What has happened to the legacy of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? What have we, as a collective nation, allowed to happen to the message and mission of the man who once said: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it”? The American people have so watered down the poignant and profound message of King to a point where his call for unarmed truth, judgment by character, and human progress are unrecognizable as the radical beckoning they truly were.
Let us take note of First Lady Michelle Obama’s call for Americans to engage themselves in food drives, neighborhood clean-ups, education projects, blood drives or more” as “one of the best ways to preserve [Dr. King's] legacy.” Let me be clear, I both honor and admire the First Lady. However for her to relegate the radically transforming, politically left, and spiritually enthused message and mission of Dr. King to “food drives, clean-ups, and blood drives” shatters his legacy. In short, Dr. King was about “sacrifice, suffering, and struggle,” his words not mine.
Tim Wise, an anti-racism activist, social critic, and public intellectual wrote in a recent article:
"Operating on a charity model, rather than one of solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed, these service projects, while perhaps worthwhile in and of themselves, serve to reinforce the illusion that the society is basically a just one, requiring no substantial transformation, but rather, just a little more “helping out,” in order to attain perfection."Because I am who I am—a black, theologically progressive, politically liberal, Baptist minister—let me suggest that to relegate King’s message to “food drives and clean-ups” is like referring to Jesus’ message as “free hugs and always give a helping hand” [exaggeration intended]. The gospels present us with an historical Jesus who turned over tables, as opposition to the social mechanisms of oppression within an ancient political economy. Marcus Borg, a progressive Christian theologian writes: “Jesus not only challenged the politics of purity, but advocated the politics of compassion.” In a parallel vein, Dr. King dedicated his life and voice to overturning the sharp social boundaries of American society in order to build the beloved community.
We have a collective responsibility as a nation to not compromise the message and mission of a social prophet and radical change agent with a message of community service and human philanthropy; we must remember as Dr. King informed, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”
Dr. King lived his life as an ardent disciple of the words of Christ that “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34); and therefore, whether we are religious or non-religious, black or white, wealthy or working, we too can gain from these words—forsake ourselves, take up the cross of radical social action, and follow the guidance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a paradigmatic figure of truth, justice, love, and equality for all persons.
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.”
Robert S. Harvey is currently a master’s student at Harvard Divinity School, where he addresses the intersection of religion, education, democracy, and civil rights. Robert is also a Baptist minister and has published a number of essays, articles, and social commentaries; he is currently completing a book entitled, 'Unconditional Love, Unconditional Inclusion: The Role of Christian Churches in the Social Development of Gays and Lesbians.'