The taming of Martin Luther King

In this Orwellian era, when a TV entertainer like Glenn Beck is able, if only for a day, to somehow claim to advance the vision of Martin Luther King Jr. while urging listeners to flee from churches that preach social justice, a major reality check is in order.

Beck isn’t the only one, however bizarre his interpretation, who sees the King legacy wrapped up in his dream speech, which Beck says he is out to “restore and finish” with his rally at the Lincoln Memorial today. Most of the culture refuses to get near the most powerful lines of King’s prophetic life.

From previous pieces in NCR:

King’s is a challenging and complex legacy, one that continues to confront the conscience of this country, particularly as we continue to deal with matters of racism and discrimination. Unfortunately, what doesn’t get talked about much is the absolute centrality of nonviolence to his approach to social reform and how that conviction influenced his view of the conduct of the United States in the wider world.

A year to the day before he died, April 4, 1967, King gave an address at Riverside Church in New York, his fullest to that date, on his opposition to the Vietnam War. Some of the speech is especially poignant today. King called for a revolution of national values “that will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: ‘This is not just.’ It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say: ‘This is not just.’ The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.”

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As NCR columnist Colman McCarthy once wrote, our national celebrations of King have “pushed aside … the troublesome and troublemaking King whose commitment to nonviolence and pacifism meant that he was much, much more than a civil rights leader. He was a fiercely uncompromising critic of American militarism who said in New York on April 4, 1967 -- a year to the day before his assassination -- that “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today (is) my own government.”

Don’t expect Beck or others to be feeding such insights to the Tea Party activists and others out to reclaim the safe King, a King who is tamed enough for those who think churches shouldn’t preach social justice.


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