we reflect on his life, his speeches, sermons and writings; his ministry of public service, and what more he may have accomplished had he lived, or whether or not his dream has become a nightmare, we would do well to keep a few things in mind.
First, Reverend King was indeed that- a reverend. For many reasons obvious and not so obvious, the fact that King was indeed a minister of the gospel has been ignored in reference to him and his accomplishments. He wasn’t simply “Doctor” King, he was also “Reverend” King. He was a pastor before receiving his doctorate and I would suggest that the movement associated with him would not have been as successful without the employing Christian principles and religiosity. The Christian message and symbolism was peppered through everything he said and did in regards to his public ministry of civil rights activism. As such, referring to him only as ‘Dr. King’ rather than ‘Rev. King’ minimizes the impact and influence the Christian message had on changing American hearts and minds while achieving long sought civil rights protections and equality.
Second, we must resist the temptation to descend into partisan debates, arguing whether King was a Democrat or a Republican. Though I don’t believe he was a Democrat, I can’t say for sure if he was a Republican (though his father was); he might have been a political Independent. Ultimately, none of this matters. What matters is that he was a proud, self-identified Christian minister who used the Bible as the foundation in his attempts to secure the civil rights of black Americans. As Ross Douthat has said, the civil rights movement was the last great moral movement in America. It was so because of Judeo-Christian religious values and Christian theology- in pursuit of liberty, and not because of political partisanship.
Third, when discussing the realization of the dream or whether the dream has become a nightmare, we should answer in the affirmative. The dream in which King envisioned a country that embraced racial reconciliation predicated on character rather than color, for the most part, has been realized. The country in which King dreamed that blacks would be accepted into the socio-economic mainstream, has been realized. Forced segregation is a relic of the past; America for fifty years has attempted to undo her past sins against blacks by implementing countless social and economic policies- even at the expense of liberty- to facilitate upward progress and mobility for blacks (and Mexicans, the poor- regardless of color, etc.). Condensing King’s dream, it has become a reality.
But, the nightmare- of which so many speak- is found in the fact that several generations of blacks haven’t taken advantage of the sacrifices of those, like King, who came before them. Freedom and equality under the law isn’t a guarantee of success or equality of outcome. Those who believe this have been misguided. The freedom that King and other antecedents fought and died for, in hopes that we could experience freedom of economic access and social acceptance, doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility to take (positive) advantage of the fruit of their labor. The convoluted understanding of equality on the front end to guarantee equality on the back end has been disastrous for black America.
It’s time for Americans as a whole to move beyond the silly, unconstructive and time-wasting discussions of Rev. King’s legacy. Honesty obligates us to acknowledge that though America remains imperfect, the progress she has made in a mere fifty years has been extraordinary. It’s actually historical. Obviously, we’re still a work in progress; and hopefully, we always will be. This should be celebrated and shouldn’t be condemned or mourned by those who have a vested interest in maintaining racial and cultural animosity. Those folks, members of the Racial Grievance Industry and the Black Grievance Industry, should be thoroughly, loudly and boldly shamed and condemned.