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(This article was originally written in 2018.  Little has changed.  It has been updated to reflect current events.)

April 4, 1968.  Memphis Tennessee.  Lorraine Motel.  6pm CST.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was asked to consider not going to Memphis, but he was compelled to go.  Why?  Sanitation workers were seeking justice from a racist and unjust system that marginalized them and their work.  MLK knew their plight, and heard the words of our Lord when He spoke at His hometown synagogue in Nazareth:

Luke 4:18-19

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” NRSV

Sanitation workers?  Who really cares?  Jesus Cares!  The prophets and the people of Jesus care!  All people of good will care!  The lyrics of a song of celebration at MLK’s funeral on April 9, 1968, at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA, beautifully expresses his calling to serve others:

If I can help somebody
As I travel along
If I can help somebody
With a word or song
If I can help somebody
From doing wrong
My living shall not be in vain.

My living shall not be in vain
My living shall not be in vain
If I can help somebody
While I’m singing this song
My living shall not be in vain.

“If I Can Help Somebody Lyrics.”

Lyrics.com. STANDS4 LLC, 2018. Web. 1 Apr. 2018. <https://www.lyrics.com/lyric/2125065>.

In 1968, I was a 20-year-old junior at a conservative Bible College in Michigan.  I had the best of both worlds – a wonderful upbringing in a Christian home, growing up in a wonderful local Baptist Church, as well a great Bible college –  all of whom I loved.  My idyllic world turned dark on Thursday, April 4, 1968.  Martin Luther King was assassinated.  The news hit me hard.  I remember sinking into a dark pit of shock and unbelief.  How could Martin be dead?  Who would kill Martin?  The beautiful brother with a Ph.D. from Boston University who spoke with such power, eloquence and grace was the role model for young, black impressionable ministry students like me. If that wasn’t enough, the president of our college addressed the King assassination at our next chapel.  What he said at that chapel deconstructed my idyllic world.  My world of a black church and white conservative Bible college suffered violent upheaval.  The president basically portrayed Dr. King’s killing as deserved.  King was a biblically-liberal troublemaker who preached a social gospel.  He asked for it!  Laws needed to be obeyed, even if they were unjust.   What?  The gospel has always been social in the prophetic tradition.  Exodus 20:16-17 foresees a just, lawful and righteous society for humankind:

16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. 17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”   NIV

Just laws should protect everyone.  Unjust laws should be challenged.  A preacher who spoke against social, political and economic injustice in the tradition of the prophets asked for it?  I was outraged then.  Fifty years later, however, the president’s slap at MLK may have had an awkward ring of truth.  The Lord’s prophets have always been attacked, imprisoned and killed – and King knew that.  Jesus also gave His prophets the head’s-up on that reality.  Yet, King pushed on.  Nevertheless, my youthful outrage motivated me to write an opposing challenge to the president’s remarks.  I didn’t know anything about conservative or liberal, right or left.  I did not understand how these systems of belief intersected theologically and politically.  When I was ignored, I began circulating a petition among the student body and alumni articulating my protest of the president’s public comments.  The petition was widely circulated, and was signed by blacks and whites alike, pressuring the president to ask for a meeting.  In brief, I was granted the opportunity to address my concerns at a morning chapel service.  At that service, I shared my disappointment and shock at my school’s response to someone I dearly loved and held in high esteem.  I also, in the King tradition, made an appeal for the school family to respect one another and rebuild an environment of love and mutual respect.  My present role as president of the Ecumenical Theological Seminary is informed by my experiences of the past.  I must be a voice to speak truth to the community I am called to serve.  I intend to do so.

My world would never be the same, and my theological and philosophical innocence was destroyed forever.  That world came crashing down as I examined the pieces of my deconstructed reality.  I did not know how to begin reconstruction when I was emotionally, spiritually and intellectually wounded. It was sad to see King’s dream struggle to get back on track.  It seemed we were soooo close.

For me and others, the assassination of John and Robert Kennedy was a message from segments of our nation that they would do whatever necessary to let hope for a better day die with King.  Fifty years later, the feelings and concerns have returned.  In some ways, it’s worse than before.

As a young African-American male, I read the stories of lynchings, castrations, disembowelments and the beheading of black men in the South.  I read about the lynching of black soldiers who returned home after WW II, only to be lynched by cowardly bands of misguided fellow Americans.  I can still feel some of that.  When unarmed black men and boys are shot and killed in the streets of America by wayward law enforcement officers-with cameras rolling, I think of the KKK – without hoods.  What would Martin say about the “New Jim Crow” that makes profitable the massive imprisonment of black men?  The events of Charlottesville deeply affected Americans in different ways.  For me, it was a reincarnation of racial and ethnic bigotry from the past.  It was unnerving to see a new generation of young whites who embrace neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic and rebranded racial hatred.  The alt-right and white supremacists who boldly paraded their bigotry and racial bias did not hide behind robes and hoods.  They declared their convictions as the finest of the American tradition – being white and male is in – “other” is out!

WHAT WOULD MARTIN SAY?  WHAT WOULD MARTIN THINK?  WHAT WOULD MARTIN DO?  WHAT WOULD MARTIN SAY TO TRUMP?  WHAT WOULD HE SAY TO EVANGELICALS?

For one who looked death in the face many times, Martin would have been in Charlottesville talking peace and love for all of humanity.  He would have exhorted all of us to take a deep breath and think about the world we were shaping for future generations.  MLK would have chastened Republican senators who dishonored a honored tradition by refusing to even meet with President Obama’s last nominee for Supreme Court Justice – the prophet Amos would have been appalled at that sinister injustice.  He would have chastened President Trump for giving bigotry a platform of legitimacy, and he would have challenged us to fight the good fight of faith by confronting such evil in church and society.  He would have not been surprised the same president goes on trial next week for obstruction of justice charges.  MLK would have been willing to give his life so that all Americans could share and enjoy the blessings of a blessed nation where justice and righteousness rule.

Rev. Dr. William Barber and the reincarnation of MLK’s “Poor People’s Campaign” gives me renewed hope.  Killing the man does not mean his dream is dead.  Fifty-two years later, MLK’s dream lives on in all Americans of good will.

APRIL 4TH IS A DAY TO REMEMBER.

MLK’s death still brings tears to my eyes – fifty-two years later!  So young and full of hope, he sensed his advocacy for the rights of sanitation workers would cost him the ultimate price.  It did, and I close this piece with the lyrics of another of MLK’s favorites hymns sung at his funeral:

SOFTLY AND TENDERLY

1 Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling—
Calling for you and for me;
Patiently Jesus is waiting and watching—
Watching for you and for me!
  Come home! come home!
Ye who are weary, come home!
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, O sinner, come home!
2 Why should we tarry when Jesus is pleading—
Pleading for you and for me?
Why should we linger and heed not His mercies—
Mercies for you and for me?
3 Time is now fleeting, the moments are passing—
Passing from you and from me;
Shadows are gathering, death-beds are coming—
Coming for you and for me!
4 Oh, for the wonderful love He has promised—
Promised for you and for me!
Though we have sinned, He has mercy and pardon—
Pardon for you and for me!

(https://www.hymnal.net/en/hymn/h/1027)

MARTIN, WELL DONE!  REST IN PEACE!

 

The Rev. Dr. Kenneth E. Harris

President and Academic Dean

Professor of Biblical Studies

Ecumenical Theological Seminary