The Misappropriation of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Jemar Tisby

For over thirty years, U.S. citizens have celebrated the third Monday of January as the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday. A day set aside for this remarkable civil rights leader should be universally welcome, but I admit that I approach the day with mixed feelings.

Which Dr. King do we honor on his national holiday—the “quotable King” or the “controversial King”? The quotable King is the one whose life we know mainly through sound bites from his prophetically eloquent speeches. For instance, our culture loves the King who said:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

We revere the King who said:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

We nod our heads at the King who said:

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”

While King’s singular oratory has bequeathed a trove of quotable comments, to remember him only for his public moments of moral power is to pacify the “controversial King.” To recall only his mountaintop moments of victory—securing rights for bus riders in Montgomery, helping push through the Civil Rights Act, inspiring a generation to non-violent action—is to nurture a simplistic memory of a complex man. To remember only the “quotable King” is to misappropriate his legacy.

One of my gravest concerns with how we misappropriate Dr. King revolves around the response of theological and political conservatives. Conservatives have tended to show King very little honor. For example, in Edward Gilbreath’s book, Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity, the author recounts the experience of Dolphus Weary, a black man from rural Mississippi who was then a student at a nearly all-white conservative Christian college. When news that King had been shot reached the students, Weary heard his white classmates laughing, “These Christian kids were glad that Dr. King—my hero—had been shot.” When officials announced Dr. King’s death, he heard the white students cheering.

One of Dr. King’s most famous works, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was a response to the tepid support moderate clergy members lent to the civil rights movement. Eight local religious leaders penned a letter in the Birmingham News that said:

“Just as we formerly pointed out that “hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political traditions,” we also point out that such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems. We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.”

They went on to say:

“We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”

Conservatives accused King of being an “outsider” meddling in local affairs. They repudiated the demonstrations he led. They decried the conflict his methods produced, even though they did relatively little about the conflicts already occurring in the form of bombings, unjust imprisonment, and the violation of basic voting rights.

The following represents just a few of the stances many present-day theological and political conservatives might find troubling.

Views on Law Enforcement
“To any Negro who displayed a spark of manhood, a southern law-enforcement officer could say: ‘Nigger, watch your step, or I’ll put you in jail.’ The Negro knew what going to jail meant. It meant not only confinement and isolation from his loved ones. It mean that at the jailhouse he could probably expect a severe beating. And it meant that his day in court, if he had it, would be a mockery of justice.” from Why We Can’t Wait

On Economics and Redistribution

“Many white Americans of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice but tolerated or ignored economic injustice.” from The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr. 

“Now, you cannot solve the problem by turning to communism, for communism is based on an ethical relativism and a metaphysical materialism that no Christian can accept. But you can
work within the framework of democracy to bringing about a better distribution of wealth.” from “Paul’s Letter to American Christians”

On Systemic and Institutional Injustice
“We must be concerned not merely about who murdered [the four little girls who died in a church bombing], but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.” from “Eulogy for the Martyred Children”

“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo.” from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

On Ecumenism

“But I am disturbed about a person or an institution that claims infallibility in this world. I am disturbed about any church that refuses to cooperate with other churches under the pretense that it is the only true church.” from “Paul’s Letter to American Christians”

The misappropriation of Martin Luther King, Jr. isn’t just about how we remember the past, it’s about how we respond to the activists of our day. In my meager ministry of racial reconciliation in the church, I have encountered many of the same objections conservatives had to the Civil Rights movement of 50 years ago. While the idea of racial integration and equality are much more broadly accepted today than in King’s day, it is hypocritical for anyone to assert that they would have been on the side of King during the Civil Rights movement but then decry current racial justice movements.

Conservatives who now prop King up as positive example of Christian activism often fail to recognize that that they may have opposed him in his day. This is true not only for white people but for black people as well. People of color did not universally support Dr. King or the Civil Rights movement and objected to it for many of the same reasons white people did.

If we admire Martin Luther King, Jr., then we should be prepared to reckon with a more robust memory of his life and methods. Conservatives who share his dream of racial equality should remember that he worked with Christians who didn’t share all of their specific doctrinal beliefs. They should recall that his methods broke certain laws and that he was arrested dozens of times. They should bear in mind that he called for the redistribution of wealth so all people had basic necessities. They should not forget that King preached on so-called social issues in the church.

Instead, theological and political conservatives should realize that racial justice will require them to take stances that are controversial in their own circles. If they engage in this struggle and hope to have a fraction of the impact of King and his allies, then they should be prepared to be called names like “liberal” and “Marxist.” They should embrace the risk of losing pulpits, ministries, and funding. They should expect to be accused of preaching a “social gospel” when race and poverty are the subjects.

One way to prepare for the inevitable persecution that comes with justice movements is to accurately remember leaders of those movements. To eviscerate King’s ministry of its more controversial elements is to misappropriate his legacy and hamstring the stride toward freedom.

13 thoughts on “The Misappropriation of Martin Luther King, Jr.

  1. Anthony

    White America by and large is racist. Racism is normal to a large swath of white America. Was then, is now. This is not to say no progress has been made, it has.

