In his own time Martin Luther King Jr. was regarded by some as a rabble rouser and even a communist sympathizer, and by others as an Uncle Tom and a “house Negro.” In demanding an immediate end to segregation and Jim Crow, he was too radical for some. In eschewing violence and hatred of anyone—including even the defenders of racial injustice—he was too “tame” and forgiving for others.
Fifty years after his death, he is almost universally revered. Though he did not fit perfectly into any ideological camp during his lifetime, he is claimed today by people across the political spectrum. His words are often invoked to defend causes that he himself did not live to form an opinion about—from opposition to affirmative action to advocacy of same-sex marriage. Everybody, it seems, thinks King would be on their side.
We can and should do our best to think about the implications of his basic principles, but often reasonable people of goodwill disagree about precisely what those implications are. The two of us disagree on some of these issues, though we continue to listen to and engage each other. This has deepened our understanding of King’s principles—especially his focus on the equal dignity and sanctity inherent to every human life.
One of us invokes “the radical King” in criticizing empire, capitalism, and white supremacy. The other recalls King’s principles in defending the unborn, Down syndrome and other disabled people, the frail elderly, and every life.
We both believe King would demand that more be done to fight poverty. But no one can say for sure how he would design and apportion the roles of government, at the national or state levels, and civil-society institutions in the effort. Nor would he claim that whatever policies he happened to favor were infallibly correct. In engaging with each other as fellow citizens, neither should we. At the same time, reasonable difference must never be an excuse for complacency or inaction in the face of evils such as poverty and injustice.
Still, in judging and acting, we must avoid sinning against King’s legacy by facilely claiming him for whatever policies we favor. A more fitting attitude, one consistent with what was truly radical about King, is to imagine him as a critic: “If Martin Luther King would be on the other side of where I happen to be on this question—why?”
This self-critical stance honors King by recognizing the centrality of his Christian faith to his work and witness. Today we treat King as a saint, but he recognized himself as a sinner. He struggled to live uprightly but often failed and stood in need of forgiveness. King was taught by the tradition of African-American Christianity, which shaped him in every dimension of his being, that all human beings are fallen. But he was also taught that all are fashioned in the image and likeness of God and are therefore worthy of being loved and treated justly—justice being what love looks like in public.
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West and George disagree on a lot, but they also have a lot in common. Over the years they have modeled civil dialogue and friendship. Click here to see West and George discuss the liberal arts.