[Reverend] Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - January 2015

Question

Has Martin Luther King Jr. been stripped of his identity as a man of faith?

--G. Morris
Arlington, Texas

Answer

MLK pulpit

Each year Ferris hosts a faculty/staff in-service dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. The event consists of 15-16 readings. The theme for the 2014 event was “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?” This quotation is often attributed to Dr. King and because we wanted to focus the event on “a mandate for service,” it seemed an appropriate theme. I was tasked to the find the speech where Dr. King made the statement.

I found that the most common attribution is to Dr. King’s 1957 speech, Conquering Self-Centeredness. But the quote is not there (Conquering, August 11, 1957). I could not find one source that substantiated that Dr. King said the quote. This got me to thinking. If this very popular quote cannot be substantiated as being said by Dr. King, how many other quotes or principles from Dr. King might we have wrong? Of course, it is very possible that Dr. King did say the quote in another setting—and one day a record may surface that shows he did write it or say it. But in the meantime, this quote cannot be authenticated as being attributed to Dr. King.

In the Self-Centeredness speech, the principle of doing for others runs throughout. I have no doubt that Dr. King, a preacher, believed in the Golden Rule of “Do unto others what you would have them do to you,” Matthew 7:12, and to “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” Matthew 26:39. So he may well have asked “what are you doing for others?” However, if King did not say the quote, then he shouldn’t be credited with saying it, but also, if he did say things that were biblically based or maybe uncomfortable, is it fair to omit those things in order to appease those who do not agree with those ideals? This leads me to your question, has Dr. King been stripped of his identity as a man of faith? Has his legacy been turned into one of secular activism over Christian-based activism? In many ways, I think the answer is yes.

Watching the movie Selma, I was disappointed, but not surprised, at the lack of spiritual and biblical references from the character of Dr. King. In my opinion, the movie paints Dr. King as a good man who was more activist than man of God. The movie’s King was not shown relying on or seeking God but for a couple of occasions, where he sought the singing of a Spiritual—and when he was comforted by a scripture quoted to him by the character of Ralph Abernathy. This scripture reference, by the way, was the only scripture reference in the entire movie and came 40 minutes into the film. Dr. King was a devout Christian minister but the only reference to Jesus in the movie was not made by King, but by others as a curse word.

There are others who have taken issue with the lack of spirituality and religious inspiration in the movie. In the article ‘Selma’ strikes again: Deleting Rabbi Heschel, and the religious inspiration of Selma, from history J.E. Dyer notes that Rabbi Heschel, a good friend of Dr. King and a prominent participant in the Selma march, was omitted from the movie. Susannah Heschel, the daughter of Rabbi Heschel, lamented:

I do not want this to be an all-out critique, and I do recognize that there were some very powerful scenes and stories in the movie that needed to be told. Indeed, given the ignorance of many Americans about the civil rights movement, it is imperative that movies about the period be made. But, and please hear this, it is imperative that those movies give accurate portrayals. Selma tells the story of a spiritually neutered Dr. King and his secular message. Was this done to make the King character easier to embrace? I don’t know if that was the motivation, but I know this: Dr. King was a man of faith and to diminish the role of Christian faith in his life and work represents an inaccurate portrayal.

I have also noticed that more and more references to Dr. King and his messages are less and less God-centered. An example of this is the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. It is a fantastic monument and very well done. But, next to the monument there are fourteen selected quotes that accompany the sculpture. None of them mention God (Quotations, 2011). Again, we are presented with a picture of Dr. King as a strong, peace-loving advocate for justice and equality without mention of the spiritual basis of his beliefs and actions. He was a peace-loving advocate for justice and equality but that love and advocacy was rooted in and driven by his Christian faith.

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

While trying to validate the “what are you doing for others” quote, I ran across a book called The Words of Martin Luther King Jr. The book contains quotes from Dr. King categorized from the Community Man to Racism, to Faith and Religion, and others. The book contains three references to Jesus, and only nine references to God in the entire 128 pages. To me, that seems to be a bit low considering the speech Conquering Self-Centeredness contains over 20 references to God alone. To separate God from the messages of Martin Luther King Jr., is to do him an injustice. For Dr. King himself said “Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?” (Beyond Vietnam April 4, 1967). King used the message of the gospel as the foundation for righteousness, justice, and truth in the fight against injustice, evil, and falsities. Who better to sum up what Dr. King believed about his message than Dr. King himself? As stated in the book by Tavis Smiley, Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. King Jr.’s Final Year: “Doc doesn’t go long without mentioning the ‘ministry of Jesus Christ.’” King is then quoted as saying:

“To me, the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that sometimes I marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking out against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men, for communists and capitalists, for their children and ours, for black and white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the One who loved His enemies so fully that he died for them? ...Finally, I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men, the calling to be the son of the Living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood. And because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned, especially for His suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come today to speak for them.” (Death of a King, 2014).

A couple of nights before what would become the “I have a Dream” speech, Dr. King and his advisers debated what should be the focus of the speech. After hours of deliberation, discussion, and negotiation, it is said that King retired from the debate with these words:

“O.K., brothers, thank you so very much for your suggestions and input. I am now going upstairs to my room to counsel with my Lord” (Pioneering Coach, 2015).

Franklin Hughes
Diversity & Inclusion / Jim Crow Museum
2015

References

Davis, S. Pioneering coach George Raveling’s surprising connection to MLK – Sports Illustrated, January 19, 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.si.com/college-basketball/2015/01/19/George-Raveling

Dyer, J.E., 'Selma' strikes again: Deleting Rabbi Heschel, and the religious inspiration of Selma, from history - Liberty Unyielding, January 18, 2015. Retrieved from: http://libertyunyielding.com/2015/01/18/selma-strikes-deleting-rabbi-heschel-religious-inspiration-selma-history-video/

Golub, E., Quotations from Inscription Wall of Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial - (Demotix), August 22, 2011. Retrieved from: http://www.demotix.com/news/799570/quotations-inscription-wall-martin-luther-king-jr-memorial#media-799542

King Jr., M.L., “Beyond Vietnam,” Speech Delivered at New York’s Riverside Church. , April 4, 1967. Retrieved from: http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/multimediaentry/doc_beyond_vietnam/

King Jr., M.L., “Conquering Self-Centeredness,” Sermon Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, August 11, 1957. Retrieved from: http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/conquering_self_centeredness/

King Jr., M.L., “The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Second Edition,”- HarperCollins Publisher, October 28, 2008.

Smiley, T. “Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. King Jr.’s Final Year” - Little, Brown and Company, September 9,2014.