In reading various articles about Martin Luther King yesterday I noted that people across the political and theological spectrum (well not the Klu Klux Klan or the white supremacists) claim him as their own. I suggest that the only group that can really claim him as its own is African Americans.
I suggest that there are at least two reasons that almost everyone wants to claim that Martin Luther King is like them. The first reason is rather cynical. He is famous and now well loved by most in America. To say that one is on his side is to try and burnish one’s own image. There are many who did not support him and his ideas when he was alive who seek to claim him today. I think this is either careful forgetting or out and out lying.
The other reason is more complex. Martin Luther King was a complex character in American history. He opposed the war in Vietnam which caused the loss of support for him in some political circles and prompted others to say he had gone off message. He hadn’t. The war in Vietnam was unjust. King opposed injustice. And though I do not know if he made this connection in any speech but African Americans were disproportionately represented among the troops sent to Vietnam.
His language and speeches were Biblical. When among groups that were mostly or solely African American he spoke out of that tradition including the tonal qualities of many African American preachers. One can hear the tonal qualities in his "I have a dream" speech and his immersion in Scripture in his final speech when he talks about seeing the Promised Land from the mountain top.
His insistence that poverty was a core issue of racial and social equality earned him enemies among capitalists. People called him a communist. The FBI developed files on him that suggested that he was followed by agents.
His commitment to nonviolence made enemies among some African American groups like the Nation of Islam (Malcolm X being one of his chief critics).
I suggest that it is time for white folks to stop claiming that Martin Luther King was like them. Instead we should look to him for inspiration knowing that he was human but also a great leader from whom we can learn how Christians can face real evil and defeat it through a commitment to the true meaning the Gospel.
Would that we could see him as an example to be emulated and pray that God would send us such leaders again.