In her novel, The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood wrote that, while farewells can be difficult, reunions can be even worse. “Time and distance blur the edges; then suddenly the beloved arrives, and it’s noon with its merciless light, and every spot and pore and wrinkle and bristle stands clear.” And I fear that something like that has happened with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That is, I fear that after forty years of celebrating his birthday as a national holiday; a massive stone memorial overlooking the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC; countless streets and schools and parks named for him—I fear that all of that has a way of blurring the edges of the person he really was and the work that was his real focus.
Of course, as is true of any real hero, he was a real human being with spots and pores and wrinkles and bristles. Though quoted now by almost everybody with admiration, in his lifetime, such universal adulation eluded him. Some found him to be a threat. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI spied on him mercilessly. Others thought that he was too timid. Nonviolence was too burdensome, they thought, too slow to change anything.
I think that it is important to see Dr. King, as much as possible, in noon time light. And I am indebted to a colleague in ministry, Dr. Betty Livingston Adams, a scholar studying nineteenth and twentieth century American and African American religious and social history, for sharing recently some of Dr. King’s words—words not usually turned into Facebook memes or chiseled into memorial stone, but words which remind us of the real focus of Dr. King’s work on the intersecting realities of poverty and race. And one quote in particular stands out to me. It comes from a series of lectures that Dr. King delivered back in 1967, later published as a book entitled, The Trumpet of Conscience:
“The dispossessed of this nation—the poor, both white and Negro—live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty.”
His words, with edges unblurred, seem to me to be as relevant today as they ever were. And remembering Dr. King in noontime light makes clear that the work to which he gave his life, while advanced, is not completed, but calls for the ongoing commitment of all who would honor him.
–Rev. Donald J. Steele