Martin Luther King: Greatest Faith Leader of the Century

Circleville Herald, June 26, 2010

“Dad! We don’t take vacations, we take field trips!" daughter Lauren complained while slogging it up Bunker Hill. She had already seen Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the original Philadelphia Arch Street Quaker Meeting House, Valley Forge, the Old North Church, Boston Commons this 2005 vacation. At the Salem Witch trials, where 19 citizens were hanged or pressed to death by their neighbors Lauren and Travis learned that the same sort of fearful mass hysteria led to the destruction of many innocent person’s careers during Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s 1950’s communist witch hunts. In 2003 a similar mass hysteria led to our tragic invasion of Iraq. I have told my children to always question what they hear and read, especially when it is conventional wisdom. It is by such questioning that history and mankind progresses towards justice

This past week Lauren and Travis, after performing with the Logan Elm Band at Walt Disney World visited with our family at Atlanta, Georgia the gravesite and visitor center for the greatest faith leader of the 20th Century: the Rev. Martin Luther King.

Seeing a “Whites Only” sign on display at the Martin Luther King Center, I re-experienced the wrongful unease I felt visiting my grandmother in Murfreesboro, Tennessee during the late 1950’s. I saw such a sign on the municipal swimming pool, while asking my mother why we couldn’t swim there when it was so August hot. Mother answered “We aren’t going there, maybe we could swim in the colored pool if they would let us.” I remember seeing on television police dogs tearing at a black man while fire hoses blasted others. We held in Quaker silence the families of Addie Mae Collins age 14, Denise McNair,11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14, killed by a bomb at the 16th Street Church in Birmingham Alabama. The sermon at 16th street that day was “The Love that Forgives.” Meanwhile, throughout the South segregation was preached from the pulpit as God’s will, while Dr. King was attacked as an atheist and communist.

 I remember the shooting deaths of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, three civil rights workers killed by the KKK, working directly with the Neshoba County, Mississippi, Sheriff’s Office in June 1964 as they worked to register black voters. The 1988 film “Mississippi Burning” about these murders just outside the ironically named town of Philadelphia dramatically recreates, especially in the musical score, the “wrongful unease” I felt as a child in Murfreesboro, the same wrongfulness Martin Luther King brought so passionately before our   national consciousness.

Carved in stone prominently before the entrance to the Martin Luther King Center are his words of faith:

“A religion true to its nature must also be concerned about man’s social conditions. Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry as dust religion.”

We must remember that Dr. King also spoke out against the unjust Vietnam War and that he was shot to death in Memphis supporting sanitation workers on strike against sharecropper wages so low they could not feed their children.

Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement are both denigrated by the Texas School Board in their right wing revisionist standards for American History texts. According to the conservative Christians dominating the Texas School Board Reverend Jerry Falwell is a more important faith leader while the civil rights movement damaged America by raising “unrealistic expectations of equality”. The slave trade never existed, it is renamed the “Atlantic triangular trade.” As Texas buys so many school texts, the ten Republicans on the Texas School Board may well influence the history our children learn as publishers find it costly to print multiple versions of common texts. In future columns we shall explore the Texas School Board’s attacks on Thomas Jefferson, on the separation of Church and state, on the labor movement and economic justice and women’s rights. Dr. Martin Luther King’s faith and dream of  justice and dignity and equal opportunity for each and every one of us is one of the most profound, compassionate and prophetic visions of the last century. We should work to learn and follow his words, write them on our hearts, not out of our history.


 - - - Brad Cotton