  2. Douglas E Richardson

    MLK was a great man and anyone who would cheer is death and claim to be Christian is a misguided individual. But less not for get at that time that was the Democratic party not GOP of today. I personally love the quotes of MLK and and see nothing wrong with remembering him in this way. This article is just another attempt to label today’s conservative as racist

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  4. Grant Morgan

    Thank you for authoring this article Jemar! Dr. King was much more than the 2 dimensional person we are used to reading in our history books.(all people are, for that matter) Thank you for reminding me of that.

  5. Jason Kettinger

    The comment on ecumenism is the only one with which I disagree.

  6. Ian Hammond

    “If we admire Martin Luther King, Jr., then we should be prepared to reckon with a more robust memory of his life and methods.”

    Exalting Dr. King for parts of his life and methods we resonant with is almost unavoidable. It is no sin to praise what you believe is praiseworthy in a figure. This argument is the same argument that some evangelicals use for why one should not celebrate Dr. King. They argue that we should not only talk about what good he has done but highlight his sexual infidelity and heretical theological positions. Just because one celebrates Dr. King for his fight for integration and the full recognition the humanity of persons of color does not mean we have to celebrate him for his view on redistribution of wealth, his low view of Scripture, nor his practice of infidelity.

  7. Brendt Wayne Waters

    Having grown up both politically and theologically conservative as all get out, I remember us decrying — and sometimes outright mocking — the “world” when it cherry-picked the warm, fuzzy things that Jesus said, while ignoring all the things he said that would make them uncomfortable.

    While not drawing an equivalency between Jesus and King, I find it interesting (read: insanely hypocritical) that many of those same conservatives are perfectly willing to do exactly what they decried/mocked.

  8. Tim L.

    Perhaps what Tisby is mostly trying to say is that contemporary blacks often feel as though King’s legacy has become a convenient echo chamber for whites when his birthday comes around every year.

    What Tisby may not realize is that for King to be as respected as he is today within America’s white evangelicalism represents a profound improvement from King’s day. That’s not to excuse the lack of progress that still needs to be made, or to give kudos to whites for their progressivism. But as King becomes venerated by more people who aren’t black, perhaps blacks sense that their ownership of King’s legacy is slipping from their control.

    Another aspect that I see as a white guy is that we whites are blamed by practically every other demographic for all sorts of problems. And to varying degrees, that blame is justified, considering the fact that white men “ruled” the world for so long. But this blame conveniently ignores the fact that, while the sins of the fathers are visited upon their offspring, each of us individually is only responsible for how we act individually. Just as our fathers’ faith doesn’t save us, their sins don’t automatically damn us. This is the marvel of grace, and mercy.

    Not because any of us deserve it. But because we genuinely love our neighbors as ourselves.

  9. Brian Hager

    So we can chastise those who use soundbites from King, by using soundbites to correct them? That makes sense?

  10. Darren Keane Storm

    You’re right. But the MLK’s contribution in racial reconciliation is so great that people want to support him in all directions.

  11. Draco

    The things he did were obviously controversial at the time… but those ideas today are not controversial. That’s why we remember “The quotable King”.

    The King who advocated nonviolence. The King who would be appalled by BLM’s actions and words. That’s the King we honor.

    “it is hypocritical for anyone to assert that they would have been on the side of King during the Civil Rights movement but then decry current racial justice movements.”

    Today’s “activists” do not stand for the same thing King stood for… so that statement is dishonest.

    “Conservatives who now prop King up as positive example of Christian activism often fail to recognize that that they may have opposed him in his day.”

    And comparing people today with how they might have acted in the past is a false equivalency. We’ve grown as a culture, and today’s people WOULD side with king. That’s the point. If I, as I am and think today, lived back then, I would have sided with him. If I, raised the way they were raised back then, didn’t… doesn’t matter.

  12. Tim L.

    As a white middle-class, middle-aged male, I would say that King was a significant person in American history to whom the general public makes shallow deference… much like Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln argued for the emancipation of slaves, yet during the Civil War, scholars have learned he was secretly arranging to have the newly-freed Negroes shipped en mass to Carribbean islands, since he still considered them inferior to whites. It’s obvious that King was a more complex person than many recall him as being; some evangelicals, for example, doubt he was born-again. Others fault his adultery. Yet when I post my “favorite” King quote on Facebook. I do so with an authentic hope that someday, we will each be judged not on the color of our skin, but the content of our character. Unfortunately, that day may probably only come on the Day of Judgment.

  13. Daryl Little

    The author seems to be making the mistake of assuming that supporting Dr. King’s work of racial reconciliation requires supporting all that he said or did.
    It the intent here to say that anything less than full, unmitigated support, is somehow wrong or unChristian? I hope not.

    Surely no one, anywhere or at any time, deserves the full support of all they did and said.
    If supporting Dr. King’s legacy when he was right and not supporting it where he was wrong is misappropriation, then I hope we all misappropriate his legacy. And every other great man/woman’s legacy.
    To do otherwise is is idolatry in it’s most basic form.

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