Why do we celebrate a holiday honoring a man who was arrested and jailed twenty-nine times, and was ultimately assassinated? What lessons can we learn from this man, Martin Luther King, Jr. and from American institutions that seem to have forgotten the contributions that made him worthy of a national holiday?
Martin Luther King (aka MLK), a powerful pastor and speaker, was both the catalyst for and the central figure in the Civil Rights movement that extended from 1955 to 1968. From MLK’s sermons, speeches, and writings, we are struck by a man with an unusual discerning mind grounded in timeless truths. MLK was all about non-violent action to bring about racial and social healing through truth, love, and peaceful debate and protest.
What is hard to come to grips with is how the power, healing, and truth of his message could be overshadowed by today’s divisive and demoralizing woke philosophies: Critical Race Theory(CRT) and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). MLK stressed the importance of bringing people together through constructive dialogue and seeing all people as individuals made in God’s image. In contrast, those who have recently claimed to hold up the torch of civil rights, such as the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, generally do so through militant action, malicious language, and confrontation.
The woke movement in the United States is largely the progeny of BLM, an organization that was founded by Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza, who both self-identify as Marxists. For those who relate wokeness with progress, a gnawing question still haunts: What good ever came out of Marxism? While some newcomers to the philosophy might idealistically presuppose their cause is about a socialist utopia, Marxist rule in practice has a sad history of delivering poverty, corruption, and mass death across diverse civilizations.
Were it possible to resurrect King he would be shocked by the regression that has taken place in America in the three generations since he led the Civil Rights movement. He would reject the primacy of gender and ethnic identity over individual merit and the character-based approach to status and social mobility. King would condemn Critical Race Theory (CRT) because it insists that all people of the same race experience life the same way and perpetuates negative racial stereotypes, albeit against whites.
King recognized that the self-evident truth in the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal … with certain unalienable Rights” wasn’t realized in 1776, nor when the U.S. Constitution was ratified some 14 years later. Nor was Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” proposition “that all men are created equal” fulfilled through the Civil War’s emancipation of slaves.
In King’s most famous “I have a dream” speech, delivered from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963, it was as if the Almighty was calling America to rise up and fulfill its spiritual destiny. To the self-evident truth of all people having equal value, King added an equally timeless truth, that people “should not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
One of the timeless truths King referred to on numerous occasions was Paul’s Letter to the Romans, in which he said, “Do not conform to the pattern of the world, but be transformed in the renewing of your mind.” King drew on Thomas Jefferson’s statement, “I have sworn upon the alter of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” He warned in a sermon as early as 1954, recorded in his book, Strength to Love, that, “If Americans permit thought-control, business-control, and freedom-control to continue, we shall surely move within the shadows of fascism.”
Seventy years later, we have moved way beyond shadows and now live in a matrix of authoritarianism that effectively operates throughout most institutions under the camouflage of being diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
Few American leaders have remained as clearheaded about the dangers of groupthink as King. He reminds us of Emerson’s words: “Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist.” And drawing on Apostle Paul’s teachings, King implored that, “Any Christian who blindly accepts the opinions of the majority and in fear and timidity follows a path of expediency and social approval is a mental and spiritual slave.”
King’s lesser-known speeches and sermons also provide prescient insight on the times in which we live. On numerous occasions, he quoted scripture about the need to be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves,” arguing that people need to have a tough mind and a tender heart. He expressed concern that the “prevalent tendency toward softmindedness is found in man’s unbelievable gullibility.” King further stated that, “Few people have the toughness of mind to judge critically and to discern the truth from the false, the fact from the fiction.”
King was also critical of the media, stating that “One of the great needs of mankind is to be lifted above the morass of false propaganda.” He concluded this theme with the warning that “a nation or a civilization that continues to produce softminded men purchases its own spiritual death on the installment plan.”
Clearly there is much to learn from and reflect on in the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Most significant and formidable about the man was the unique, vital, and powerful role he played in the unfinished progress of America. Despite his flaws, he rose to the challenge of completing the course of redemption in American history. Nearly two hundred years after the vision expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and one hundred years after the Civil War and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, King fulfilled his redemptive mission, sacrificing his life to finish the work he described as making people, “free at last, free at last.”