RNS commentary: 40 years later, King's legacy back in focus

RNS commentary: 40 years later, King's legacy back in focus

March 29, 2008
Written by Bennett Guess

In 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was a brand new pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala.

From that pulpit, King, with other like-minded pastors and activists, would launch the Montgomery Bus Boycott and lead a renewed civil rights movement that would transform the South and challenge the conscience of a nation.

It's a legacy whose wins -- and losses -- are still measured, still contested, still struggled with.

Forty years after King's assassination on April 4, 1968, his legacy and the nature of the black church are again contentious topics as a firestorm of controversy engulfs the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama.

The controversy is less about Obama, who might become the nation's first black president, and more about the style and substance of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who recently retired from the pulpit of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

The Wright controversy has prompted larger questions about the prophetic role of the black pulpit -- specifically what King might think, and whether he would join (or reject) Wright's thunderous chorus of "God damn America."

Wright is an extremely popular preacher in black churches and his sharply critical views of America tap into a strain of anger that many believe is widespread in the black community.

Both King and Wright are shaped by the black church, but the black church is neither monolithic nor static. The two men represent two strains separated by both geography and time. Put another way, King led his people to the edge of the Promised Land; Wright had to find a way to live there.

Even though King was a young pastor when he came on the national stage, he was already steeped in the traditions of Southern black Christianity, and those roots provided the basic (but not exclusive) foundation of his own religious thought and ethical vision.

Despite his national and even international fame, people often overlook how much a son of the South King really was. It was where he spent most of his brief 39 years and where his most important civil rights struggles were waged. His father was pastor of the prestigious Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where some of King's key ideals, such as that of the "Beloved Community," were given nascent shape.

Ebenezer was a congregation where the working class and middle class sat side by side, and where elements of storefront Pentecostalism mixed easily with liturgical restraint. "Despite his congregation's influential membership, Daddy King (Martin Luther King Sr.) saw to it that Ebenezer never lost its mass-identity as a talk-back, whooping, gospel-singing workingman's church," Richard Lischer of Duke Divinity School wrote in his book, "The Preacher King."

Those elements became part of both King's rhetoric and his ideal of participatory democracy.

King, however, brought more than his Southern background and sensibility to the pulpit and the public platform. His theology, philosophy and, importantly, his strategy, were influenced by a host of other intellectual and political ideas, including the Social Gospel, Gandhi's non-violent resistance, Reinhold Niebuhr's political realism and, above all, Jesus' admonition to love one's enemies.

"Love of enemies, one phase of Martin Luther King's legacy of the church in action, solidified the black community in an unprecedented manner," his widow Coretta Scott King said in 1970, fusing "the spirit and motivation of Christ with the method of Gandhi."

Taken together, King's gospel was one that he said "deals with the whole man, not only his soul but also his body, not only his spiritual well-being but also his material well-being."

That broad-based message formed the basis for his critique of America -- particularly in falling so short of its own ideals -- and yet never strayed into the overt anti-Americanism seen in the black power movement or black liberation theology.

The radical optimism of King's vision was one that his critics -- both black and white -- had trouble accepting. As early as 1966, Stokely Carmichael and other young militants in the movement began rallying crowds with the cry of "black power" -- a cry with an incendiary potential that made King and other apostles of nonviolence uncomfortable.

Unlike King's "Beloved Community," the black power movement stressed separateness, and resonated most strongly in Northern urban communities, such as Chicago's South Side, home to Obama's Trinity UCC.

For Obama and for many others, the controversy over Wright's comments has opened a new conversation on race in America. It's one they say would make King proud.

The real tragedy of the assassination in Memphis 40 years ago is that man who started that conversation -- the voice and views, the theology and politics of one of America's most important preachers and prophets -- will not really be heard.

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