Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. is a day I dedicate to the prophet every third Monday of January.
I was too young to know him, but know and knew some of his lieutenants. And I met and knew his momma and daddy, heroes themselves. In fact, I went to visit the King family on that terrible day when Mrs. King was shot and killed at the organ of Ebenezer Baptist Church. It was on my birthday.
I have read everything that Martin said or wrote that I can find. I was just gifted with a book entitled The Radical King, edited and introduced by my man, Cornel West. I used this volume for my annual reading of King’s powerful Letter from the Birmingham Jail. It nails me every time, bringing tears and resolve, my criteria for greatness. I am participating in a group here in Glynn County, on the coast of Georgia, that is reading this book, remembering Martin’s prophetic words and looking to make it real in our own day, our own community. It’s good to be re-minded, to sense the call from his truth.
On King Day, I always recall an interview I gave to a reporter who came to Tyler, Texas during a time of racial crisis. A black grandmother had been shot and killed during a botched drug bust by the Smith County Sheriff’s Department. The Texas NAACP decided to bring it’s annual meeting to Tyler, to highlight this travesty. This announcement prompted a local Ku Klux Klan group to get a parade permit for the same weekend. It was a disaster ready to happen. A church member brought me a copy of John Grisham’s book, A Time to Kill, a book that I read overnight and now sits on my desk. Businesses boarded up downtown windows, expecting violence. Citizens took a convenient weekend getaway to Dallas, or a quick vacation to the Texas coast.
A reporter from the national paper began the interview by asking me “what did you do to get “sentenced” to coming to serve in Tyler, Texas?”
I laughed, the way you have to laugh, when arrogant reporters who don’t understand the situation, ask a stupid question.
“It’s not like that. You need to understand something. My grandfather helped to integrate the Atlanta police department. My parents worked to get Andrew Young elected to the Congress of the United States. But I was too young to march with Martin. I would pray at night to God, asking why God had birthed me out of season? Why couldn’t I have been born earlier so that I could have taken my place in line beside Martin and the movement as he marched for civil rights?……And God heard my prayer, and sent me to Tyler, Texas.”
The reporter included that quote in her article, which made me understandingly popular with the Tyler Chamber of Commerce.
Many times on MLK Day, I was at Ebenezer. However during my Texas sojourn, I actually marched in the first MLK Day parade in Tyler in 1991, gathering downtown and marching up Broadway to the Roman Catholic Cathedral. My close friend, Rabbi Art Flicker used to kid me about “teaching him how to march in an MLK parade” by holding up a bull’s eye target. On that cold January morning, you could see the silhouettes of the SWAT team on top of the buildings as we gathered to march. There had been threats to our safety.
A few years later, I was the keynote speaker, bringing my Atlanta cred to the event, even though the black singer before me upstaged me. I remember quipping as I began to speak, that I felt like Dennis Menke. Dennis Menke has to stand in the batter’s circle while he watched Henry Aaron at bat.
Regardless if I am in Atlanta to attend the ceremony in person, or have to watch it live on a television feed, I am present to the moment. I do have to say that in my younger days, I loved watching the older politicians and ministers who were stuck on the podium. Particularly, the white folks who had no clue that this thing was going to go on for a while. You could see them get fidgety when their biological clocks were ringing, maybe ignorantly having a few too many cups of coffee prior to the service. No coffee for this white boy on MLK Day. That’s the only blessing when I can’t be at Ebenezer in person. Unlimited coffee and bathroom access!
I am happy, proud even, to dedicate the third Monday in January to remembering the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. My whole day. I read speeches, books, sermons, maybe write like I am now, always pausing to attend to the service. It is a re-minder, a refresher to the ethical call that Dr. King brought as a voice to our community, to our country, reminding us of our high ideals and aspirations, linking them to our spiritual values.
