Why I Won’t Quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This might not be the methodology taught in Blogging 101, but I’m going to lead with the punchline:

I won’t quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because I haven’t earned it.

 

I wish I could remember exactly when the discomfort set in. Was it MLK Day this year? Last year? Maybe after the Charleston shooting? I cannot recall. Yet somewhere along the way, I began to feel a little “funny” about posting one of those powerful quotes from the great preacher and civil rights leader. There were plenty of appropriate quotes to choose from; that wasn’t the problem. So why did it feel disingenuous? 

I realized I had the same icky feeling I get when I see a feel-good Bible verse on a bumper sticker or T-shirt, or the same feeling when hearing a verse used in hopes to pacify for the moment. There’s nothing wrong with turning to Scripture in times of trouble, I recommend it. But often such usage neglects to acknowledge the scope of the situation. In addition, memorable verses like Jeremiah 29:11 and Philippians 4:13 address entirely different situations than what they are popularly used for. 

I learned that context is key. 

 

Consider the Context of the Quote

With this in mind, I began to read the full texts of the letters and sermons often quoted by the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. What a double-edged sword! On the one hand, I only found myself wanting to quote him more, stumbling across quotable line after quotable line. On the other hand, the excerpts that seemed so encouraging were actually biting critiques of society at large. Valid, important critiques. 

For instance, you’ve probably seen some form of the following image of a quote taken from Letters from a Birmingham Jail, which I would rather you read than the rest of this blog.

 

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 (Here’s the part where I ignore my title and quote MLK.)

 

This quote is taken from a response to people accusing Dr. King of coming to Birmingham from Atlanta as an “outside agitator.” So he responds with an explanation of the interconnectedness of systems. If I like the above graphic and share it, but have a problem with Black Lives Matters leadership organizing in cities across the nation because they are “stirring up trouble,” I should probably think again about what was originally intended to be communicated. 

Later in the letter King writes:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

If I am unsure if I agree with the above words (which I do) then I certainly should have the respect not to take any of King’s words from this complex letter. A complexity which comes as much from his own context as the context of his words in the letter itself.

 

Consider the Context of The Writer

Malcolm X is also quotable. He has plenty of noteworthy soundbytes. Yet how often do you see a Malcolm X graphic floating around? Much of his work is relevant today and is not violence-driven. He was a gifted writer as well. We make a subconscious or conscious decision to avoid X because we weigh the context. People avoid his work because of his history.

I would challenge us to make the same assertion that history should inform our practice when it comes to King. We cannot quote King while bemoaning Black Lives Matter marching in the street, King did that too. The same goes for challenging the powers that be, the structures that perpetuate inequality, the use of pulpit and involvement of clergy. We must not rewrite King’s history to make it palatable to our privileged sensibilities. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote from jail. JAIL. Other times he wrote when his life was threatened, his family threatened. He wrote while facing criticism from fellow ministers and fellow activists. He risked something with every speech, every letter. I don’t know what that’s like. Much like Paul, when he states in Philippians 1 “for me to live as Christ, to die is gain” he is making a proclamation when death is a reality. Death isn’t a metaphor for losing friends or a job or having a bad day. Death is ever possible. Always present. Both men meet their deaths at the hands of their oppressors.

In case you haven’t already figured it out, I actually find much of King’s work, particularly Letters From A Birmingham Jail strikingly relevant to today’s situation. I think he was prophetic. I need to pause and consider my own level of commitment to justice before I take actions that declare I stand with King.  

 I won’t quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because I haven’t earned it.

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