Last Sunday, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was formally dedicated on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Thousands bore witness to the dedication of the first memorial to a non-U.S. President and the first to an African American on the National Mall. A tremendous debt of gratitude is owed to the many people who made this monumental moment in American history possible, in particular the men of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, of which Dr. King was a member, who vigorously championed this cause.
That said, I cannot help but to wonder, which King now stands enshrined on the mall? It is a rather subjective matter, I must confess. Nevertheless, I consider it to be one of great importance. For our answer to this question speaks not only to who we consider ourselves to be as a nation, but also to who we have made Dr. King to be, and what we consider to be his enduring legacy.
Seven years ago, as an Assistant to the Chaplain at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, I had the privilege of serving as the founding director of the SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage, a traveling seminar to cities and sites significant to the American Civil Rights Movement. As we walked upon hallowed ground in places of sacred memory to the Movement called Jackson, Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, Little Rock, and Memphis, an important distinction of authenticity began to emerge within our consciousness. During our travels we began to distinguish between sites which were "raw," like the carport of Medgar Evers home where tainted stains from pools of his blood remain visible in the concrete today, and sites that were "sanitized," a countless number of both privately and federally-funded museums that sought to make the horrors of the Movement palatable. We felt that such intended palatability was destructive to the integrity of the Movement and to the tremendous sacrifices of those who participated therein.
Since his assassination on April 4, 1968, in many ways Dr. King's legacy has been sanitized by a revisionist history. This dynamic leader has been regulated to sound bytes that are often taken out of context, and his revolutionary ideals and powerful rhetoric have been reduced to quotations to be inserted at will into term papers, speeches, and debates. The American public knows bits and pieces of his speeches and sermons from video recordings, but very few have read his books, an essential activity towards understanding who Dr. King was and what made him tick.
If we truly remembered Dr. King for who he was and for what he stood, and ultimately, died for, our nation would be held to greater accountability. In this revolutionary season that has broken out across the world, the words and work of Dr. King hold great relevance. Our economy, rocked by corporate greed and the criminalization and scape-goating of the impoverished, would not sit well with Dr. King. In his final book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community, Dr. King called for the immediate elimination of poverty and for a guaranteed living income for all American citizens. Dr. King advocated for the elimination of debts against poor foreign governments. And Dr. King died while supporting a movement for workers' dignity in Memphis, a stop he deemed necessary prior to occupying Washington, D.C. with a Poor People's Campaign. (On a side-note, it's good to see Dr. King finally make it to D.C. after all these years!)
But is that the Dr. King who now stands on the mall? Is that the man that America sees?
The one who spoke out against the injustices of the Vietnam War while many remained silent? The man who died poor and unpopular, even with members of the African-American community? Which King stands on the mall? Is it the diminutive, peacemaker King, the dispenser of wise-sayings of revisionist history, or King, the revolutionary, non-violent militant against injustice, whose boycotts crippled local economies and forced them to the negotiation table?
In this country, we have often done with Dr. King's legacy that which we have done to the legacy of the spiritual leader King followed: Jesus Christ. We have made Jesus into a sheep-carrying, parable-speaking, sandal-wearing blonde whose crucifixion wrought only light speckles of blood, instead of the whip-yielding, table-overturning man with nappy hair who boldly called those sitting in seats of economic, political, and religious oppression snakes and open graves, the man who so challenged the system that, like King, he was Emmett-Tilled by it. The man, who like King, died lonely, poor, and unpopular, crucified for his commitment to justice, for standing against the establishment, against the status quo, and speaking truth to power. We have emasculated both of them, King and Christ, removing from them their rage against machines of marginalization and oppression. In essence, we have made them less threatening to make them more tolerable. More acceptable. Sanitized.
And when sanitized, we make them controllable, something in death they were not in life.
History records that the title of King's final Sunday sermon, a sermon he did not live to preach, was "Why America May Go to Hell." The Mall and the nation could well use such a fearless and truth-telling prophet.
I just don't know if we are ready to place him there.