MLK Jr., so what?

It’s more than a long weekend.


Creed Bauman, The Horizon

The vastness and richness of his legacy.

Riley Potter, Guest Writer

Sure, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day every January, but how much do we really know about this man — his beliefs, writings, speeches, family, legacy and the utter revile he experienced in the course of his short life?

In the dozen-or-so years of his active championing of nonviolence resistance, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled over six million miles, spoke over 2,500 times, and wrote five books as well as a plethora of articles. At age 35, he was the youngest person at the time to receive a Nobel Peace Prize. He was a busy and incredibly dedicated man. 

For context, it is important to remember that people in our country did not always hold Dr. King in such an esteemed position. In 1966, at the height of his campaign for nonviolence and racial justice, 72% of Americans had an unfavorable view of Dr. King. That is decidedly not a good approval rating.

Coretta Scott-King and the King Center created a petition to set aside a national holiday in his honor, but the King Holiday Bill was initially defeated in the House of Representatives in 1979, short five votes. Now, however, there are over 955 streets that bear his name in the U.S. alone. 

How have we managed to turn Dr. King, a controversial figure at best in his day, into one of the most lauded and quoted civil rights activists? The answer lies in the reality that mainstream society has watered down his message and conveniently left out integral pieces of his vision. He’s been reduced into an easily quotable man who helps white institutions appear less racist.

His words have even been used to uphold colorblind agendas, as people twist his iconic and truly beautiful dream that people would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Dr. Bernice King, his daughter, shared on the Tonight Show that people who say such things are missing the point and that “people do take liberties and kind of take different quotes to fit their situation, and nothing is more frustrating for me than that.” 

Dr. King, who burned with Christ’s love for all of creation, has been reduced by many into a conveniently peaceful Black person. However, we — as followers of Christ — would do well to note that his philosophy of justice and redemption was an active one, and applied to all peoples in all nations. 

In his profound sermon opposing the Vietnam War, “Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break the Silence” — part of which was played in chapel on Jan. 14 — Dr. King takes a nearly prophetic stance as he calls for a “genuine revolution of values” that would allow everyone to vehemently oppose oppression and fully embrace our Gospel calling to be people of love.  He denounces the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism,” critiquing the capitalists of the West who exploited Asia, Africa and South America, operating with “the western arrogance of having everything to teach and nothing to learn.” 

Dr. King argued “war and burning are not just” and that our Gospel makes it clear that we must be on the side of peace. His sermon is laden with allusions to Scripture, as he calls us to not simply be like the Good Samaritan, but to “transform the Jericho Road” upon which the poor traveler was assaulted. Here, Dr. King asserts that “true compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”  

In this vein, he started the Poor People’s Campaign, which Dr. King saw “as the next chapter in the struggle for genuine equality.” He aimed to see “the beginning of a new cooperation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity.” It was a holistic and multiracial coalition that dwindled as the march grew overshadowed by the news of his death, but has recently been reinvigorated by a fresh wave of justice-seekers who hope to ensure economic security and voting rights for all. 

Dr. King anticipated that his words and the vision he so strongly believed in would be critiqued and labeled as unpatriotic and hurtful. For him, though, nothing could be further from the truth. In a time, such as now, when anything critical of the U.S. is seen as anti-American, his words from over 50 years ago continue to ring true: “There cannot be great disappointment without great love.”


How can we better lean into the love that Christ calls us to? For that, I point you to Blake Thomas, who shared in chapel last Friday, and to the article coming next week that will be a deep dive into King’s nonviolence philosophy and his vision of the Beloved Community.


Opinions expressed in letters and other editorials, unless otherwise stated, are those of the writers and not of The Horizon staff or the college collectively.

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