Some folks forget, some were not around to know that Dr. King was not popular in his day. You could expect that white folks would get upset by the social justice demands that he could make, both with the domestic demands around civil rights and fair wages, but he also began to point out the imperialism of our country, its outrageous military budget, and our involvement in the Vietnam war. He also lost popularity among those blacks who thought non-violence was too passive a response to inequality, and still other blacks who got anxious with his insistence on justice. A majority of black citizens disapproved of his opposition to the Vietnam war. Oftentimes, King found himself opposed by black religious leaders who wanted to maintain the status quo due to their own economic self-interests. But Martin consistently found the courage to set his chin forward to the prize of democracy and human dignity embodied in the right to vote.
A point made by Cornel West is that we have domesticated Martin King to a more palatable form, that is easier for folks to take, much like the pussy cat we have made of Jesus, rather than the roaring lion of justice. We prefer the cute Baby Jesus, cooing in the manger, as opposed to the Jesus who is turning over the tables of the money changers. Have we forgotten the radical King as we make him presentable to the home crowd? When you take the time and energy to read King, and situate him in the context of his speaking, you find a radical advocate for the beloved community. It is galling for senators who quote Martin on a convenient day with little at stake, but fail to rise to the occasion of courage by safeguarding the right to vote for ALL people. Shameful, as if that sentiment still exists in politics these days. Expediency and protection of one’s literal seat is the coin of the realm.
I was thrilled when I heard that the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, had been asked to keynote the annual event. I knew he would be good but did not know just HOW good. Curry has used his tenure as PB to push our church as the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement. He had made it plain that the general marching order for the Episcopal Church is to follow Jesus in his message that Love is the Way. I would refer those of you who have missed the boat, train, and treat, to pick up Bishop Curry’s book, Love is the Way, as a glorious way into the soul and spirit of his passion.
On this day, he took that theme, but played at the variation tuned to our present moment in this country. He pressed for REVIVAL, that is, coming back to life with the common values of our country, namely loving one’s neighbor, regardless of their race, ethnic background, religious tradition, sexual orientation, or, God help us, political party.
Curry got all radical asking Republicans to love Democrats, and Democrats to love Republicans. He quipped that Independents get the chance to love everybody! Love everyone, even if you don’t like them.
Now, this is not new stuff. It’s part of the Hebraic Shema, to love God with all one’s heart, beginning with the centrality of God’s presence in our existence, expressed in Jewish foundational Scriptures and in their daily prayer. Jesus, grounded in that tradition, claims that foundation and radicalized the implications, including loving one’s neighbor, pulling out the admonition of Leviticus. He goes even further with his parables to blow out the full expression of love as even extending that to one’s enemies and praying for one’s persecutors, literally mind-blowing.
Let’s be honest. It simply makes no sense to most reasonable folks. In a transactional world based in the reasonable mantra of quid pro quo, this for that…. such talk is crazy talk. But in the Kingdom of God, it is THE way. The way, Jesus taught. The way of love that Martin took to the streets, even to a bridge. Loving ALL people.
And here it is, and you are not going to like it if you are still with me. They killed Jesus for it, for parading it in front of the religious and political rulers. They shot Martin for it. “They” still aren’t real high on it, because it means they are no longer in control.
Love is the way, even to the radical note of loving your enemy. That’s a high note most trumpets just can’t hit.
Bishop Curry pushed this notion of returning, reviving this basic commitment to love God and neighbor. He pulled out all the stops, brought out all the poetic lines from hymns, even did a Delta commercial, as he deftly knew he was in the Jerusalem of Atlanta. He even danced a little, and for an Episcopalian, that’s taking it to the limit. Michael was “all in” on this thing called love.
And I was moved. Tears rolling down, lips quivering. The preacher, channeling Martin, got to me. And that’s a good thing. But the question is, are we going to hear the call, really hear it so that our narrow perspective of ego is exploded out to the Other, the Neighbor, the Enemy? Can we dare say ALL?
Each Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we remember the Dreamer, and his shimmering Vision of the Beloved Community. And every third Monday of January, the existential question is posed anew: Will you carry that Dream forward? Every third Monday of January, there is King for a day, but what about Tuesday…and Wednesday?