The Common Good
November-December 1996

No Hero of Convenience

by Harry G. Lefever | November-December 1996

Martin Luther King's challenge to injustice

Vincent Harding has written a passionate and disturbing book. In a collection of eight essays (seven previously published, one delivered as a lecture), he addresses what he calls our national amnesia-a determination to forget or ignore Martin Luther King's demands for a radical restructuring of American society. In our amnesia, "we have frozen the frame of the smiling, victorious hero, locked in the magnificent voice proclaiming the compelling dream."

Harding, professor of religion and social transformation at Iliff School of Theology, reminds us that a selective memory that focuses primarily on the images of the 1963 March on Washington allows us conveniently to ignore the issues King addressed in the last two or three years of his life-what King called the triple threat to the future of American society: racism, militarism, and materialism. And with such a collective forgetting, we can avoid facing the implication of King's call for a renewal of America.

But, says Harding, King is an inconvenient hero. "For those who seek a gentle, non-abrasive hero whose recorded speeches can be used as inspirational resources for rocking our memories to sleep, Martin Luther King, Jr., is surely the wrong man." Harding implores us to replace the media-devised sentimental memories of King with memories of the radical King, the King of the "Beyond Vietnam" speech of 1967, and the King who called for an end to poverty at home and abroad through the reordering of America's values and a withdrawal from our imperialistic designs around the world.

King appealed to the churches and synagogues to move "beyond Vietnam" because the war "is a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit." In a prophetic way, King pointed out that in the years ahead those concerned with issues of peace and justice must be concerned with Guatemala, Peru, Thailand, Cambodia, Mozambique, and South Africa. Those concerned with getting on the right side of the world revolution must undergo a radical revolution of values.

We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

"IS KING SAFELY dead?" Harding rhetorically asks. If not, then those of us who claim to live out his legacy need to ask seriously what the radical King's message demands of us. For example, are we, as was King with his contemporaries, disturbed by the fact that so many of us, black and white, are working to end one of the triple threats, racism, but, at the same time, are demanding our "equal shares" of the other two, militarism and materialism?

Harding's last essay in the book, "Tell the Children," was written for Parenting magazine in 1991. In the essay Harding instructs parents (and all of us) how to narrate the memory of King:

So tell the children that King lives. Let them know that we saw him facing the tanks in Tiananmen Square, dancing on the crumbling wall of Berlin, singing in Prague, alive in the glistening eyes of Nelson Mandela. Tell them that he lives within us, right here, wherever his message is expanded and carried out in our daily lives, wherever his unfinished battles are taken up by our hands.

Harding says that his central concern in writing the book was to contribute to healing, awakening, and moving forward. His efforts will have been in vain unless we, the readers, press beyond our amnesia and engage the tougher, more difficult King.

HARRY G. LEFEVER is a professor of sociology and anthropology at Spelman College in Atlanta. A shorter version of his review appeared in the June 1996 issue of the Atlanta Friends Meeting Newsletter.

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