04/02/2014 03:46 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2014

Understanding Martin Luther King Jr. and His Shrouded Legacy

For most Americans today Martin Luther King Jr. personifies the historic achievement celebrated during Black History Month. But to understand King, one must look closely both at him and ourselves. For there are two Kings that we should ponder: King at the March on Washington in 1963, and the King in Memphis marching behind a garbage truck beginning his fight for economic justice, at the time of his death. My sense is that we want to remember the hero and believe that we all would have followed him, but the story is more troubling, and in fact, his legacy was left tacitly stillborn.

As a result of King's great "I have a dream speech" most people like to see him as the great prophet of our age. But to simplify King in this way seems to do him a disservice; prophets must be troubling if they are to be vital. And by limiting our understanding to that moment cuts us off from understanding what led him to that stage, and what followed as both black and white America rebuffed him for the last three years of his life. To better understand the man, let us review the ideas that drove him to Washington in the first place.

A central fact about King's life is often overlooked: he was a deeply religious man. He was not a politician, lawyer, or labor leader, as some liberals would have you think. He had an intensely personal relationship with God, and he cannot be understood on his own terms without appreciating that all of his effort and actions sprung from his religious impulses and ideas -- from nonviolence to Vietnam.

To understand King's spirituality, one must appreciate his tumultuous journey. He was born into a fundamentalist family, became a skeptical agnostic as a teen, but then slid comfortably back into a Christian world view and came to see the Bible as metaphors for enduring truths. But his mind kept moving. By the time he got to college he was enamored by the Social Gospel movement, which emphasized the Sermon on the Mount over resurrection, and the ideas of John Dewey who believed that education and reason alone could overcome racism and poverty. And there he would sit. Essentially, an optimistic humanist willing to wait on the benevolence of mankind, and the power of man's evolving reason. Until he was shaken.

The first intellectual thunderbolt was the thinking of Reinhold Niebuhr and his 1932 classic Moral Man and Immoral Society, which argues that while the individual possesses the capacity for empathy, compassion, and reason, social forces such as race and class interests do not. Quite simply, there is no collective conscience for a dominant class, only self-interests. And to influence the activities of a dominant class, one must employ power, practical power. So by embracing Niebuhr's ideas, King no longer placed his faith in education and inevitable social improvements; he became a man of action and a student of political power.

The second thunderclap that struck King was the philosophy, or rather theology, of personalism, the subject of his dissertation. Essentially, personalism holds that the person, or individual soul, is the elemental force in the universe. Indeed, the person is the only aspect in the universe that possesses existence or reality, and the material world is secondary. God shares this ultimate reality and it is at the personal level, that we are able to apprehend the personality of God, and have a personal relationship with God. So far from seeing God as being beyond time and space or human comprehension, King held the opposite extreme view, that God was the only thing that man could truly know.

So how did the ideas of Niebuhr and personalism affect his life experience and mission? These two elements came together during the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956. Triggered by Rosa Parks, King embraced the boycott as a nonviolent way to effect social change thru economic power. While the persons of the white establishment were respected, immediate pressure was brought to bear to change the legal system.

And on the spiritual level, perhaps the most moving demonstration of his intimate relationship with God occurred in late January 1956 during the boycott. On Thursday, January 26, the campaign was going poorly, and on the way home he was arrested for speeding on charges that seemed grossly exaggerated. He was arrested, but rather than take him downtown, the police took him to the isolated county jail. He understandably thought they were taking him to be beaten or lynched. He was terrified. After being released on bail, he sat alone in his kitchen, his head in his hands when he said aloud, "God, I am terrified and cannot do this." To which a voice said to him "do not be afraid, I am with you." According to King, this was the first transcendent religious experience of his life. The following day at the Dexter Baptist Church, King gave a tepid sermon about the boycott. From the back of the church an elderly woman came forward shouting "Martin, something is wrong with you, you aren't talking straight." He answered, "No, Mother Pollard, I'm fine." She then put her face up close to his and yelled, "Something is wrong with you. You aren't talking straight. Either you have lost faith, or you are disappointed in us. But I promise you this, we will never abandon you, and if we did, God will never let you down." Stepping back, tears rolled down his cheeks. Five minutes later, King was told his home was bombed while his wife and daughter were there.

The high water mark in King's public career was 1964 thru early 1965: The Civil Rights Act, Nobel Prize, Voting Rights, and the March from Selma to Montgomery, where finally the entire nation not only heard his call, but also heeded that call and followed him. His personalistic relationship with God, and his call to action, were powerfully vindicated. This is the King we all remember.

But then, almost immediately, everything changed. Apparently tired of the slow pace of legislation and the continued brutality of police and the violence of the Watts riots, King's followers began to turn away. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), his invaluable ally in his voting rights efforts in the south, renounced nonviolence, and embraced "Black Power" and the posthumous resurrection of Malcolm X's militancy. At the same time, white backlash struck back as King tried to integrate Chicago housing where he was unceremoniously thrown out of town in violent clashes, which King said were worse than anything he experienced in the south. Politically, this white backlash manifested itself in landslide victories in Congress for Republicans in 1966 and the emergence of Governor Ronald Reagan in California.

But the final break for King with many white and black Americans was his condemnation of the Vietnam War beginning in 1966. At that time the war against communism was still popular with most of the country, which was being prosecuted by a Democratic administration led by so-called Kennedy "Wise-men." King's objections were viewed by many as traitorous and he was belittled by the NAACP, the Urban League, the New York Times, and so many others. To many others, his position seemed to be undermining his own accomplishments in civil rights. Many could not see what was obvious to King: the two issues were inextricably connected by a commitment to nonviolence and the sacredness of the person.

And this brings us to Memphis. By the time King arrived to support the sanitation workers, he was in the midst of trying to organize his "Poor People's Campaign" on Washington and receiving very little support. On the first day of his nonviolent march in Memphis rioting broke out immediately, leading to the arrest of 265 rioters, 65 hospitalizations, and one death. Black Power ruled the day, and King was devastated, openly lamenting that "maybe we should give up and let violence take its course." At his last sermon, he spoke to a largely empty church. King was broken: he was more Jeremiah than Moses.

So as we ponder that black and white photograph from 50 years ago in Washington, would not his legacy be more meaningful if we embraced him as a man of God whose message on nonviolence was often rejected and misunderstood in his own lifetime by both black and white Americans as he began to redirect his efforts from civil rights towards poverty. To see King in this light, he seems less heroic by the end of his life, and more a deeply saddened man; both more human, and more saintly. We should keep in mind the unfinished work of King, and for that matter, of black history.

Stephen Sarsfield Bowman