Wall Street Journal, Martin Luther King, Christian Radical, by Jonathan Eig (Author, King: A Life (2023)):
Today, almost 1,000 cities and towns in the U.S. have streets named in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., and more than 100 public schools bear his name. In Washington, D.C., a 30-foot-tall MLK memorial stands within sight of the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. And each year, in January, we celebrate Dr. King’s birthday as a national holiday.
But in hallowing King we have hollowed out his legacy. We remember his dream of unity and justice without deeper consideration of the radical Christianity upon which that dream was built. King’s Christianity presents a challenge to liberals, who are often uncomfortable with religion in the public square, as well as to conservatives, who are more likely to embrace religion in politics but don’t align themselves with the implications of many of King’s core beliefs.
The popular version of King’s life story holds that he grew more radical in his later years—more like Malcolm X, more antagonistic to the American government in general and to materialism and militarism in particular. But that’s an oversimplification that leads us to downplay his most challenging ideas.
King adhered to the same Christian beliefs all of his adult life, views shaped by his upbringing in the Black Baptist church and the violently racist American South. If many Americans failed to notice King’s early radicalism, it was probably because they didn’t wish to see it, or were distracted by his readiness to engage respectfully with political opponents, or because his battle against Southern segregationists presented, to many observers, a clear-cut struggle between good and evil.
It should come as no surprise that a Baptist preacher with a bachelor’s degree in divinity and doctorate in systematic theology should bring religious values to his work as an activist. The surprise is the way those values pushed King to take confrontational and unpopular stances as he gained national influence, when he might have been tempted to moderate his views in order maintain popularity. Even after violent attacks, King never backed down. If anything, he grew more aggressive.
He explained the religious philosophy that would guide his career in his first important public speech, on Dec. 5, 1955, given after he had agreed, hesitantly, to lead what most people believed would be a short boycott by Black bus passengers in Montgomery, Ala. King was 26 years old and newly installed as the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. He and his wife, Coretta, had recently become parents for the first time.
“I want it to be known throughout Montgomery and throughout this nation,” he said to a crowd of thousands that overflowed Holt Street Baptist Church that night, “that we are a Christian people…We believe in the teachings of Jesus.”
That meant they would protest peacefully, he said, but his words carried a warning, too. He reminded his audience that they had a powerful ally—the most powerful ally of all—as they set out on their quest. Referring to Psalm 46, King said God would “break the backbone” of those who abused power and corrupted justice. “If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong!” he shouted. “If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong!”
In that speech and in countless others that followed, Dr. King declared that while the civil-rights movement sought to end racial segregation, its larger goal was to save the soul of the nation. He invoked one of the Bible’s fundamental lessons: that all of mankind was created in God’s image, that humans might sort themselves by race or nation but God did not.
“The whole concept of…the image of God,” he said in a 1965 sermon, “is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected…that every man has a capacity to have fellowship with God. And this gives him a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity. And we must never forget this as a nation: There are no gradations in the image of God. Every man from a treble white to a bass black is significant on God’s keyboard, precisely because every man is made in the image of God. One day we will learn that.”...
On April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple in Memphis, in what would be the final speech of his life, he compared the sanitation workers to the slaves of Egypt, saying they had been treated as less than human, saying the time had come for persecuted people to stand up to those in power and pronounce that “God sent us by here, to say to you that you’re not treating His children right.”
As he concluded the speech, King said that he felt like Moses at times. “I just want to do God’s will,” he said. “And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”
Editor's Note: If you would like to receive a weekly email each Sunday with links to the faith posts on TaxProf Blog, email me here.