Today we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Most of us celebrate a convenient, domesticated Martin Luther King. As a nation we readily embrace the I-have-a-dream-King who envisioned a day when black and white children would hold hands in unity. We can rally around a King who was a great orator, a dreamer of racial harmony, a national leader that even Ronald Reagan could support in signing a bill for his birthday to become a national holiday, even though he opposed the kind of legislation for which King fought and died.
Vincent Harding, in his book Martin Luther King; The Inconvenient Hero, points us to the post-1963 King, who was more troublesome and dangerous. This King railed against the three great evils of militarism, materialism, and racism. This King opposed the Vietnam War. This King fought for the rights of the poor. This King critiqued the privileged minority in the world and the inequitable distribution of resources. This King challenged white power and privilege.
This is the inconvenient hero that we so readily praise on his birthday (80th today), but find difficult to follow in today's social and political contexts. Like the radical Jesus who challenged the oppressive systems of his day, we have domesticated both Jesus and King into more palatable figures who remain distant from the enormous gap between the rich and poor, the gutting of social welfare and domestic programs, continuing systemic racism, unchecked greed and consumerism, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, billions of dollars spent on the military-industrial complex, and the establishment of thousands of U.S. military bases around the world to protect U.S. interests. These are the realities that go unchallenged by an America who celebrates King's birthday today. This is the inconvenient hero who we can sigh over, name streets after, and name a national holiday after now that he is gone. Everyone can sing the praises of a dead prophet!
In 1969, following King's assassination, poet Carl Wendell Himes, Jr. penned these most appropriate words that we should keep in mind on this day of the inconvenient hero:
Now that he safely dead
Let us praise him
build monuments to his glory
sing hosannas to his name.
Dead men make
such convenient heroes: They
to challenge the images
we fashion from their lives
it is easier to build monuments
than to make a better world.
So, now that he is safely dead
we with eased consciences
will teach our children
that he was a great man...knowing
that the cause for which he lived
is still a cause
and the dream for which he died
is still a dream,
a dead man's dream.