What Should We Remember About Dr. King?

By Troy Jackson 01-17-2011

Over the years, I have read thousands upon thousands of pages on the life of Dr. King, and as an editor with the Martin Luther King Papers project, and an author of a book on King, I've contributed hundreds of pages myself. These records and reflections of King's influences, life, and legacy are extremely important.

In fact, on MLK Day, the nation focuses on the words of Dr. King. We talk about his "I Have a Dream" speech, and the really industrial among us may pull a quote or two from the "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

Words matter, and King was undoubtedly one of the greatest speakers in American history.

That said, the reality is that the justice movement in the United States is stuck in words and frames and narratives and ideas, with precious little action. We talk a lot about justice, and yet our relationship networks often bypass those battling injustice on a daily basis.

We have meetings and consultations about immigration reform, curbing violence, and corporate accountability. We read books and tell stories. We listen to speeches and may indulge in a selective phone call to our member of Congress. We might even participate in a march on MLK day to get a small taste of "the Movement."

However, as Malcolm Gladwell reminded us a few months ago, "the revolution will not be tweeted." Substantive change demands action. Thankfully Micah did not write the far more common interpretation of Micah 6:8: "What does the Lord require of us? But to pontificate about (tweet about?) justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God." No. Justice demands doing, and doing demands action.

So this year, let us continue talking, and start acting. Let's organize with the marginalized and oppressed. Let's share meals with undocumented immigrants, learn their names, and hear their stories. And let's creatively act to redeem the soul of our nation.

And let's stop being so lazy, and so self-centered, and so focused on our own entertainment and amusement. Social movements demand effort, hard work, and sacrifice. Are we willing to sacrifice our comfort and security to do justice? King did.

Why do we celebrate King's words more than his sacrifice? Until we shift the focus, biblical social change will remain a nice story from the '60s, rather than a present reality.

Troy Jackson is senior pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, and earned his PhD in United States history from the University of Kentucky. He is author of Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader (Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century) and a participant in Sojourners' Windchangers grassroots organizing project in Ohio.

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