I’ve been reading The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House lately (can you guess why?) and have been fascinated by the perspective of history. Specifically Martin Luther King Jr.
Admittedly, my understanding of current history (say, the last 60 years) is weak at best. I blame my education when the textbooks crammed anything after World War II into a miniature chapter at the end of the book that we never covered. Of course that was a long time ago and any further lack of education is my own fault. I know the basics of the 1960s and 1970s, but I’m usually lacking context and an understanding of how events relate.
Martin Luther King Jr. is a prime example. I never realized what a radical he was.
I remember learning about King as early as first or second grade. We’re pretty good at talking about his message of equality and civil rights, but sometimes it’s easy to overshadow just how controversial those ideas were.
I always pictured King as this well-respected, well-loved community leader, but that was hardly the case. He was a radical. The FBI tapped his phone and suspected him of Communist connections. As the civil rights movement went forward people who agreed with King’s aims disagreed with his methods of non-violent protest. They were scandalized that anyone would go so far as to disobey the law, even if the law was unjust. As the civil rights objectives were achieved, King moved on to poverty and the Vietnam war. He blasted the war, saying “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” He rejected Communism, but also said something was wrong with capitalism and argued for a greater distribution of wealth and perhaps democratic socialism.
I always thought the sermon King delivered the night before he was assassinated was prophetic:
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
But he had been referring to a bomb threat against his plane a few days earlier. The fact is there were constant threats on King’s life and he readily talked about being killed in the civil rights struggle.
It’s easy to think of King as this white-washed hero, free of controversy and whole-heartedly supported. But that wasn’t the case. I often think of those who resisted him as the hardened racists, but that wasn’t the case either (though there plenty of those).
History is always a lot more complicated than we think it is.