Martin Luther King Jr.
A Twentieth Century Prophet
In 1964, as the Civil Rights Bill was being debated in Congress, the black people of St. Augustine Florida, where I grew up, were waging a bloody struggle against the racial caste system in the nation’s oldest city. And they were joined in their struggle by people of good will from all over the country. There were contingents of clergymen representing Catholics and Protestants, Gentiles and Jews.
There were also members of the American elite like Mrs. Mary Peabody, the mother of Endicott Peabody, the sitting Governor of Massachusetts, and poor righteous teachers and students. The magnet that attracted this broad coalition of conscience to St. Augustine was Dr. Martin Luther King, an extraordinary man of the sort that may appear once in a century.
Some misguided critics on the left and right, black and white, have attempted to deny or minimize his importance in bringing about the radical changes in American society – especially regarding race relations – that occurred during the last half of the twentieth century. While I recognize that the sweeping changes which destroyed the legal basis of the racial caste system was the result of a long arduous struggle that enlisted many soldiers, I also understand that Dr. King’s contribution was unique.
No one else could command the allegiance of the privileged classes and the impoverished masses like King did. In the second volume of his masterwork on the life of Martin Luther King, “Pillars of Fire,” Taylor Branch tells us that the distinguished theologian, philosopher and Orthodox Rabbi Abraham Heschel, called Dr. King a “prophet.”
A European immigrant, Rabbi Heschel had been a famous theologian in Germany until he was forced to flee the Nazi holocaust, and he was a professor at the Jewish Theological seminary in New York when he met Dr. King in Chicago, where both attended a conference on Religion and Race in 1963. For Heschel, Branch points out, racism was heresy and the Rabbi bluntly told the conference: “You cannot worship God and at the same time look at a man as if he were a horse.”
Heschel, who had written a seminal book on the ancient Hebrew Prophets, argued that what marked King as a prophet was not his power to move people with visions of better tomorrows expressed in great oratory, because “Moralist of all ages have been eloquent in singing the praises of virtue.”
In Heschel’s view “The Distinction of the prophets was in their remorseless unveiling of injustice and oppression.” Furthermore, the prophet avoided lapsing into despair by viewing unwarranted suffering as redemptive – a theme reiterated many times in the speeches of Dr. King. Hence, according to Heschel’s definition, Martin Luther King Jr. was indeed a prophet.
Yet even without Rabbi Heschel’s vast knowledge of the Hebrew prophetic tradition, the masses of southern black people had already concluded that Dr. King was some species of prophet or messiah who, like Moses in the bible, was ordained to lead them to the Promised Land of freedom. Dr. King so embodied this tradition that even as late as June 2003, the Hasidic Rabbi Schmuley Boteach, Oxford Chaplain and author of over a dozen books, told this writer, “Dr. King brought the teachings of the ancient Hebrew prophets to life and made their teachings relevant to the modern world in a way that no rabbi I know of has been able to do.”
The black folk of St. Augustine were all raised on those Old Testament stories about the suffering and deliverance of the Jews, indeed the “Negro Spirituals” they sang were based upon them. So they were well conditioned to receive Dr. King’s message. While sophisticated thinkers may view the scriptures as symbolic or allegorical, to the toiling black masses of the south, where King’s ministry of struggle was born and raised, the stories in the bible were literally true.
As Dr. DuBois points out in the chapter “The Coming of the Lord” in his 1935 masterpiece Black Reconstruction, the freed slaves who flocked to the Union Army felt that God was alive and that they had met and talked with him in the dark of night. This was the tradition in which the black culture of St. Augustine was rooted. Thus their feelings about the divine nature of his mission were real. It was by this faith that they walked unarmed amid the murderous white mobs like Daniel in the Lion’s Den.
The Doctor, as King was affectionately known among friends and colleagues, had something for everybody. He was the good shepherd to his church flock and an intellectual of the first rank – a PhD in systematic theology from Boston University. He was both a child of the black church and a paragon of the “Talented Tenth,” who accepted the ancestral imperative set forth by black men of prophetic moral vision such as: Father Alexander Crummell, Bishop Daniel Payne, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglass, Dr. Benjamin Mayes, et al, and he used his splendid education to lead the oppressed masses by preaching a gospel of liberation.
He was the ideal son that every black mother wished for, the eloquent orator who did the black middle class proud, and the rousing preacher whose powerful baritone voice and rhythmic cadences could summon the spirit of God for the righteous, and inspire goose pimples and fear in the infidels! Indeed, he could soothe the savage beasts of hopelessness and despair with the sound of his voice.
In Martin Luther King Jr., both traditions of the black preacher – the learned and the vernacular – converge. He could move seamlessly from a learned philosophical discourse, to a sermon based in the religious folkways of the black southern masses. Dr. King could calmly preach to the text, or deliver a free wheeling stem-winder with the best of the great extemporaneous preachers who rely on inspiration rather than education when interpreting biblical texts, those un-tutored clerical bards whom the learned poet and freedom fighter James Weldon Johnson immortalized in “God’s Trombones.”
He was also a splendid example of Black male style as it evolved in the US, his sartorial elegance matching his verbal eloquence; two highly regarded attributes in black male culture. And like his contemporaries Ralph Ellison and Malcolm X, King was also a great dancer, having won the Jitterbug Champion-ship of Atlanta as a teenager.
When all is said and done however, what distinguished Martin Luther King Jr. from the vast majority of preachers and secular intellectuals was his willingness to place his body in harm’s way on behalf of the oppressed. While he could have had an easy life, even in apartheid America, he did this over and over again in the face of opponents with bloody murder on their minds. So, it is altogether fitting and proper that we should pay homage to this twentieth century prophet, who died so that a better America might be born.
A Genuine Man of the People!
Evidence of a mispent youth?
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Dr. Martin Luther King Day!