Friends, I confess this Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday feels so…complicated today, when in just a few days bigotry and hatefulness and misogyny and blatant white supremacy will be inaugurated into the White House. All of that, in the space of five days? That’s a lot for one justice-loving heart to hold.
So I am thankful that the Movement for Black Lives is calling us to a national week of action, starting today, to #ReclaimMLK as we gird up our courage to resist this incoming administration and all the harm it wants to do – and is already doing.
Now more than ever, we need all our ancestors in the struggle around us. Now more than ever, we need to reclaim Brother Martin’s legacy to us. And, especially if you’re white like me, we need to be clear about who he was and what that legacy is.
Institutional whiteness has tried to rob MLK of his power, turning him into a “respectable” icon of community service, not revolution. We’re given a day off, not taught his principles for how to rise up. The now-dominant narrative about him is that he was just a “dreamer;” we have forgotten that he asked hard things of all of us.
In his time, MLK was not considered “respectable,” or “peaceful.” He was targeted, bombed, stabbed, surveilled, jailed, beaten, and murdered for what he preached and embodied. He was accused of being a communist (not unlike how Black Lives Matter is slandered with being a “terrorist” group today), an enemy of the state.
Now we celebrate him as a national hero (which, obviously, he is, please don’t hear me saying otherwise), but at what cost? How well do we (and I’m really meaning white folk here) heed his words, and let them compel us to action?
From his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail:”
I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership… all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows… I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”
From his speech, “Beyond Vietnam:”
The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality…we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation…We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy…
…I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
“Rallies without end”…that gets me. So what would Brother Martin ask of us today? I listen to his words and let them work on me, sit in the discomfort they cause me as a white clergywoman. And I think he would ask us to rise up, to gird up our courage to dismantle the “giant triplets” and build up a whole new world. Even in this moment of chaos there is immense opportunity for a resistance that shows up against harm and builds up a just world, if we are bold enough to grab hold of this moment, look our fear in the eye, and act anyway.
And I think he would tell us to not do it alone. Freedom is a collective movement. Remember Brother Martin had Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Vincent and Rosemarie Harding, Anne Braden, Amelia Boynton Robinson, Daisy Bates, and so many others. He was not alone, and neither are we. Thanks be to God.
Now let us begin.
Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world…
The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise,
we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.
(from “Beyond Vietnam”)
Rev. Anne Dunlap is a UCC pastor, activist, and herbal warrior serving as Community Minister for Racial Justice & Solidarity in Denver, CO, where she is a member of the United Church of Montbello. Her work includes local organizing, pastoral and spiritual care in the movement, teaching, farmhanding, and coordinating the Showing Up for Racial Justice faith working group. Anne invites you to take a listen to the new Showing Up for Racial Justice podcast. She writes at FierceRev Remedies.
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