Thoughts on Martin Luther King Day
I’m writing from my home in a section of Washington, DC, that burned after Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
The motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum, has preserved the room in which King spent his last night on earth, and in the anteroom you can play his “I have been to the mountaintopâ€ speech by pushing a red button. A wreath marks the spot outside where he died as his companions pointed at the shooter’s position. It is heartbreaking and inspiring, to an extent that dwarfs the power of words.
The Bible is replete with such powerful stories, and from time to time I thank God for animating them by guiding me to the history of civil rights movement (my undergraduate concentration), and especially to Martin Luther King, Jr. Reading and hearing the words of a person willing not only to challenge the powerful to honor the word of God, but to follow his Christian convictions to an early grave is humbling and gratifying, and it has repeatedly reminded me of the power of faith.
The fire that destroyed my neighborhood following King’s death must be viewed within the context of the world from which he was violently taken. While the rage of oppressed people consumed uptown Washington and gave grist to opportunistic segregationists, a few miles down the street the federal government was escalating a war that was antithetical to everything for which King stood. That he gave a speech condemning the Vietnam war and the socio-political structure that enabled it exactly one year before his death is a detail lost to the cliffs notes history fed to us by popular culture.
Some 40 years on now, we have a Martin Luther King federal holiday, but a mixed (yet sum positive) record of racial and socio-economic progress, and a seemingly steadfast commitment to the militarism and economic inequality King decried in his final years. In recent years it’s become common to commemorate Dr. King by using his holiday as a day of service; in keeping with his words and deeds, we should also use the day to call leaders to honor the teachings of the faiths they espouse.