Column: Keeping King’s hopes alive
In 1968, I was a 20-year-old junior at a conservative Bible college in Michigan. I had the best of many worlds – a wonderful upbringing in a Christian home, a loving local Baptist church and an education in Bible studies and theology from my college. My happy, nurturing world turned upside down on Thursday, April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The news hit me hard. I remember the shock and disbelief. How could Martin be dead? Who would kill the beautiful brother who spoke with such power, eloquence and grace? He was the role model for young, black impressionable ministry students like me.
The president of our college addressed King’s assassination at our next chapel, basically portraying his killing as deserved. He called King a biblically liberal troublemaker for preaching a social gospel, and so much as said he asked for it! Laws should be obeyed, he said, even if they were unjust. What? Did the prophets of the Bible ask for it? Did King ask for it?
I was outraged then, and 50 years later that Bible college president’s slap at MLK still has a painful ring of truth — one that, sadly, is repeating and increasing in intensity. I can see myself as a college student in the many social uprisings and demands for rights and justice we see today.
I knew nothing about conservative, liberal, right, left. I simply acted out of a basic understanding of what is just - as King did, as the prophets did. When I was ignored, I began circulating a petition among the student body and alumni articulating my protest of the president’s comments. The petition was widely circulated, and was signed by blacks and whites alike, pressuring the president to let the topic be discussed publicly.
I was granted the opportunity to address my concerns at a morning chapel service. There, I shared my disappointment and shock at the president’s view of someone I dearly loved and held in high esteem. I also, in the King tradition, made an appeal for the school family to respect one another and ensure an environment of love and mutual respect.
My present role as president of the Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit is deeply informed by these experiences and push me to maintain social justice as the cornerstone of our mission and education. It’s why we are proud to be a local organizer of the revival of King’s Poor People’s Campaign, 40 days of activism on behalf of social justice across the country. It gives me hope that the King’s dream, derailed by his assassination, can get back on track.
Fifty years since, in an era of division in our country, in some ways, things are worse than before. As a young African-American male, I read the stories of the lynching, castrations, disembowelment and beheadings of black men in the South. I read about black soldiers who returned home after WWII, only to be lynched by cowardly bands of misguided fellow Americans. I can still feel some of that now: When unarmed black men and boys are shot and killed in the streets of America by police, I feel it.
When the massive imprisonment of black men seems more about profitability than justice, I feel it. When events like the protests in Charlottesville reincarnate racial and ethnic bigotry from the past and embolden a new generation of young whites to embrace neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic beliefs — and their rebranded racial hatred — I feel it.
I believe King would have been in Charlottesville talking peace and love for all of humanity. He would have exhorted all of us to take a deep breath and think about the world we were shaping for future generations. He would have chastened President Trump for giving bigotry a platform of legitimacy, and he would have challenged us to fight the good fight of faith by confronting such evil in church and society - and at Bible college.
He would have been willing to give his life so that all Americans could share and enjoy the blessings of a nation where justice and righteousness rules. He would say think about people first as human beings who all want the same thing.
The Rev. Dr. William Barber and the reincarnation of MLK’s Poor People’s Campaign gives me renewed hope. Killing the man does not necessarily kill his dream. It’s up to all people of good will to keep it alive.
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth E. Harris is president and academic dean of Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit.