Martin Luther King – not really all about me.

Over the course of a few months in 2010, I periodically blogged about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Strength to Love. Last MLK day, I returned to the project and wrote the following (which I have very slightly edited), in an effort to remember that he was a flesh-and-blood human who first and foremost served a flesh-and-blood community.  (The rest of the Strength to Love posts, each of which can be read independently, can be found here).

Chapter eleven – Our God is able.

Given my powerful tendency to look at the world through my It’s All About Me glasses, you will perhaps understand (though not, I hope, condone) why I was disappointed (again) upon reading this chapter.

I struggled with chapter nine so mightily that I gave up my MLK blogging for not-quite four months; I struggled with chapter ten so mightily that I then gave it up again, this time going four and a half months. And dear reader, I like chapter eleven least of all.

As a self-described “believing Jew and the wife of a deeply moral atheist,” there’s just nothing for me here. This is a chapter — a sermon — written by a member of the Christian clergy in order to reassure his Christian flock. And a very particular flock, at that:

An evil system, known as colonialism, swept across Africa and Asia. But then the quiet invisible law began to operate…. The powerful colonial empire began to disintegrate like stacks of cards…. In our own nation another unjust and evil system, known as segregation, for nearly one hundred years inflicted the Negro with a sense of inferiority, deprived him or his personhood, and denied him of his birthright of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Segregation has been the Negroes’ burden and America’s shame.

God is able to conquer the evils of history. His control is never usurped. If at times we despair because of the relatively slow progress being made in ending racial discrimination and if we become disappointed because of the undue cautiousness of the federal government, let us gain new heart in the fact that God is able. In our sometimes difficult and often lonesome walk up freedom’s road, we do not walk alone. God walks with us.

So as I’m reading along, once again struggling with Dr. King’s easy dismissal of what he calls “man-centered religion” (“Man is not able to save himself or the world,” for instance), once again wishing that he could meet my husband (or, frankly, about two-thirds of the people I know and love, genuine or very-nearly atheists who are actively involved in matters of social justice and outreach to those in need), I finally have to realize: This man was talking to people who were, no doubt, genuinely terrified.

Many too terrified to join their brothers and sisters in the movement (many likely even angry that the movement was rocking society’s boat), many involved but terrified by the violence with which they were so often met, or absolutely discouraged by the slow progress that the movement was making, many looking back on their people’s long, nightmarish journey through the ugly woods of American history and coming away with the sure knowledge that hope was a fool’s errand.

To what extent can I — a white woman born two months after the Civil Rights Act was passed — possibly understand Dr. King’s audience here?

And the answer is that on a very real level, I can’t. The man was larger than life, larger than his position, larger than his community, he was a genius who offered all of humanity hope and guidance that we still desperately need — but he was also a pastor serving a very specific group of people, people who needed his service and his ministry. He would not have been fulfilling his mission had he not ministered to the people before him in the way that they needed him to.

Or, in other words, Dr. King cannot be all about me. Even if I want him to be.

When I gave myself this project, I consciously decided not to learn about the book, but rather to study Strength to Love itself, in isolation. Dr. King’s words in isolation — to hear them reverberate in my head, and to hear how I respond. We are surrounded by so much context on Dr. King — nothing he ever said or did is allowed to just be — that I wanted to enjoy this personal discovery on my own terms and in my own time.

Today, though, under the circumstances, I realized that I should look into the timing of “Our God is able,” and quickly found the King Papers Project at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute — and thus discovered that this sermon, as presented in Strength to Love, was based on a sermon Dr. King first gave in 1956, and the version we know it in was crafted sometime between July 1962 and March 1963 — a time frame in African-American history in which surely the members of this country’s black Christian community had great need of reassurance from their spiritual leaders.

As humanity-spanning, I remind myself, as his mission became, Dr. King’s ministry began as one focused on the very tangible struggles of a very discrete community, one of which he was a member. I claim him for my own, but perhaps on the very day that we celebrate his birth, it’s worth remembering that at a certain point, he is not mine to claim.

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  1. lise

     /  January 16, 2012

    Just posted this one on my Facebook page! Mmmmuah! xoxoxo your sister. L.

  2. dmf

     /  January 16, 2012

    I cringe every time I come across the idea of history curving towards Justice because it gives the sense of an inevitable force/Spirit of progress at work (a cousin perhaps of the Invisible Hand of the markets) and agree with John Dewey in his Common Faith book that it will only be by our efforts that such changes will come about if they do. There are no walls of separation, no God-given rights, without vigilance and organization. We must prioritize our lives to fit our political aspirations.

    • Here’s the part where I think it is “inevitable” (stay with me here).

