Sunday, January 16, 2011

Do you know my friend Martin?

The other day at school, a student asked me why they get MLK Day off but not Columbus Day. Columbus discovered American, they reasoned. We don't really get MLK Day off, students do but teachers have a staff development day. As a former History teacher (I now teach Art) I began to explain about Brendan the Navigator, Leif Erikson, the Chinese and the fact that the indigenous peoples were already here... before I could get to slavery and disease and operating under the delusion that Hispaniola was in Asia- the kid moved on. "I mean, what did he even do, anyway? Give some speech about a dream? So he was in some marches, so what?"

I'm pretty sure that this White teenage girl isn't racist, but was just trying to rile me and (she thought) she was being funny. Be that as it may, it did trouble me that so few kids understand who Martin Luther King Jr. was, let alone appreciate his legacy. After all, he helped end apartheid in the United States!

Two of the most amazing books I have ever read are Doctor King's Strength to Love and The Measure of a Man. Each of these books profoundly effected and influenced my faith and understanding of theology, society, politics, justice and grace.

What a lot of people don't know is that even though they were Baptists, King's father changed both of their names to Martin Luther after a trip to Germany where he studied about the protestant reformer's commitment to the liberating power of the Gospel.

I don't think we should recognize and commemorate his civil rights work or his fight against poverty or his opposition to injustice and political hypocrisy. I think we should remember him because he sacrificed everything to do those things. He risked his life and forfeited prosperity and security to do those things. No, I do not elevate him to the same level as Jesus Christ- he would not either. His death didn't bring salvation- if anything his savage murder denied the world of his further wisdom and an his potential further leadership and example. But one reason he should be remembered is that he followed Christ's example by spending even his own life for the sake of others.

If you need a refresher in civil rights history, read this brief explanation:

King helped change America’s conscience, not only about civil rights but also about economic justice, poverty and war. As an inexperienced young pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, King was reluctantly thrust into the leadership of the bus boycott. During the 382-day boycott, King was arrested and abused and his home was bombed, but he emerged as a national figure and honed his leadership skills. In 1957 he helped launch the (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) SCLC to spread the civil rights crusade to other cities. He helped lead local campaigns in Selma, Birmingham and other cities, and sought to keep the fractious civil rights movement together, including the NAACP, Urban League, (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) SNCC, (Congress of Organizations for Racial Equality) CORE and SCLC. Between 1957 and 1968 King traveled more than 6 million miles, spoke more than 2,500 times and was arrested at least twenty times while preaching the gospel of nonviolence. Today we view King as something of a saint; his birthday is a national holiday and his name adorns schools and street signs. But in his day the establishment considered King a dangerous troublemaker. He was harassed by the FBI and vilified in the media. The struggle for civil rights radicalized him into a fighter for economic and social justice. During the 1960s King became increasingly committed to building bridges between the civil rights and labor movements. He was in Memphis in 1968 to support striking sanitation workers when he was assassinated. In 1964, at 35, King was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. Some civil rights activists worried that his opposition to the Vietnam War, announced in 1967, would create a backlash against civil rights, but instead it helped turned the tide of public opinion against the war.
From: The Fifty Most Influential Progressives of the Twentieth Century by Peter DreierThe Nation Magazine, September 2010

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