During my formative years, the Civil Rights Movement was standard curriculum in school. I believe it was the fourth or fifth grade we first started studying it. Growing up in a mixed culture, African-American History was a prominent part of the education we received. I remember being enthralled with the struggle that existed and recall relief that the problems we were reading about had at least come to some semblance of resolution. After all, most of the kids sitting around me were African-American.
I remember the clips that reeled off the projector as it cast the black and white images, news clips, and scratchy sound bites that gave us a glimpse of what the American culture was experiencing at that time on the silver screen in front of the class. I also remember the feeling of genuine sadness that I am not sure I have experienced in any other form as I did during those lessons. I sat with a curiosity and disbelief that not even hindsight could provide an explanation for. Now, just over four decades removed from the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was shot I can ask and answer the question as to why the assassin pulled that trigger.
The sign on the drinking fountain has moved
As a Caucasian male, it is unlikely I will ever be able to fully identify with the plight of those who struggled for equality during those tumultuous times. Even today, I will never be able to fully empathize with someone who has been pulled over for driving while black. Today, various injustices still plague people of “minority” status and the signs on drinking fountains have been replaced with red-lining, profiling, and workplace prejudice come promotion time.
Racial tension still exists in many settings. Even though the community I grew up in had a significant African-American population, the high school lunch room was still largely segregated. Although it was the 90’s white kids still hung with white kids and black kids hung with black kids. Unless you were on one of the sports teams, the two groups seldom integrated. Heaven forbid if you dared to involve yourself in an mixed relationship and your boyfriend or girlfriend was of other ethnic heritage.
Jungle Fever as modern day prophecy
With the many battles won during the Civil Rights Movement there are many new fronts left to fight. The iconic film by Spike Lee, Jungle Fever, served as a latent reminder that although prejudice has been politically abrogated, it still exists. The movie also infers that the battlefield has been leveled and weapons more evenly distributed. Blacks hate whites, whites hate blacks, and we all will never just get along.
It is not a fair shake to assume that racial relations have not enjoyed peace in many other avenues. After all, many neighborhoods are integrated. My once mostly white neighborhood is now mostly African-American. Workplaces enjoy multinational and mixed-ethnicity in the population of its staff. Population polls and studies reveal that the status of dominance once enjoyed by those who are of the pale skin type is waning and white-folks are quickly becoming the minority.
The war that was not
Martin Luther King Jr. was a charismatic man. If you have ever heard the speeches, lectures, or sermons delivered by this master of oratory, something might incline you to believe him to be a prophet. It is not without perplexity that one must ask themselves the question that begs. If Martin Luther King Jr. instructed his followers to pick up bricks, bottles, and throw Molotov cocktails, would their cause still find resolution? It is also another question that follows, would the results achieved by Mr. King’s marches have been of such great impact on the future of our country if he did resort to conventional violent persuasions?
Today, and in history past, charismatic leaders have called upon the means of violence as a podium to promote their causes. Men like the Ayatollah Khomeini, Muammar Gaddafi, Kim Jong-Il, and even Barack Obama promote “peace” for their people through death and further their causes with the violent means available to them. But their “peace” is only enjoyed by those who agree with them and go on being waged by the justification of protecting their interests and the people they serve.
What happens when peace for all is promoted without the aid of an M-17, suicide bomb, drone-strike or a nuclear arsenal? Google Egypt, Libya, and even Tahrir Square and the results will provide ample reminders that violence begets violence. No message promoted through death is ever loud enough for it’s reverberation to last over forty plus years. It does not matter which side you stand for.
Martin Luther King Jr. used weapons
The means by which King accomplished resolution certainly involved resistance. Although the resistance achieved was not by violence, it was accomplished with immeasurable resolve. King’s followers and supporters advocated for change through protest. Economic and financial impact were the Gatling guns of the Civil Rights Movement. The sound of marching feet and the sight of hand-painted signs did not invoke fear of death but came in cadence with the sounds of African-Americans, Caucasians, and Brothers and Sisters singing We Shall Overcome.
“In spite of the fact that the law of revenge solves no social problems, men continue to follow its disastrous leading…Jesus eloquently affirmed from the cross a higher law. He knew that the old eye-for-an-eye philosophy would leave everyone blind. He did not seek to overcome evil with evil. He overcame evil with good. Although crucified with hate, he responded with aggressive love…the lesson of Calvary will be a nagging reminder that only goodness can drive out evil and love can conquer hate.”
