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Opinion: We can’t let Martin Luther King become a caricature

Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a passive or moderate leader. He took positive action that made people uncomfortable, that put him in jail and brought violence against his followers. And he took his strength from religion

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses marchers during his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

In this Aug. 28, 1963, file photo, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses marchers during his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Associated Press

A recent Time Magazine report said many schools in the United States teach about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as if he was a passive or moderate leader, minimizing the violence he and others had to endure during his difficult struggle for civil rights.

This is a disservice that sanitizes his role and the times in which he lived.

It also does little to help the nation through its current struggles with race.

King himself, in his letter from the Birmingham jail in 1963, said his biggest “stumbling block” was not the extremist groups such as the White Council or the Ku Klux Klan. It was “the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom…”

King’s letter, written to fellow clergy, continued: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

The nation must strive, this day and always, to truly understand, appreciate and become part of that cause.

The danger of having a yearly national holiday to remember King is that it can fade into the woodwork of yearly holidays, becoming little more than another day off from work and school. With time, he and those who struggled with him can be reduced to caricatures.

Rising generations must understand that King’s struggle for civil rights was hard and dangerous. It involved positive, uncomfortable actions that he and his followers knew would attract violence, and they knew this violence might turn deadly. 

The nation cannot afford to become a collection of lukewarm people of shallow understanding, even as struggles against racism continue today.

But King’s lessons also cannot be told without teaching about their connection to religion, and that, also, is a lesson too often overlooked.

Author Lewis V. Baldwin’s book, “The Voice of Conscience: The Church in the Mind of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” makes a point of emphasizing King’s view of the church as “the voice of conscience” that brought justice to the cause. King was, first and foremost, a Christian, and this discipleship informed his activism. 

Baldwin argues that the civil rights movement did much to re-establish the credibility of religion at a time when the world was becoming more secular. The nation could use a similar renewal today.

A few 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.”

It would be impossible to truly appreciate the struggle that ensued all those years ago without understanding this connection to religion. King grounded his movement in the gospel that Jesus Christ died to save all mankind regardless of race.

Again, in the letter from the Birmingham jail, King said, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. 

“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”

He urged people not to waste time, but to use it creatively, “in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”

Americans have come a long way in 60 years. But we can never afford to say the fight against racism is over, not so long as so much evidence — from George Floyd to Ahmaud Arbery and many other examples — exists to the contrary. Likewise, we can never say that love’s cause is complete, so long as hatred remains a powerful motivator, in our politics and our everyday interactions.

As in King’s day, confronting these problems will often be uncomfortable and even dangerous. Like King, the nation can’t afford to be passive or moderate in tackling them. These are the lessons a rising generation must learn.