50 years after death: What can Rev. Dr. King teach us today?

john a. powell

Director

This week people all across the world are pausing to acknowledge the incredible life and the tragic death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I always deliberately include the “Reverend” in his title as we often fail to recognize King’s profound religious and spiritual grounding.

The Rev. Dr. King Jr. was many things, and as we remember him and what he worked for, it may be easy to ignore the complexity and subtlety of his life and his vision. We may be more likely to grab onto some narrow aspect of his legacy and (mis)represent that as a summation of his life and work. 

I will not try to fully capture who King was in this short acknowledgement. Maybe what we emphasize in a remembrance of King tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the reverend. There is probably no way to completely avoid this but we can get a little closer to King’s wisdom and insights by reading, listening to King, and discussing him with others. Now is a great time to engage in this effort. 

It's been 50 years since his death, so one question will inevitably be, "What does King have to teach us today?" 

The answer is: a great deal. I will come back to this, but first I will share some of my own impressions of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

King was a visionary, yet he was a pragmatist. He was a man whose life was not just informed but was guided by his faith and religion. And he was a brilliant political agent for change.

King grounded his work in the lives of people’s suffering, especially Black people. In doing so, he cared and worked for the larger humanity including white people who were adversaries to black humanity and life. King cared about humanity and evidenced a deep love for people. But he was aware there were institutions and structures that could overwhelm individuals and that these must be challenged. Because of this, he was skeptical of running into a burning house. He was aware that government was a critical component and that the well-being of people was tied to a functioning government. But he saw the US government as more willing to be responsive to whites than to blacks and other people of color. He believed that we are all interrelated but the relationships needed a radical change.

Some people emphasize that King called for integration and question that idea as not being radical enough. Most of them fail to understand King’s concept of integration is not what our society, or our courts, normally think of as integration. He called for a radical form of integration, both of structures and the heart. King didn’t just call for bringing blacks and whites together. He called for a radical shift in what it means to be white, black, or any other people. He rejected black supplication to whites but also rejected white domination and all other forms of dominance. He was not interested in simply having blacks and whites trade places. His rejection of dominance meant not only the rejection of racial dominance but of American dominance as well.  

King believed in non-violence but was certainly not a pacifist. He wanted change where all people could thrive. Even as he embraced non-violence he was able to engage with people who were fighting oppression through violent means. He refused to equate government violence with violent responses of the marginalized. He understood that war is an extreme form of violence and is not sanitized just because it happens far from our home shores.

As a deep Christian, he engaged with those of Muslim, Buddhist, and other faiths. He was comfortable meeting with presidents, royalty, and gang members. He cared about all people while understanding people were situated very differently in life and in structures.

I could go on. Many of the approaches to our work at the Haas Institute are deeply informed by King. He believed in and practiced what we call targeted universalism. He was a profound example of using bridging and he refused to exclude anyone from the circle of human concern. King was a man and was certainly not perfect. But this only made him all the more impressive. He was willing to struggle, to grow, and to learn. He was a leader who could listen.

Today, 50 years from the day King was assassinated, we live in a time where hate and fear are celebrated. We live in a time when bullying doesn’t just happen in schools but comes from the White House and other seats of power and is embraced on network news. We live in a time when private greed is held up as a common good. We live in a time when racism is explicit and white dominance is robustly pursued in government policy and right-wing demonstrations. We live in a time when ethnic cleansing is being suggested as part of our national census. We live in a time when our democracy has been damaged, possibly broken, and where the winds of hate blow across the globe as the very earth itself is under attack.

And yet there are reasons not to despair. We also live in a world today where we have young people demanding changes in gun laws, where we have Black Lives Matter advocates continuing to insist that black lives do matter even in the face of hate and continued state violence; where immigrants are dreaming a new dream; where the disabled are demanding health care that benefits all; where Native peoples are reclaiming their voices and speaking for the land.

King reminds us we must pay attention to structures. Unjust laws and rules must be challenged. We must bridge in our own communities. Even in our imperfection we must love and insist upon love. We are interrelated despite our segregation. King not only taught us all this but gave us both a practical and spiritual way forward.

So the question is not if King has anything to teach us today. The question is, "Are we prepared to learn?" We fail at our peril.

Thank you, Rev. Dr. King, and all the King family. You continue to be a great teacher.