Martin Luther King, Jr. today

Published 10:18 am Tuesday, January 16, 2024

BY TOM H. HASTINGS

Those who like violence, those who prefer cathartic rage, love to lift out King’s words about riots: “riots are the voice of the unheard.” But a more careful and correct understanding of what he said shows that he was merely explaining riots, not condoning them.

I know when I hear a cancer researcher describing the abilities of cancer cells to outcompete healthy cells in some situations I do not hear that explanation as the researcher cheering on cancer, but instead hear her explaining it–being able to understand it is how researchers learn to defeat some forms of cancer.

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This is what Dr. King was helping white America to understand. In that speech he said, ” I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt.”

Boom. If we would honestly study MLK, his writings, his speeches, and learn from his actual words and actions, we would start to really grasp how we can heal our racial divide, stop our culture wars, and be the best version of America that we can be.

There are two references to MLK that have found their way into much of the American educational system (probably soon to be stricken from public schools at all levels in Florida and if Trump gets back in, possibly across the country). 

First, of course, is his hallmark I Have a Dream speech that he made to a quarter million people in Washington and eventually to billions of us worldwide. His challenges that day were cogent and powerful.

Second, from a few months before that August 1963 speech, was his iconic Letter from Birmingham Jail. That is often excerpted and included in readers that even middle school students read in many places. I know this because I teach Peace Studies every year and the Oxford University Press reader that I use also excerpts a section of the letter. Students frequently remark that they recall reading that in high school or middle school. 

If you do nothing else to observe the holiday marking MLK’s birth, perhaps read the entire text of his Letter from Birmingham Jail. It is a remarkable work of grace, intelligence, and exemplary strategy. It is as canonical as any document in American history, in my view.

What I might suggest is to go beyond these two fairly ubiquitous bits of what King left us. Perhaps check out his Beyond Vietnam sermon, delivered (4 April 1967) one year to the day before his assassination (4 April 1968). 

That sermon was so powerful to me that when I first visited New York I had to go to simply stand in Riverside Church, where he delivered that brave and brilliant sermon, letting the world know that he strongly disapproved of the US war on Vietnam. 

Some have said, with a certain logic, that his words sealed his fate that day and that his murder exactly one year later was the direct result of that antiwar speech and that the choice of April 4 was the exclamation point on that vile act.

May peace prevail, and may we create it by creating the justice Dr. King asked of us.

(Dr. Tom H. Hastings is Coördinator of Conflict Resolution BA/BS degree programs and certificates at Portland State University.)