Reviving the King

Martin Luther King Jr. comes to seem larger in his absence these last 50 years, himself a cosmos, in Walt Whitman speak, containing multitudes—and not contradictions so much as multiples. He was a midnight-oil Ph.D. intellectual, ever self-consciously the descendant of slaves. He was at first a reluctant leader, drafted to mobilize an alliance of plain black and poor people, who made him their captain of a sanctified social revolution. He became a sure strategist of Napoleonic ambition, in non-violence and personal non-anger. At the same time he became a saint by the Christian standard that he’d taken up the cross of Jesus Christ on a path to assassination, knowing he would only save his life by losing it.

The civic heroism of Martin Luther King Jr. marks a peak in any story of 20th Century America. The basics are familiar: At his death by assassination 50 years ago – he was then just 39 – Dr. King had been the incandescent voice in a 15-year civil rights movement that wrote race out of our law.  He is remembered for it on the holiday calendar, in monuments and street names and avenues in hundreds of cities and towns across the land, on postage stamps around the world. This hour we’re listening for what’s not on the MLK stamps, or in the civics books: the religious conviction, the radicalism about wealth and power, the short lifetime crammed with reading, writing, philosophizing.  

The labor historian Michael Honey strikes a keynote for all of us: if we know Dr. King by his “I have a dream” speech on the Mall in Washington in 1963, we may well be missing the man and the point

Brandon Terry, the Harvard humanist and professor of African-American studies, is one of 15 essayists in a collection just out, on MLK, the philosopher in motion. With his Harvard colleague, the philosopher Tommie Shelby, Brandon Terry edited the collection titled: To Shape a New World, Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr.

In Boston, where MLK did his Ph.D. studies, there’s always been, for me, a mysterious earthly as well as heavenly aura about the man. It was around him when he arrived, age 22. Michael Haynes witnessed it, as King’s fellow apprentice preacher at the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury in 1951. This was before a civil rights movement had been glimpsed, but the two aspiring young black men and ministers felt something coming, as Reverend Haynes testifies into his 90s.

Reverend William J. Barber II is an exemplar of the prophetic teaching-preaching tradition African-American Christian churches.  He’s been a pastor in Goldsboro, North Carolina for 25 years, and now he’s a visiting professor of policy and social action at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He’s often mentioned, and measured, as a man to pick up the King mantle.  I asked the Reverend Doctor Barber this week what it would take to reinhabit that role

Bonus Interviews:

Tommie Shelby on MLK’s line of thought, from christianity to socialism

Reverend Liz Theoharis on extending the legacy of MLK’s Poor People’s Campaign

Vann Newkirk II on how to revive MLK’s radical revolution

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