I took this photo from behind the pastor’s pulpit at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. While interning for the SPLC in Montgomery, AL in 2008, I had the honor of attending this church, where Dr. King began his journey as a pastor and organizer.
As a teen, I was enthralled by the history of the Civil Rights Movement, but that summer in Montgomery was revelatory. It pushed my mind to see beyond the isolated stories of “heroes” who were always pictured in black and white, in some seemingly faraway time and place. I began to see in full color: to picture ordinary Black women and men walking miles each way to exhausting jobs —for a year— to end the indignity of segregated buses. They had walked the very streets I walked each day, and they were not a sentence (or, if you were lucky, a paragraph) in a history book — they were living, breathing, beautifully unique human beings.
And so was Dr. King. As pastor of Dexter in 1955, he insisted that every member become a registered voter and a member of the NAACP. He saw faith and the fight for human dignity and human rights as inextricably linked. Can you imagine how that would go down today? When we keep his image trapped in those black and white photos, we don’t really allow our minds to imagine how revolutionary he was, how absolutely hated he was for holding up a mirror to this nation and forcing it to stare its ugliness in the face. I wish we could take the “just preach the gospel,” anti-Critical Race Theory, “BLM is doing it wrong” white pastors back in time a few decades and challenge them to post MLK quotes on their (metaphorical) social media pages then.
A few friends I love and respect posted a challenge today: to listen to a speech of Dr. King’s today in its entirety. I chose his final Sunday sermon, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”. I was moved to tears on multiple occasions, struck afresh by the biting truths spoken and the urgency with which he shared them. My favorite part:
“One day a newsman came to me and said, ‘Dr. King, don’t you think you’re going to have to stop, now, opposing the war and move more in line with the administration’s policy? As I understand it, it has hurt the budget of your organization, and people who once respected you have lost respect for you. Don’t you feel that you’ve really got to change your position?’ I looked at him and I had to say, ‘Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I’ve not taken a sort of Gallup Poll of the majority opinion.’ Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.
“On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?”
He didn’t mince words, he didn’t compromise, and he certainly didn’t soften the fiery fervor of what God had laid on his heart to make white folks feel better about themselves.
And he was killed for it.
I have found in my life that an untimely death serves to intensify that person’s legacy. I pray that we get to a place in our nation where that is true — where we no longer settle for a whitewashed narrative of Dr. King’s work and mission, but instead recognize his legacy in the words and actions of those fighting on the front lines for Black Lives today. Let us not seek out a watered-down version of his vision that makes us comfortable. Rather, let us draw deep inspiration and resolve from his bold, unapologetic demands for an end to war, an end to the evils of capitalism, an end to police brutality, and an end to racism in all of its forms.