By Pastor Matthew V. Johnson Sr., PhD, Mount Moriah Baptist Church Pratt City, Birmingham, Alabama
Vice Chair Social Justice Commission, Progressive National Baptist Convention
Fifty-one years ago, a gunshot in Memphis Tennessee put out one of the brightest lights of the anti/post-colonial era. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fell victim to the violence against which he had crusaded most, if not all his adult life. It was a tragic end for such a brilliant witness to the love of God and its transformative potential in the lives of men and nations. Yet, with the passing of time we’ve come to realize that more than a man, indeed a multi-dimensional ideal, fell victim to the assassin’s hand.
Since the death of Dr. King we’ve watched as a curious array of would be successors reached for the brass ring of his mythic popularity and oratorical prowess. We have watched as a series of pretenders have marched through our streets as little more than mascots of a neo-liberal political agenda largely leaving the foundation of an economic system that presupposes the immiseration of the masses for the enrichment of a few intact.
We watched as a positive, proactive, disciplined struggle against the foundations of injustice was reduced to little more than the politics of outrage; conveniently canned in special interest rhetoric that effectively undercuts our more universal claims.
We watched as hope ceased to be an actionable ethic and the twin sister of a moral courage willing to risk life and limb and became instead a sentimentally cheap rhetorical device used to evade the weightier matters of our contemporary predicament.
We’ve watched as White people on the right and the left (with a complicit cadre of well-meaning or perhaps just baldly ambitious Blacks) sought to restore white supremacy by retaking the moral high ground through a subtle rhetoric that flattens out the moral universe with the crude bludgeon of an a-historical, anti-discrimination ethic of equality; effectively relativizing the unique place of race in America’s oppressive machinations.
Since Dr. King’s assassination they’ve savaged his legacy like carrion dogs tearing away fleshy fragments to satisfy their lust for moral legitimation, while few if any have truly embraced his ethic of struggle-in-love through sustained nonviolent direct action. In the end, what may have been worse than the assassination of the man was the subsequent murder of the ideal.