To say the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is an iconic American figure borders on understatement. He is perhaps the most famous American political reformer of the twentieth century, if not the most quoted.
Yet the complexity, and genius, of the man and his legacy is often overlooked. It’s striking that 32 percent of the public held a positive appraisal of King in 1966, with 66 percent responding negatively. Today, politicians and corporations of all stripes appeal to a collective memory of MLK but seldom go much deeper.
Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis believes King’s legacy is more than as a martyr for a noble cause, or a person whose life’s accomplishments are worth celebrating then placing back in a distant past.
Rather, King is a prophetic, explicitly Christian voice for a robust understanding of justice in the world.
Compelled by this message, Christ Church Cathedral began organizing an annual, all-day public reading of King’s speeches on his commemoration. We call it “Let Freedom Ring.”
As the digital missioner of the Cathedral, I attended the event throughout the day, documenting and participating in the reading myself. Several hundred people entered the cathedral throughout the day, and more than twenty volunteers read from the speeches, sermons, and writings of King, without pause.
I noticed a number of features in his rhetoric that are worth emphasizing to a faith audience. First, contrary to the unfortunate stereotype that Baptist and Pentecostal preaching is based exclusively on appeal to the emotions and on the charisma of the speaker, King’s speeches work when read by anybody.
He fills his speeches with a clear moral vision that children can grasp, while also using classical allusions, biblical references, and complex rhythms in his sentence structure and phrasing. The text itself works as literature.
The voices of people suffering are often discordant to people of means. Thus, a huge part of King’s legacy was in giving a tremendous, echoing voice to the marginalized. I was brought up short as I listened to a homeless woman slowly read through a passage, doing her best to pronounce the words correctly.
Secondly, I was surprised at the range of focus in King’s work. Most of my formal education about the Civil Rights movement had been parochial in focus: Jim Crow Laws were bad and concentrated in the Deep South, and because of a few brave men and women, they were defeated, and we’re all the better for it now.
This simplistic reading does not reflect the wealth of King’s work that criticized poverty in the United States. Nor does it mention how he was an early and vocal critic of the Vietnam War, or how he drew inspiration from the liberation of colonial Africa from its European occupants.
Lastly, King did direct constructive criticism toward black Americans, imploring them to fight for better wages, laws, and living situations. King’s words speak to more than just a particular place and time. They are an embodiment of the universal mandate to stand with the oppressed and work for the reconciliation of the entire world.
Of all King’s recurring turns of phrase, the one I found most compelling is his paraphrase of Unitarian minister Theodore Parker:
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
In this one statement, I find the promise and hope of the Christian experience. Far from being a figure relegated to history, the speeches of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are a recognizable vision of the radical love of Christ.