By Dr. Nathan Allen
The citizenry must implement a significant paradigm shift to realize and internalize the goals, objectives, and strategies envisioned by the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He became, in the view of many, an urban and rural prophet, a prime mover and innovator who cared more for shoring up the foundations of America than safeguarding his own welfare. He was a man who viewed life as meaningless without something higher than life itself. While inspired by many of the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi of India, King’s cause and Gandhi’s differed markedly. In India, the majority resisted the tyranny of a minority. Dr. King’s mission began with a visible minority challenging an order imposed by the Southern majority in the State of Alabama.
It is important to remember King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” In it, he wrote, “My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privilege voluntarily.”
Speaking of those who jailed him, he stated, “. . . we can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal and everything the Hungarian Freedom Fighters did in Hungary was illegal.” On breaking the law, he emphatically stated, “. . . an unjust law is no law at all.”
Dr. King had the same aims as many other black leaders. His means, however, separated him decisively. He spoke not just to a local city or region. He utilized his ideas related to moral persuasion with the intent to isolate and make more visible an unjust system that violates the American Creed—the defining element of American identity that includes liberty, equality, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire—and causes it to be dismantled.
Dr. King was not alone in this effort. There were those leaders and groups cutting away the tentacles of racism, such as Walter White’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Whitney Young’s Urban League; Julian Bond’s Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee; and others. He succeeded—at great personal cost to himself, his family, and some of his followers — in bringing to the conscience of the nation a higher agenda of human and legal interaction. He did this by using faith, intellect, determination, and integrity within the framework of what he referred to as liberation theology.
From a religious and biblical perspective, King defined liberation theology as an organic, often formalized body of opinions concerning God, and man’s relationship to God and its efforts to seek universal justice for all in which the church becomes the instrument that guides and directs its responsiveness. Public policy pundits would argue that a list of Dr. King’s accomplishments must include the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The latter, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting, is probably the most significant legislation in the United States. Interestingly enough, its renewal presently sits on the Senate Majority Leader’s desk. Therefore, as we move forward to perpetuate the achievements of Dr. King, maybe every church will ensure that every member of their congregation is a registered voter. The right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy and we must not ignore its overall impact.
In the Congress of National Black Churches, Inc. proceedings of the Black Church Leadership Conference, Dr. Wallace S. Hartsfield, former pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church, Kansas City, MO and a noted Old Testament scholar; stated:
The church must vocalize her concerns in that area of community life which touches every aspect of an individual’s development. For the church not to be concerned about the political arena is not to be concerned about the educational needs of the people. It is not to be concerned about the economic welfare of the people. It is not to be concerned about their cultural needs and their spiritual needs. In this changing community, the church must recognize that she has a moral obligation to those who find themselves with their backs against the wall. What is needed oftentimes is a sense of direction and the church can articulate that direction.
It [the church] provides a viable mechanism for the nation to maintain, sustain and perpetuate King’s notion of a liberation theology.
Furthermore, we must always remember, without the vision, ideals, commitment and courage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a generation would have lacked the kind of leadership cemented by a religious belief. His was the dream that mobilized and aroused Americans of all ages and backgrounds and a generation of college students to challenge those national and regional norms virtually ignoring or diminishing Americans of color.
His life is the perfect example of fortitude, patience, quiet strength, dignity, and integrity. His was the sacrifice that shines as an example to so many black leaders today. We rejoice in the spirit and mobility with which he lived. We also mourn him still and cry that he cannot walk among us and see Americans of all backgrounds celebrate his birthday as one among several “American heroes.” But as leaders of the nation move forward in our neighborhoods, communities, and cities, we must always remember the importance of the struggle to make a difference. To make a difference, we must make the vision real and understand that protest may not only be necessary, but essential.