The Common Good

Bible Wars: Do We Know What King Actually Did?

Blogger Hamden Rice's 2011 essay "Most of You Have No Idea What Martin Luther King Actually Did" has become an underground classic that rightly resurfaces around King Day events.

On Monday, President Obama -- America's first Black president -- will be sworn in for his second term. He will swear his oath of office on a bible used by President Abraham Lincoln and a bible used by Martin Luther King, Jr.
 
Let that sink in.
 
I like to watch TV and video clips of Obama without the sound. As much as I appreciate his oratory, my experience is that he communicates deeper meanings visually. He sends visual coded messages to signal those watching carefully what's he sees at the crux of a particular issue, problem, conundrum -- what are the essential values he's holding in tension.
 
With these two bibles he marries the deepest meaning of America's democratic struggle. He may be signaling to us that there is a cold civil war raging between the American states that he's been elected to govern. Like the Republican Lincoln, he is negotiating some very dangerous waters.
 
He may also be telling us that Martin King's bible was his power generator. That bible contained the blueprint for African-American freedom from enslavement and fear. Obama knows what that bible is and what it means -- even if he's constrained in how he can act on it.
 
But King's bible is our Bible. We can act on it. What did Martin read there that empowered him to do what he actually did?
 
Hamden Rice writes:
   
"... I was having this argument with my father about Martin Luther King and how his message was too conservative compared to Malcolm X's message.  My father got really angry at me. It wasn't that he disliked Malcolm X, but his point was that Malcolm X hadn't accomplished anything as Dr. King had.
I was kind of sarcastic and asked something like, so what did Martin Luther King accomplish other than giving his 'I have a dream speech.'
 
Before I tell you what my father told me, I want to digress. Because at this point in our amnesiac national existence, my question pretty much reflects the national civic religion view of what Dr. King accomplished. He gave this great speech. Or some people say, "he marched." I was so angry at Mrs. Clinton during the primaries when she said that Dr. King marched, but it was LBJ who delivered the Civil Rights Act.
 
At this point, I would like to remind everyone exactly what Martin Luther King did, and it wasn't that he "marched" or gave a great speech.
 
My father told me with a sort of cold fury, "Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south. ...
Now ... let that sink in.
 
For white Americans, Rice's summation is the necessary icy plunge needed to shock us out of privileged complacency.
 
For all Americans Monday's inaugural events should deliver us a similar icy shock -- waking us up to the terrors that U.S. policies, especially foreign policies, are visiting on people today. When we read the Bible — Lincoln's or King's — which side are we on? Which side is God on?
 
Rose Marie Berger, author of Who Killed Donte Manning? (available at store.sojo.net), is a Catholic peace activist and a Sojourners associate editor.

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