The Challenge to the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Apr 21st, 2018 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

When one thinks of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s through the 1970s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) immediately comes to mind. Born in 1929, his name was Michael at birth, but his father changed his name to Martin Luther, honoring the famous German reformer who began the Reformation. As a young boy, it was obvious that he was brilliant. He skipped two grades and passed his entrance exam to enter Morehouse College at 15. He earned his B.A. there and then went to Crozier Theological Seminary for his B.D. and earned a Ph.D. at Boston University. He began his ministry as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, but soon joined his father as co-pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. In 1957, King helped organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an early civil rights group, from which he planned a series of nonviolent marches to draw the nation?s attention to the cause of civil rights for blacks. He raised awareness of the gross injustices done against blacks and of the pernicious results of segregation in the South and in other parts of the nation. As he led nonviolent marches and addressed the nation through sermons, public speeches and his writing, he was in many ways the conscience of the nation. His efforts led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both of which mandated desegregation of public facilities and improvements in housing, education and job opportunities. In 1964 he was awarded the Noble Peace Prize and Time magazine named him ?Man of the Year,? the first black person to be so honored.

On 28 August 1963, over 200,000 people marched on the nation?s capital in one of the largest Civil Rights demonstrations in history. The final speaker of that event was Dr. King. He told the crowd that he had a dream for his children to live in a nation where they would be judged not ?by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.? King called for America to see people the way God sees them?created in His image and of infinite worth and value regardless of the color of their skin or their socio-economic status. The speech got the attention of the power structures of America?s segregated society. King?s speech that day constituted one of the high water marks of the Civil Rights movement that had begun in the mid-1950s in Montgomery, Alabama when a black woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. Local pastors organized a boycott of city buses and chose Dr. King to lead them. In accepting the offer, he insisted for peaceful nonviolent demonstrations even if the white power structure responded with violence. Dr. King represented what can be accomplished when people apply the love of Christ to social injustice. Direct action, motivated by love and non-violence, meant confrontation in the name of reconciliation and redemption. There is no better summary of this proposition than King?s important ?Letter from a

Birmingham Jail,? required reading for all believers, in my opinion. In April 1968 he visited Memphis to speak on behalf of a sanitation workers? strike, where he was assassinated on 4 April 1968 by a bitter racist named James Earl Ray. King was 39 years old.

Tragically, the Postmodern culture is challenging King?s legacy?and there is no better example of this challenge that Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent of The Atlantic, whose essays and books illustrate a formidable challenge to King?s legacy and contribution. Scott Allen, president of the Disciple Nations Alliance, provides an instructive contrast between Dr. King and Coates:

  1. As a Baptist minister, Dr. King operated from a biblical set of propositions about God, human nature and history. He accepted the authority of the Bible and quoted from it regularly. Coates is an outspoken atheist and, understandably, his atheism is reflected in the hopelessness, anger and resentment that pepper his writing and speaking.
  2. Dr. King argued for the dignity and value of all human beings, because all are created in God?s image. That theological fact is to unite all people regardless of skin color. He often declared that ?We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.? As he said in his famous ?I have a dream? speech, ?the content of their character? was far more important than skin color. Coates rejects all of this; he argues that there is no common human nature that binds us together. Rather, our identity is determined entirely by our ethnicity and race. Reflecting the Postmodern ideology, Coates maintains that the ?group defines everything.?
  3. Dr. King affirmed that sin is part of our core human identity, for all humans are in need of a Savior. Coates rejects this and stipulates that the line between good and evil runs between groups??in his case between whites and everyone else.? Scott Allen argues that Coates embraces the framework of the Marxist Antonio Gramsci: ?The world is divided between oppressor groups and victim groups; nothing exists outside these categories. For Coates, to be white is to be defined as part of an oppressive group. To be black is to be a victim of white oppression . . . Society as a whole is structured to preserve white power.? He sources evil in ?whiteness.?
  4. For Dr. King, justice was defined as equality between white and black; true justice must be color-blind. But for Coates, skin color trumps everything, for justice will never be possible in America where ?whiteness? defines everything.
  5. Dr. King was consistent and persistent that non-violence was necessary in his fight for civil rights. He consistently championed Matthew 5:44: ?Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.? Coates writes disparagingly about those who ?exult nonviolence for the weak and the biggest guns for the strong.? His father was a member of the Black Panther Party?a revolutionary socialist organization of the 1960s and 1970s?and he writes that ?I was attracted to their guns, because guns seemed honest. The guns seemed to address this country, which invented the streets that secured them with despotic police, in its primary language?violence.?
  6. For Dr. King, the Civil Rights movement had a clearly defined goal?end Jim Crow segregation and promote equality across the entire spectrum of American civilization. Coates puts forward no positive agenda for race relations in America. Instead, he calls for reparations: ?His basic formula goes like this: Take the difference between black and white per capita income, multiply it by the population of blacks, and pay it out each year, for a ?decade or two.? Such a re-distribution of wealth would amount to somewhere between $4 and $9 trillion.

The basic worldview assumptions that animated and energized the Civil Rights movement that Dr. King led are being undermined by an entirely new set of worldview assumptions?a Postmodern one represented by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Dr. King often turned to the Scriptures to cast his vision of what America could become. There is no better example of this than his use of Exodus to explain the failures and dreams of American democracy. On the night before he was murdered, he declared:

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life . . . But I am not concerned with that now. I just want to do God?s will. And he?s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I?ve looked over. And I?ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.

Those of us who love Jesus Christ must carry on the hope for a better world that Dr. King consistently preached about?a world where people will not be judged ?by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.? All human beings are of equal worth and value to God because they bear His image. It is the doctrine of genuine, biblical Christianity (not cultural Christianity) that offers the hope and energy of a better world. Dr. King personified that?and so should we in 2018.

See Scott Allen, ?A Tale of Two Worldviews? at PRINT PDF

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