The Tenacity of Martin Luther King
Editor’s Note: Today’s writer takes notes from Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who not only lived the pain of waiting for a vision to be born, but who, once he shared his dream with the world, had to double down and live the pain of waiting for it to become reality. It is one step to talk about racial equality, or political healing; it is an entirely second step to change the way we are living, to order our lives and speech by a belief it matters.
The truth is, it’s going to take more than a few feel-good moments of “reaching out” to the other side politically to transform the way we engage in American politics. As I write this, the image of Congressional leaders awkwardly holding hands, swaying back and forth singing together in a recent display of “unity” keeps replaying in my mind. Such observances may be good, but actually valuing the pursuit of truth—including working with the other side—will require a change in the way we set priorities and deadlines, or craft talking points and narratives. It will be worth it to take this journey, though, and, in order to reach this destination, it will be worth resetting our affections every week on our great hope: LIBERATUS—we are set free.
-Caleb Paxton, LIBERATUS Founder
THE TENACITY OF MARTIN LUTHER KING
Every January, we celebrate one of America’s greatest visionaries. Though we honor him in the dead of winter, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shared his dream with the nation on a sweltering August afternoon in 1963. From enduring imprisonment and lynching to suffering fire-hosing and murder, African-Americans of all ages were paying the price for their courage.
What can we learn from the tenacity of Martin Luther King? In the midst of those dark days, when nothing in the world seemed to match the vision in his heart, how did he inspire millions of Americans to persevere in their struggle to attain equality?
This question quickens my heart today, fifty-three years later. Whatever bonds tie us together as Americans are being ripped apart. Instead of building water fountains “for whites only,” politicians and activists construct narratives “for Conservatives only,” “for Progressives only.” We define ourselves and our political opponents in such a way that we have nothing in common with them – except our common contempt and mirrored moral outrage.
While I’m not naïve enough to believe that our politics have not always been divisive, I’m also not cynical enough to deny that things are getting worse. I see proof of this daily on Capitol Hill – on both sides of the “establishment” and “anti-establishment” divide, in both parties. I sincerely credit many with good intentions, but our elevation of ideology over neighbor is hardly healing – and hardly working. The perpetual anger in Washington is proof positive of this.
We Need Political Reconciliation
Even so, there is hope in the words of Dr. King. I believe we can learn from his dream and press forward, guided by a vision of political reconciliation. What African-Americans suffered during the Civil Rights era is far worse than our challenges today, but they endured. This passage from Dr. King’s speech illustrates a key reason why:
Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred… many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.
We cannot walk alone.
Just one month after Dr. King’s timeless “I have a dream” speech, Ku Klux Klan members bombed an African-American church in Birmingham, killing four young girls. And yet, he refused to demagogue in broad brush strokes. Rather, he appealed to two truths in every human being: our common value, and our shared sin. Three times in his remarks, Dr. King referenced “all of God’s children.” His vision was not a reduced crusade for racial superiority, but a restorative journey toward universal equality. But he simultaneously acknowledged corporate iniquity, warning his persecuted brothers and sisters against the temptation of bitter contempt.
These two elements – mankind’s inestimable value and fallen nature – created the context for Dr. King’s humble internal critique. In the face of the Klan, he was willing to look within and ask, “Am I guilty of the very wrongs which I am suffering?” Not only that – he called on his brothers and sisters to do likewise.
As a political ideologue, I wish I could say I was as meek. Yet I more often inflate the righteousness of my cause and downplay the destructiveness of my political tactics. When I sense dissonance between my political vision and my political reality, I usually play the Washington game and craft a political narrative that lays blame for this discrepancy at the feet of “the other side.” Rarely do I pause to question, “Am I part of the very problem I supposedly want to fix?”
RECONCILIATION STARTS WITH VALUES
This is why joining the Liberatus community has so richly blessed me. Three of our Core Values speak to the example Dr. King set in our city half a century ago:
“Pursuing Truth and Beauty means we will experience human brokenness more deeply, first in ourselves and also in our culture.”
We typically notice human brokenness in our culture. Are we willing to face it in ourselves?
“Because we see human brokenness in our own lives, we will offer not condemnation but freedom and abundant life while casting vision for bold change.”
Decrying our broken culture inevitably leads to attacks. Are we brave enough to move past this and offer a vision of something better?
“All people are in need of healing; we will pursue healing personally so we can empower others to do the same.”
It’s always safe and easy to point out our opponents’ need for reform and repentance. When will we admit that our hidden hearts are just as broken and desperate for healing grace?
Dr. King was a brave man – not only for his courage in the face of violent oppression, but for the “soul force” he modeled by looking inward before looking outward. May this generation of political leaders truly pursue healing together as he did.
WEEKLY ACTION ITEM:
Take time this week to reflect on the ways you or your organization or office depict the “other side.” What motivations or intentions do you attribute to them? Once you have identified this, look inward and reflect on whether you are guilty of the same behavior. Be as honest with yourself as you can. This exercise can be even more healing if you find another politically like-minded friend or colleague who is willing to participate with you. Often, making our vision a reality starts with recognizing that we are the problem.
The writer is a current Legislative Correspondent in the U.S. Congress.
Cover Photo Credit: Heather Gibbons