I remember when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was alive. Of course, I was only 8 when he died and I remember all of the riots that surrounded his death. I remember people selling T-shirts when he died as a way to make a buck, as though they knew him personally. I remember it being like George Washington, “Martin slept here” and such things when, of course, there was no way to prove it. But more than being a man to make a buck off of, Martin was a man you wanted to say you knew. He was the kind of man you wanted to be associated with. That’s what makes him a great man. In the pantheon of great men and women, King’s message and movement brings him to a whole other level.
I was far less aware, at that time, of the sort of “anti-Martin”, Malcolm X, and I think history will be as well. It wasn’t until much later in life that I remember learning about him at all, except as a sort of trivia question. “Who wrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X? Alex Haley, of course. On the other hand, I was a white boy and my grandparents (who I spent my summers with) would never have approved of Malcolm, so I didn’t hear of him until later. But Martin was on the evening news. Martin spoke in Washington to more people than I could even imagine. Martin marched here. Martin marched there. Martin got hit by water from fire hoses. Martin won the Nobel peace prize. Martin was against the war. And when Martin got shot, we knew there was something wrong with the world, because Martin saw all humanity as one and nobody would shoot somebody like that.
We had just begun to believe in ourselves, in the goodness of humanity, in the braveness of peace and love, in there being far more to life than chasing a buck and wearing a tie, in something beyond ourselves, like democracy or Christ-like values, when the man who convinced us that love was stronger than hate was killed. We knew something was wrong because that man should not be dead. He never hurt a fly.
In the mind of an 8-year-old, things are as simple as that. Good people don’t hurt good people. Good people shouldn’t die, and certainly shouldn’t be killed. Martin wanted Black kids and White kids to play together. I had probably the most friends I ever would have at that time, but the idea that there were more kids to play with out there was a great thing. We only had one Black kid in Chicopee when I was a boy and he didn’t last long at our Grammar School, but I always thought he should have, because Martin Luther King said we should be friends. There was just something about him saying it that you just knew it was right. I have tried to never lose that simplistic idealism, that sense of good and bad, right and wrong, changing people with love, rather than through beatings and that kind of thing because I was happy and knew the world was changing for the better. It was cool to love each other then.
I saw Andrew Young speak at Faith Works, my denomination’s big gathering, years ago. Young at Faith Works had this decency and quietness about him that was truly amazing in person – he just poured dignity out of his persona. I saw Jesse Jackson speak at anti-nuke rallies. I remember being in Memphis during a trip cross country and seeing a sign for Jesse’s campaign that said “I run. You vote. We win”. With six words, Jesse Jackson had said everything there was to say. All the while, while Mr. Young spoke, I thought to myself, “If I was on the opposite side of an issue with Andrew Young, and Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King, coming toward me, I would just run away, because I would have known that my time was running out. God’s people had come to town. It’s kind of like seeing the disciples preach and knowing that the guy they worked for must be something totally incredible because they were awe inspiring. I remember the day president Obama was elected, seeing Jesse on TV crying because he never thought the day would come when people who at one time in his life couldn’t even drink from the same water fountain – his people – could suddenly be the leader of the free world.
But between Martin’s death and Obama’s election, something weird happened. We re-wrote history. My kids will know Martin as the man who Had A Dream once and made us all free. And I’ll be pretty happy with that, except for the fact that Martin did more than one thing, and spoke more than once, in his life. Martin Luther King was an awe-inspiring man but in the world of sound-bites, he can only be one thing, so he is. Those of us that love him and study his works will know how complex and intelligent the man was.
But during the 1980’s, 1990’s and the first few years of the millennium, the 1960’s – my favorite time of life – became a mistake. Hippies were wrong, hippies were stupid peaceniks that smoked a lot of marijuana and did a lot of drugs and made the “peace” sign. They screwed up the world by challenging the old traditions of mom-and-dad-and- everybody-being-happy portrayed on Happy Days. Suddenly greed was good, and White folks were supposed to promote it.
I never could never get the hang of that whole “re-writing history” thing, but the Black folks I knew during seminary had a hard time taking that all in. Suddenly, Martin was their hero and “White folks just wouldn’t understand” . I was “that crazy White boy” that didn’t get it and wanted to be with them instead, because of my childhood idol, rather than the doing-well-for-themselves White folk. Walking across campus when Martin’s birthday had become a national holiday, white folks were saying “that’s their holiday. If you want it off from work, you’re one of them”. A stupider thing I had never heard. The man who wanted me to play with all kinds of kids was suddenly a divider among the big people. Somehow, that’s not how I remembered it.
The man who had once been (as far I knew) America’s hero was suddenly Black America’s hero and only theirs (unless you was one of them “N-lovers”, according to the White folks). I couldn’t handle it. I made it a point of hanging out with the people I’d been promised I could hang out with even if it confused everybody. Martin was to thank, and blame, for that now.
But Martin Luther King, with the election of president Obama, is back to being an American hero. My kids love the Beatles, say “Peace out!”, and think that MLK is a good part of America “because he freed the slaves or something like that”. I can live with that. At least he’s an American now.
Still, I’m aware that, like Ghandi before him, King is the kind of man that one country cannot contain. Non-violent resistance has changed the way we do things – from the gay rights movement to the anti-abortion movement to the women’s liberation/feminist movement here to Tieneman Square and the end of Apartheid. His non-violence, his intelligence (yes, that’s Reverend Doctor in front of his name and he got out of seminary with a doctorate at a relatively young age), his powerful presence (which I equate with the Holy Spirit) makes him the very Citizen of the World that the Nobel claims he is. He is, and should be, humanity’s hero, because he wanted to make us bigger people than we really were. And because we wanted to be more than we thought we could be as humans.
In these days of tabloid journalism, and “fair and balanced” news, I will acknowledge that King wasn’t perfect. He had affairs. My kids don’t need to know that, and my soul doesn’t either. If he were alive today, he would be plagued by the kind of myopia that all of our leaders are today: “Saved a lot of people? Brought rights to millions? OK… but what does he do in bed? He doesn’t have my values!”. We’ve changed, not King or his message. I hope we can re-focus on what really matters in these days of crisis and upheaval.
Martin Luther King, Jr’s message and methods have taken on a life of their own, beyond the man himself. That is as it should be. I think even he would have wanted that. But there wouldn’t be a message or a movement if it weren’t for the real man in the middle of a time my children can’t even imagine living in. We are a better planet because MLK was here. And if, someday, we travel to another one, all of the humanity on that planet – the travelers from Earth — will tell his story and be moved by his words and actions. They will believe that a peaceful society can happen or at least should be a goal of ours. That is why he is now humanity’s hero. It’s a short list of people on that list, but he is no doubt there.