This August will mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and there will rightly be much remembrance and celebration of its place in American history. But there is another anniversary that our nation, and especially its Christians, would do well to acknowledge, investigate, and ruminate.
Forty-five years ago yesterday, Dr. King arrived in Memphis, Tenn., to support a sanitation workers’ strike seeking to unionize. He was assassinated the next day — the anniversary we today remember — and in a sad irony our nation began the sanitation of his legacy. Indeed, King’s decision to join the Memphis struggle was just one of many acts that clash with what David Sirota calls the “Santa Clausified” image of King that we pass to our youth.
I teach a course called “The Political and Religious thought of Dr. King” at a largely black university in northern Virginia. None of my 31 students last semester knew that King called America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” None of them had heard that he compared America’s testing of new weapons on Vietnamese peasants to the Nazis’ cruel medical experiments on Jews. None of my students were aware that he was a staunch critic of capitalism, which he saw as intimately wed to racism and war. None knew that King accused America of “arrogance” and “hypocrisy,” criticizing its buildup of nuclear weapons. None knew he preached that America was “in danger of going to hell.” Sadly, not one student knew that King was organizing a “Poor People’s Campaign” before his death.
You will not see any of these topics referenced on the newly opened monument for Dr. King in our nation’s capital. You will be hard pressed to find a school that teaches such things about the only person America honors with a personal holiday. Not even at an elite university like Boston College had any of my students been aware of this side of King.
What does this say about America, as a nation?
To begin, it helps explain why a country which hails a man who said “if we assume that [hu]mankind has a right to survive then we must find an alternative to war and destruction” can be in its 12th year of war in Afghanistan and still has troops in Iraq after 10 years. It sheds light on why his memorial does not include his comment on “the need for the method of nonviolence in international relations,” given that only on March 15 a U.N. terrorism and human rights envoy accused America of violating international law by drone-bombing Pakistan – only one of the countries victimized by our remote-control airplanes.
These facts show that America, from its citizens to the government, has not learned to see through the moral and religious lens of Martin Luther King. Speaking on nuclear weapons, he declared that “the choice is no longer between violence and nonviolence but between nonviolence and nonexistence.” Yet the Pentagon openly announced it had 5,113 nuclear warheads in 2010 . To say that we are lagging behind King’s vision presupposes that we are moving in his direction, which would be overly generous. We should attend to his warning that “when scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided [people].”
I do not think it is an accident that none of my college students are aware of Martin Luther King as he actually lived and preached. I suspect that it is by design. If we enshrined even one of these quotes into his memorial or put it into a school curriculum, what could any thinking person conclude except that America stands in direct contrast to Dr. King?
There is much to say about what King was against, but it is much more fruitful to consider what he was for, and it is here where he is most needed today.
King was first and foremost a Christian preacher. Influenced by Walter Rauschenbusch, King was moved by the social spirit of the Old Testament prophets and the Gospels. He constantly interpreted America’s realities with a view toward the poor, oppressed, and victimized. When American burned Vietnamese children with napalm, he embraced them as his brothers and sisters. He believed that all humans compose a family that lives in a “world house,” and that we cannot settle family differences by detonating the offender’s room.
The reason for this, of course, is love. His conception of love was rooted in the life of Jesus and grounded his philosophy of nonviolence. How can we, as a nation, claim to admire Dr. King when we do not allow love into national policy debates? How can we brazenly invoke “national defense” as a legitimate argument and also claim to celebrate someone who explicitly rejected self-preservation, stating instead that“other-preservation is the first law of life?”
Dr. King is still too radical for America today. We cannot accept his message until we collectively declare ourselves for the poor, the dead Yemeni babies under our drone bombs, the imprisoned, the immigrants who toil in the sun to pick our food, the hungry, the naked, the oppressed, and all other lowly in the world. We must love them, and all vulnerable people must become the center of our national consciousness, debates, and values.
Until then, Dr. King will have to remain a cheap slogan we can invoke for any cause, as did the U.S. Airforce’s Global Strike Command when they claimed in January  that King would be proud of different races “standing side-by-side ensuring the most powerful weapons in the U.S. arsenal remain the credible bedrock of our national defense.”
That speaker can say along with my student in her final paper, “I am shocked that I never knew who Dr. King was.”
Know today: he was the one who died 45 years ago loving our trash collectors. We remember that he was killed, but it is more important to remember why he showed up in Memphis at all.
Eric Martin teaches classes on ethics and the religious and political thought of Dr. King at Stratford University. He will begin doctoral studies in theology at Fordham University in the fall.