-from King’s Strength to Love
If the ultimate trophy for the Civil Rights Movement was equal economic rights, integration, and social reform then the view of the promised land is closer on the horizon than it was in the days of King. Many of these reforms have provided the fair shake at resources that Kings people were not afforded when they became inspired to march, protest, and petition for change.
Lo, even peace can cause death
The sadness of my youth surrounding the question of why anyone would kill a peaceful man like King has lingered well into my adulthood. While their are many theological and political differences between Martin Luther King Jr. and the Messiah, Jesus Christ – they were similar in many ways. The implications of their existence and refusal to fight the way the world was accustomed made the target on their heads more pronounced. We may never know the real answer for the reason King was assassinated, but we can be certain that it was his ability to accomplish more with non-violence than without that provoked it.
The dual-realization of Martin Luther King Jr.’s promised land in his final speech given the eve of his assassination should be inspiring. During his “Mountaintop” speech in Memphis, he indicated that he has seen the promised land. The enactment of the Civil Rights Bill and the first steps toward economic and social equality were beginning to effect the lives of many who were accustom to constant oppression. Hopes were being realized and the reality of being treated as a human being despite skin-color was pervasive in the atmosphere. But did King also have another version of the promised land in sight?
During the mountaintop speech King stated that the Lord has allowed him to go up to the mountain. In the face of threats and the foreboding imminence of his death, he was still able to pronounce with some trepidation,
“I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
It is my hope that the glory of the coming of the Lord was the finality and absolution of the sins of all humanity. Through Christ, the totality of the Kingdom of God, neither Greek nor Jew, black nor white, male nor female, and the wiping of every tear from every eye was his ultimate desire. The temporal changes that gave a version of peace to many then and its grander standard now gives only a glimpse of true peace and may actually be misleading.
King, Civil Rights, and even Barack Obama are images of the Promised Land
Jesus Christ told Pontius Pilate that His Kingdom was not of this world, if it were, his followers would fight (Jn 18:36). His non-violence toward Rome and the religious leaders of Israel was a true show of force that no earthly army will ever be able to rival. If Christ indeed had a legion of angels he could beckon to his defense then is it a greater show of force to resist retaliation and revenge? Jesus Christ came from the mountaintop. His eyes had also seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, a battle won, a Kingdom established, and wolves laying with lambs (Isa 11:6). Did the Father give King this same hope? I think so.
The final moments of the mountaintop speech have caused many like me to believe King knew he would die soon – but his marching orders came from the Father, and he would carry them out despite adversity and opposition. Ultimately, King stated his desire was to do the will of the Lord.
Jesus Christ knew his day was coming – it also, like King, caused him to weigh earthly longevity against the eternal reward of obedience to that higher law of the cross (Luke 22:42). I believe that the promised land that motivated King is the one we can look forward to in Christ. Although the political climates were vastly different it is a safe comparison to state that both King and Christ gave their lives for their people – and ultimately for those who would benefit from the results of their sacrifices.
Hope and loving one’s neighbor as himself finds manifestation in shared drinking fountains, integrated public areas, a mixed-ethnicity American President, and leaders who accomplish equality through peace. These are reflections of a time when there shall be unanimous agreement on the laws of the land. Only the laws of the land will no longer require a ballot box to accomplish peace on earth. The higher law of the cross will be realized and accomplished through those who have decided to be obedient to Christ and strive for the promised land.
King was killed for one of the same reasons that Christ was killed. Although King is not the Messiah he spoke as Christ and the disciples when he resisted silence. He was a man who could not but help speak of the things he had seen and heard (Acts 4:20). I believe I can now successfully answer the question that plagued my youthful experience with the woes of the Civil Rights Movement and the death of King. I now know that he was killed because he was faithful and obedient to the purpose he was sent to accomplish.
The Romans and Jews killed Christ for the same reason. Their causes were not wholly the same, but they were reflective of similar resolve. The ultimate motivation in these men accomplished the greatest result. King put it best in his statement during the mountaintop speech:
It is non-violence or non-existence.
Non-violence is what killed Christ and subsequently killed King.
In the promised land, all God’s children can sit at the same dinner table, enjoy the celebration of the wedding feast of the Lamb, break bread, and share the same cup of blessing. In the promised land, the lunch-counter will not be big enough for the whole lot of us.
Some helpful resources:
Martin Luther King Jr.’s full Mountaintop speech via YouTube.
Thabiti Anyawabile addresses the ultimate problem with confusing race and ethnicity in his Together for the Gospel message: “Identity, the work of Christ, and the Church”