As this year’s commemorations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. come to a close, one message has really stuck with me. On last Saturday, I was a part of a stirring moment in history. The Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II was keynote speaker at the 2018 Dallas MLK Center Awards Banquet and his message to remember “The Real Martin Luther King, Jr.” presented a different view of the human rights and faith leader. With a targeted message, Dr. Barber was relentless. He presented the legacy of Dr. King as a whole, even as a man with few and fleeting friends. Quoting Matthew 23:29-31, Dr. Barber rebuked opponents of the civil rights movement who after Dr. King’s death have re-written their place in history.
The night was educational and inspirational, pointing out the first attempt on Dr. King’s life was at the hands of a black woman. We all took a deeper look at the man who was often the vexation of many who would otherwise have been his contemporaries. Because he took up the mantle of justice, Dr. King as a prophet was also a pariah. His legacy has also suffered revisionism, placing many of his enemies alongside him as their story is told today.
“I don’t even know if it’s proper to celebrate because he was a prophet and, you don’t celebrate a prophet. You either follow them or leave them alone...he loved America enough to tell it the truth!”
50 years since his demise, the country looks much the same and suffers from the same ills that threatened to bring the country to its knees before his death. Dr. King’s prognosis that “this country is sick” would still probably also be correct. He wouldn’t live to preach this sermon, but had he lived, his message would have explained: “Why America May Go to Hell”. In the sermon, he was to take to task a looming tax bill vote that would undercut and even eliminate provisions for Americans’ “basic necessities of life”.
At the time of his demise, Dr. King was not only the dreamer standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. He was a strategist who’d taken aim at local economies, industries and businesses whose practices had disenfranchised Americans of all demographics. During his rousing oration, Dr. Barber reminded the crowd at the banquet to “be careful how you remember Dr. King. If you remember him improperly, you contribute to the demise of his legacy.”
He also admonished them not to sanctify the posthumously sanitized presentation of Dr. King. “He was not a perfect man. He was not a human relations specialist, he wasn’t trying to get everybody to sing “Kum-By-Yah”. He never talked about love without talking about justice. He believed in nonviolence, but he didn’t believe in non-action!” The “real” Dr. King, subject of Saturday evening’s message was one America really never got to know. On this day and everyday, Dr. Barber wants the world to remember the prophet.
“That’s why any attempt to simply popularize him, make a commodity of him, throw commemorative platitudes at him without embracing, embodying and engaging the vision and the call to action that he espoused participates in the destruction of his legacy. In other words, we have to be careful how we remember Dr. King or we actually help destroy him...that my brothers and sisters is a form of ever diminishing hypocrisy that renders any claim to really love the prophet, false!”
Many Americans reference Dr. King’s “dream” but remain oblivious to the spirit behind it and driving force behind the poor people’s campaign. “Because he was organizing poor people to take on the issues or racism, materialism and militarism, he was declared an enemy of the state!”
The best way to destroy and distort the legacy and message of a prophet is to revision him as being perfect and popular, of which Martin King was neither...and neither are we. This year especially, we need to remember the real Martin Luther King, Jr. because God knows we need that kind of prophetic edge right now!
On Saturday evening, Dr. Barber peeled back the layers of the late civic and faith leader. He exposed to the banquet attendees the depth of the tenets Dr. King’s espoused. There was also a challenge to the crowd to “suit up one more time” and get actively involved in changing the grim political, economic and social outlook of the city and county of Dallas. He referred to Dallas as “Exhibit A” in the cause for a modern day poor people’s campaign. Highlighting the abismal economy and per capita wealth disparity, the allure and appeal of one the Lone Star State’s shining stars waxed as a rustic reminder of a city in the clutches of white supremacy. Dr. Barber didn’t let the Arlington parade faux pas escape the evening, either. “When he (Governer Greg Abbott) accepts Medicaid expansion and doesn’t support voter suppression, then he can be grand marshal. He also took to task Texas’ enablers and chided their basic subversion of democracy.
Punctuating the evening, Dr. Barber re-visited Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech the night before his death. From it, he echoed Dr. King’s sentiments to the standing room only crowd at historic Mason Temple Church of God in Christ. “ Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point, in Memphis.” Concluding his message to a chorus of “hallelujah” and “amen”, Dr. Barber made one final emphatic ecclesiastical exclamation: “Ain’t nobody turning ‘round, because nothing would be more tragic than for us to turn back now!”