For a black boy growing up in Alabama trying to make sense of himself in a hostile world, Martin Luther King Jr. was my hero. Alongside a startingly pale Jesus, a picture of Martin hung beside photographs of my family. I knew Martin by sight. I could recognize the tenor of his voice.
The mental architecture of my young black imagination was formed by grainy videos of mass church meetings and marches and by the hymns and spirituals that threatened to shake the United States to its foundations. I knew about Selma, Birmingham, and Montgomery before I could find them on a map of my state. I do not remember not remembering Martin.
By contrast, the King that I see online on Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a stranger to me. This beloved figure is in part the construction of a society that never fully loved him or the cause he represented. King died an unpopular man. In 1968, the year of his death, 75 percent of Americans disapproved of his views and activities. That was up from 50 percent in 1963.
Today, his approval rating nears 90 percent. Some might suggest that with hindsight, Americans have come to appreciate King in a way that was impossible during the racist era in which he lived. But things are not that simple. If social media is any indication, a large portion of America still hasn’t wrestled with the King of 1968. A USA Today study of the most tweeted MLK lines are startling in their vagueness:
“The time is always right to do what is right.”
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
These were not the quotes that stuck to my ribs as a kid. I remember King talking about the need for black people to develop a sense of “somebodiness” that pushed back on the negative portrayals of blackness. I remember reading about the need to reach into the depths of our own souls and write our own emancipation proclamation.
To be for black people in a world of antiblackness, to declare us beautiful when the world said that we were ugly, was a shout of defiance. To call us children of God when we were deemed sons of Ham was part of a long tradition of revolutionary but God-honoring exegesis. To declare that our history of slavery was not a source of shame for us but a story of triumph over impossible odds was a way of rewriting the American story and putting the disinherited peoples of the world on center stage.
As the American public today reckons with enduring racism, it costs very little to be notionally against injustice in the abstract. The audacity of King and the civil rights movement is not lauded. It remains terrifying to the status quo. Many approve of King because, despite the holiday, they know little about his thought.
King was never popular, but what exactly led to his drop in popularity as the 1960s wore on? Two main reasons: He continued to be a truth teller about racism, and he focused on the economic enfranchisement of black Americans. With both, he pushed past big, easy-to-like notions of justice to advocate instead for particular change and particular policies.
Despite the gains of the civil rights movement, King maintained that America remained structurally racist. “The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro,” he said. “They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.”
With those words, King highlighted a tendency that still persists today: the temptation to set the standards for black flourishing by past mistreatment of African Americans. When compared to the Jim Crow era of the 1920s, 1968 may have seemed like a utopia. But King had the audacity to judge America by objective standards of justice, not by previous terror.
We see the same criticism levied at black leaders now. We are told that America is better than it was in the 1960s, and therefore African Americans should not complain. Ironically, the same America that King was criticized for being unsatisfied with is the basis for modern pushback on the desire for a more just society. If remembering King means anything, it involves a sanctified dissatisfaction with the status quo.
The King of 1968 also pushed white America to move beyond protesting our dehumanization to actually assisting with the construction of a black life. He wrote:
White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination. The outraged white citizen had been sincere when he snatched the whips from the Southern sheriffs and forbade them more cruelties.
But when this was to a degree accomplished, the emotions that had momentarily inflamed him melted away. White Americans left the Negro on the ground and in devastating numbers walked off with the aggressor.
Those words will not be tweeted or Instagrammed today, but they are troublingly relevant. This last year, the nation surged in outrage at the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others. But it was the sensational nature of these deaths that troubled the country. When it came time to wrestle with the concrete reforms needed to bring change, much of America moved on to other things.
Even now, there has been no sustained national conversation about policy change in light of this summer’s tragedies. Today, as in King’s time, justice is at the mercy of the shifting emotions of an often-apathetic majority.
As the civil rights movement progressed, King’s vision moved the problem of economic injustice to the center stage. The last march that he led was not about integration. It was not about the ability to sit at a lunch counter or ride a bus. It was not about the right to drink from the same water fountain or use the same restroom as white Americans.
Of course, King continued to care passionately about these things from one end of his ministry to the other. But what brought Martin to Memphis was the fight for fair wages and employee safety. He was murdered while in the midst of an economic protest.
His last march supported 1,300 black sanitation workers who were not receiving a living wage and were being forced to labor under unsafe conditions. That project was a part of a larger shift in focus that marked the last years of King’s life. He moved from the violent but also cosmetic forms of injustice to the concrete injustice of economic disempowerment. He knew that it was one thing to say African Americans did not deserve the fire hose. It was another thing altogether to demand a fair wage and explicit policies that provided a path toward economic flourishing.
That was the King the public disdained—the one who fought for economic transformation. The King who had a 75 percent disapproval rating was the King who had the courage to speak plainly about the racism that he saw. It was the King who pushed for specific changes in public policy and corporate practice.
But it was also this King who made space for hope. His hope for the future did not arise from a failure to see or acknowledge racism and white supremacy. His last book names and explores white supremacy at length. What made King special was an unshakeable faith, rooted in his belief in God’s purposes, that racism did not have to be the final sentence in the book of the American story. He believed that “the value in pulling racism out of its obscurity and stripping it of its rationalizations lies in the confidence that it can be changed.”
As pastors, teachers, and Christian leaders who participate in America’s public square, we don’t remember King rightly by pulling a few disconnected words about justice out of context and plastering them all over social media. We remember him rightly by taking an honest assessment of ourselves as a country. This involves both lauding the progress and looking toward the future. And it involves a robust commitment to understanding the link between injustice and economic disenfranchisement.
King didn’t see his economic advocacy as a move toward partisanship. He saw it as the most Christian of activities, a manifestation of love for neighbor. His truth telling was not a mere venting of frustrations. He was doing work similar to the biblical prophets of old. He was holding up a mirror to American culture so that it could see what it had become in light of God’s vision for a just society.
When we pretend we can live above the fray and not get into the rough and tumble of people’s lived experiences, we are becoming less Christian. We are squandering our chance to be witnesses to what is possible. And we are forfeiting our God-given right to dream.
We are blessed that Martin never did.
Esau McCaulley is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, an assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, and the author of Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope.