Rev. King’s Admirers



Some of Rev. King’s admirers should probably be glad he’s not around to speak for himself

We are in the midst of what promises to be the most divisive presidential campaign in what already is the most divisive era of our history, yet in honor of Rev. Martin Luther King’s birthday, candidates from both parties will unite on praising him and quoting from his speeches. Of course, they will quote Dr. King as evidence that their side is right (sigh), but at least they will be on the same page for a change.

I do wonder what Dr. King would have to say about the presidential candidates if he were alive – and what they would say about him. They say we should speak no ill of the dead. I have always thought that the reason for that is that the dead cannot defend themselves. But, if you think about it, an equally important reason for that maxim may be that the dead cannot criticize you. We can put whatever words we want in their mouths and whatever thoughts we want into their heads.

Everybody loves them some Dr. King, but if Dr. King were alive today, the feelings may not be mutual.

Dr. King, in a biblical way, would love all the political officials who claim to love him; his reliance on nonviolence as a protest tactic (in the face of bloody beatings and ugly taunts and water hoses and vicious dogs) showed how much he loved and forgave his fellow man. But just because Dr. King and his followers did not physically fight back does not mean that he was afraid to tell you what he thought.

Some of today’s political candidates may think Dr. King would not strongly criticize them, but that may be because they have a misperception of what it means to be a Christian. Yes, Jesus told his followers to turn the other cheek. But he had no problem with calling out sinners.

Any politician who thinks that, if Dr. King were alive today, would pull his punches should reread Matthew 23, in which Jesus unleashes upon the Pharisees the seven woes. Among the choice epithets he has for them (and, remember, this was before the days of TV and the Internet; these words were spoken face-to-face) hypocrites, blind guides, whitewashed tombs.

I wonder how much praise political candidates would have for Dr. King if were going around calling them – yes, in the spirit of Jesus – whitewashed tombs?

When we think of Dr. King, we tend to think about people holding hands and singing, “We shall overcome.” We tend to think about his dream of little black boys and little black girls joining hands with little white boys and little white girls. But, don’t forget, in that sane speech, Dr. King ripped the “vicious racists” in Alabama. He used an especially evocative metaphor for Alabama’s then-governor George Wallace: “lips dripping with the words of ‘interposition’ and ‘nullification’.” (For those unfamiliar with those terms, they were tactics used by Southern governors to resist federal laws ending segregation.)

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that we are called to cloth the naked, feed the hungry and tend to the sick, promising “eternal punishment” for those who do not. I’ll bet Dr. King would not be happy with anyone who was fighting health care, a higher minimum wage, unemployment benefits and other social safety net programs.

And what would Rev. King, who saw whites and blacks beaten and killed for the right of blacks to vote, say about efforts to put obstacles in the way of voting?

I’m not sure what Dr. King would say, but I’m certain that, if he were alive today, there would be fewer politicians singing his praise.