Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Inconvenient Hero

Today (Jan. 15) is his birthday, although the national holiday celebrating it will not be until next Monday (Jan. 21). I’m writing, of course, about Martin Luther King, Jr., about whom we will be hearing much this year. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered 50 years ago, in August 1963. And then it was 45 years ago, in April 1968, that he was assassinated.
“I Have a Dream” is one of the best, most powerful speeches of all time. I get chills down my spine every time I listen to it—the last time being only last month. And it is the King of 1963 that is most remembered in the celebrations of his birthday.
But I have just read an essay that focuses on King’s talks and activities during the last five years of his life, the years after his famous 1963 speech in Washington, D.C. That essay is titled “The Inconvenient Hero,” which is also the subtitle of Martin Luther King (1996), the book in which it appears. Both the essay and the book were written by Vincent Harding.
King at Riverside Church, 4/4/67
Harding, born in 1931 in Harlem, taught at Iliff School of Theology (in Denver, CO) from 1981 to 2004. Early in his career, though, he was a friend of and co-worker with King. Harding, a Mennonite, even occasionally drafted speeches for King, including his noteworthy anti-Vietnam speech, “A Time to Break Silence,” which he (King) delivered at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was assassinated.
Not long after his “I Have a Dream” oration, there was an escalation of racial violence in the nation, and King himself talked about his dream turning into a nightmare. “Four beautiful, unoffending, innocent Negro girls were murdered” (King’s words) when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed in September 1963, an act of racially motivated terrorism.
Then in the summer of 1964, twenty African-American churches were firebombed in Mississippi and in June of that year three civil rights workers were murdered in that same state. (The latter is the subject of the 1988 movie “Mississippi Burning.”) And then the terrible Watts Riots in Los Angeles took place in August 1965.
King also wrote (in 1967), “I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched the war in Vietnam escalating.” So in his last years, he began speaking out more and more in opposition to the war, seeing it as an extension of the same type of injustice and violence being done to African-Americans in the U.S.
King’s speech at Riverside Church was a powerful one, and it is not hard to see why it is not quoted more often—or why the one who gave that speech is referred to as “the inconvenient hero.” He referred to the U.S. as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.
King understood that violence as being linked partly to our nation’s refusal “to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.” And so he spoke out strongly against the “giant triplets” of racism, materialism, and militarism.
Being the Baptist preacher that he was, near the end of that 4/67 speech, King quotes 1 John 4 and calls for “an all-embracing and unconditional love” for all people.
Inconvenient or not, here is a hero still worth our serious consideration.


  1. The inscriptions carved into the stone of the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC have been in the news recently because of criticism of the paraphrased "drum major" quote (which is now being removed). When I read the quote in your post about the U.S. as “the greatest purveyor of violence" I immediately wondered if that quotation is on the memorial. I was pretty sure it wasn't, but I checked the Wikipedia article about the memorial to make sure and as expected, it wasn't. The closest quotation to that sentiment is the following:
    "I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as a moral example of the world." (25 February 1967, Los Angeles, CA)

    1. Clif, I appreciate you posting the above comments. I was not aware that the words at the end of your comments were on the monument in D.C.--which I should have gone to see last Fall when I was there.

  2. I was already 19 in 1967 when King gave the Vietnam speech to which you refer. I remember some of the whites around me, who had been sympathetic to his civil rights work, being annoyed that he was then stepping out to criticize the war. I'm embarrassed to say that it all startled me in ways that surprised me, and very rapidly I "turned" from a relatively uninformed knee-jerk American patriots and Christian fundamentalist to an engaged critical thinker. You could say that King, above all others, woke me from my political dogmatic slumbers!
    Indeed, I would echo Clif's sentiments by adding that MLK modeled for the world the truest patriotism of all--engaged activity with critical thought and passionate care for justice and human wellbeing.

    1. Anton, thanks for posting your comments and sharing your personal journey. I was influenced by King, but not as significantly as you, it seems.

      Even before going to Japan in 1966, I remember hearing of Kings' opposition to the war in Vietnam. I wasn't particularly a supporter of that war then (but I wasn't against it as much as I was a few years later), but I remember thinking that it would be better for King to keep working for racial equality in this country rather than become involved in opposition to the war.

      His 4/4/67 speech made it clear, though, how racism and militarism were/are linked.

  3. The evening news tonight tied this blog with the last one, by noting that some are calling the gun control proposals the most strict since 1968, after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy. I was a 17-year-old high school student that spring, and I remember crying as I meditated on his death. The news was full of riots and burning cities, and I had some dark thoughts about what it meant to be an American. i was living in suburban Washington, DC at the time, and with the parents of many of my friends working for the government, we were quite attuned to what was happening, even as we were overwhelmed when we tried to understand it. Our American fetish with guns, our obsession with violence--we are so much more like the Romans than like the Messiah, it is hard to believe that anything has changed in two thousand years.

    Then I think about another blog a while back, where we discussed King's use of the phrase "the arc of history bends towards justice," and the history of that quote in different contexts. And he walked the walk. Most of the horrific deaths that have scarred our American history have been thunderbolts of surprise, yet, in an extraordinary way, his death was not. The night before he was murdered, he gave a famous talk where he mentioned "longevity has its place" and, more famously, "I have been to the mountaintop, and I have seen the promised land. I may not get there with you . . ." I think King knew exactly what Jesus was talking about when He said, "Pick up your cross and follow me."

    Back in the 60s we used to ask, Why do the good die young? Well, now that I am getting old, the question has a new edge. I am still here! Well, the good still die young. The news tonight also pointed out that more US soldiers committed suicide last year than were killed in combat, even though we are still fighting a war in Afghanistan. The internet is in an uproar because it appears the US Justice Department drove internet genius and pioneer Aaron Swartz into committing suicide. He was 26, and literally for half his life had been a force on the internet, beginning at age 13. Of course, in Pakistan being a force at that age can get you shot, even if all you want is for girls to go to school. Perhaps that is the rapture, and we really are "Left Behind."

    For most of us, carrying the cross is a long and winding road, facing the challenges of living the gospel, rather than dying for it. We learn that true faith and true patriotism are not in the jingoism so often spouted around us, but in the great depths of mystery that undergird our symbols of both God and country. And we are blessed that the Reverent Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. is in our cloud of witnesses. And I, for one, am glad that a monument to his memory is now part of the Washington Mall, there it educate and inspire new generations. Some may cling to their Bibles. Some may cling to their guns. I prefer to cling to faith, hope and love.

  4. Canadian Thinking Friend Glen Davis sent the following comments by e-mail, which I post here with his permission:

    "Thank you for sharing these hopeful and encouraging and challenging words from MLK. Here in Canada we are facing a Conservative government whose only concern is the bottom line. Never mind the environment; never mind justice and human rights; never mind the just claims of our First Nations. Just get that dirty oil out of the depths of the earth; build pipelines thousands of miles long; get the oil on huge tankers and sell it to China, and don't worry about our grand-children's future.

    "Sometimes it is hard to hold on to the word that truth (and justice) is the scaffold that will sway the future when such anti-human values carry the sword in our country. But we shall hang on to King's words of hope that justice shall prevail."

  5. Leroy: I got in a conversation yesterday on NPR with two Pulitzer prize winners regarding King. I'm about the 47th minute of this transcript, but best if you listen online