Some events in the past year have demonstrated that Martin Luther King Jr. Day has more to teach than many 21st century Americans might have previously thought.
More than a century and a half after the end of the Civil War, arguments rose over whether it’s proper for governments to maintain public statues to the memories of Confederate leaders, most notably Robert E. Lee. When a white nationalist rally in Charlottsville, Va., turned deadly, and when many accused the president of reacting improperly to that, it became clear that generations-old conflicts about race, equality and their often-messy entanglements with U.S. history have not been laid to rest.
Becoming a colorblind society is an uphill struggle. If the nation neglects the effort, things can roll downhill again fast. Each generation must learn lessons anew, but hopefully each can learn from previous generations and avoid repeating mistakes.
Too often, King’s contributions are reduced to slim entries in elementary school textbooks. Schoolchildren in the United States are raised with a reductive understanding of King’s life and the import of his work in the long societal arc toward justice.
His position as a religious leader often is overlooked. Historian and author Lewis Baldwin has said that, of all the titles King held, Christian pastor is the one he identified with first and foremost. That should be taught more.
Under his leadership, the civil rights movement was a religious movement, grounded in the gospel that Jesus Christ died to save all mankind regardless of race. His strategy of nonviolence, so effective in countering police attacks using dogs and water cannons, had its roots in the doctrine of turning the other cheek.
Several years ago, the Rev. Michael Thurmond told the PBS program Religion and Ethics News Weekly, “It was the African-American church that nurtured him (King) and gave him the sense that God was a god of justice, God was a god of mercy, God was a god of reckoning.”
In the long struggle for justice and equality in the United States, that religious aspect must not be neglected. It should be at the heart of today’s struggles against sexual harassment in the workplace, as well, and every other endeavor for equality and justice. Religious devotion elevates the dignity of humankind even as it grounds the notions of self-worth, charity, patience and love in doctrines from a higher source.
An important measure on this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, after a year when racial tensions have touched so many Americans, is how well the nation understands and appreciates the religious foundation for all he represented. As Baldwin told PBS, “I think Dr. King always felt that a preacher and a pastor had to be relevant. That is, you must speak to the issues of your time, and you must be able to relate the gospel and the biblical revelation to the social issues and concerns of your time.”
King’s late wife, Coretta Scott King, once implored people to treat MLK Day as “a day on, not a day off.” In that spirit, it would be a good day for service and introspection. How does King’s life, especially his belief in the divinity of human struggles, relate to how we treat other humans in 2018?