      I believe it is part of our nature to seek to improve our lot. We at some point evolved to understand that this means something beyond walking upright and storing food for the winter, and includes the lives lived in community.

      If we don’t destroy ourselves first, I believe that the arc of the human universe will always bend toward justice, because it is our nature to do so. Our nature is multifaceted, and we pull in many directions at once — but I believe that we are, by a very small margin, more inclined toward our better angels than not. The narrowness of that margin is why it takes so long, and we need to work more at broadening the margin. But it’s my feeling that to the extent that this is our nature, the arc of the universe really does bend toward justice.

      But only because it’s in our nature to do the work that the bending requires.

      • dmf

         /  January 16, 2012

        see I think it’s generally contrary to our natures (of course some of us are outliers) which are shortsighted and self-centered and so takes discipline and trusted colleagues to get anything done, which is why it has been and always will be a minority of people who get involved, luckily as others have noticed this is often just enough to tip the scales.

  3. Nice post–good to remember that all things have a context, that to some extent even the great ones are to some extent unknowable. Especially the great ones.

    I wonder, Emily, if you might enjoy my recently launched parody site: and corresponding twitter @gingrichcain12. Check it out if you’re interested and let me know what you think.

    • Sure! I confess to so thoroughly loathing New Gingrich that I have a hard time even laughing at him, but I am certain I’m in a minority on the left. You go on with your bad self! I’ll signal boost, such as I can, on the Twitter machine.

  4. “He is not mine to claim.”

    I have been thinking that very thought a lot. The same words come to me, “What does it mean to me? What place do I have at the table he presents? What of him can I claim? Can I claim he is mine at all?”

    I hesitate to claim him because of the exceedingly obvious personal context. He is a symbol to the underclass, he is a source of great encouragement and hope for the lost and forgotten, while to me he is simply one more good person to add to my list of admired heroes, who doesn’t immediately impel me towards greater living because I’m already quite happy. I don’t get to claim him mostly because I simply don’t get him. I would not recognize him today, and would pass him by, because I’m busy, successful, and I have things to do.


    Because the people I do admire and respect talk about him, I make the effort to look at him more closely, listen to what he has said, and try to comprehend not just his words but the world he spoke to. I am a student of many teachers, and slowly I turn my attention to what others say is important.

    And after long reflection, it comes down to this, for me: he simply said, again and again, that I should live out the words I claim to live by. And that I also should insist that the world should live by their words as well.

    Funny how what he said really wasn’t that radical at all. He really didn’t invent anything new. He just somehow spoke it in a way and at a time where people caught the fire.

    Do I claim him as my own?

    Yes, because he spoke to me. He included me, the selfish and self-centered, in the world he saw, the fair land and bright future. I think he expected me – and trusted me – to change.

    • Like I said to BJ, I don’t cede my right to claim him – I’m just trying to acknowledge that there are places that I truly can’t go.

  5. BJonthegrid

     /  January 16, 2012

    I’m of course indebted to Dr. King. My actually life would be unimaginable without his contribution. So based on this post and his writings I guess I have to ask if this is all because of God or because of King. I prefer to think it was because of King’s Contributions, now where he found his inspiration is his own business.

    I just wanted to push back on the “He’s not mine to claim” line. I’m not gay but I watch what the LGBT community does and I know the freer they become the freer I become and the better my kids lives (regardless of their sexuality) will be. I watch the mostly white Occupy Wall Street folks and I root them on because if they are able to do something about income equality, hopefully it gets better for my income rank. This goes for the folks in Sudan, Burma and the Middle East. When people are able to overcome oppression and injustice it puts the bad guys (present & future) on notice and inspires the next leaders. MLK was inspired by Ghandi and he was of a different faith with it’s own questionable dogma.

    What would be real progress is someone of no faith who could inspire people with “wrong is wrong” without one person being delivered from evil while another burns in hell. I think most people are far from personal responsibility. Most folks still need to be shamed and/or scared into doing the right thing.

    • Just to be clear – I really did mean “at a certain point.” I claim him, I don’t on any level cede my right to claim him, but I want to also acknowledge that there are places that I cannot go. I guess I want to allow him to be all that he was, and not just the bits that speak to me.

      • BJonthegrid

         /  January 16, 2012

        I lost a whole 2nd paragraph in my post (How, I don’t know). I talked how as a woman, even a black one, I would have had some real issues with MLK in his day. His movement and time were not very female friendly. So at a certain point I feel I can claim him either but then I thought about the trajectory of human freedom. So maybe adding this make more sense.

    • corkingiron

       /  January 16, 2012

      Y’know, even though it is only electronically – I’m really glad I’ve gotten the opportunity to know you and learn from you.