April 4, 2018, marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There will be countless commemorations across the nation and world for this great preacher and prophet. As people memorialize Dr. King, many will face the temptation to offer a sanitized and idealized view of him that fits the wishes of contemporary society.

In order to make Dr. King palatable and digestible for the masses, he is often ethically castrated and stripped of his militancy. There is a tendency to focus on his commitment to non-violence, rhetoric of love, and willingness to turn the other cheek. For example, only one of the quotes in the King Memorial on the Washington Mall contain the word race. This is an ahistorical presentation of the man who intensely fought for racial justice with his life.

This idealized version of Dr. King has become the norm in the time after his murder. It crowds out the truth of the man, his mission, and the reasons he was killed. This version of Dr. King buries the injustices that he fought against, most of which remain today. It presents a slanted reality about how far we have come and how far we have to go.

The Three Evils

The 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s murder is a time for opportunists to feign love for a man that society hated. However, the greatest honor we could give Dr. King’s legacy is one that offers a true historical account of his courageous love and his fiery demand for justice for the black and poor. To honor the real Dr. King, we must do so with an accurate portrayal of his specific social, political, and economic mandates that remain unmet 50 years later.

Honor the real Dr. King by acknowledging that he roundly criticized the white evangelical Church for its indifference to the suffering of its black brothers and sisters. In the Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963), Dr. King said, “I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership” whom he felt should have supported the goals of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “I have watched white churchmen stand on the sidelines and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities” as they biblically justified their absence in social issues.

These revelations led Dr. King to weep and lament the moral bankruptcy of the white church.

Honor the real Dr. King by giving attention to what he called the “three evils” of society: racism, economic exploitation, and militarism, all of which are interdependent. We see this in cities’ responses to protests of police killings and how the nation winks at corporate greed and fraud. We see it in how the racial wealth gap continues to widen despite the efforts of the marginalized.

Honoring Dr. King would be to acknowledge that America’s identity is rooted in its military might, that it has no intention of ridding itself of entrenched racism or economic inequality.

Honor the real Dr. King who gave voice to the people behind the riots, protests, and resistance. “A riot is the language of the unheard,” he said. Dr. King remained committed to non-violence up to his death; however, he understood the pain of rejection and hopelessness that led many others to express pain through alternative means. He condemned violence in every form, but he did not condemn the violent. He believed violent outbursts were a reflection of the suffering of the oppressed and the apathy of government leadership. His belief was supported by the Kerner Commission report on the cause of civil disorders.

It is irresponsible and reckless to simply reject the violent without appreciating what provoked their violence in the first place. The problem is not communism or Colin Kaepernick’s t-shirt, but injustice, King would say.

Allies and the Poor People’s Campaign

Honor the real Dr. King who realized how fickle some white liberal allies could be. Speaking to NBC News in 1968, Dr. King acknowledged, “The vast majority of white Americans will go but so far” in working towards social justice. “They’re always looking for an excuse to go but so far.” He said whites who are “genuinely and absolutely committed” to racial justice in America are “in a very small minority.”

With certainty, he declared, “There has never been a single solid determined commitment of large segments of white America on the question of racial equality.” Given our history and the continued racial decay of society, we must admit his observation of white America was accurate.

Honor the real Dr. King who called for a “guaranteed annual income” for the poor. In the last days of his life, he and the SCLC were planning a Poor People’s Campaign to address economic inequality for all people. Dr. King acknowledged the contradiction of how the richest nation on earth could ignore its citizens who lived in abject poverty and economic deprivation. He said, “An edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Restructuring

When we view Dr. King in light of his mission and all of his words, in context and totality, we will be able to see the whole man and honor him faithfully. We will realize that we have not come as far as we might believe.

In Dr. King’s time as in ours, it is clear that almost every institution and system in America has failed the black and poor. But, beyond the failure of the federal government, the lawlessness of the legal system, the greed of the financial system, the inequality of the educational system, the exclusion of the housing system, the white American church is not blameless. The silence, apathy, and active racism of white Christianity left Dr. King disillusioned up to the day he died. 

The only hope in honoring Dr. King is to honor the very things he gave his life to and for, which were nothing less than a call for the total restructuring of society and for those who proclaim the name of Jesus Christ to be faithful witnesses in that society.

James Sutton (M.Div, Beeson Divinity School) works at The Dannon Project as a mentor coordinator and counselor for the formerly incarcerated. He is also an instructor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the African American Studies Department. He and his wife Marie have been married for 15 years. They have two children and live in Homewood, Alabama. You can follow James on twitter @Jsutton05.