Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 18, 2010

I make it a habit to remind people of Marting Luther King, Jr.’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail whenever I can. It is a masterpiece on the moral obligations of government, based on the natural law.  Today I would like to also call attention to the memories of the late Richard John Neuhaus regarding the civil rights leader.  To be sure, that article includes sordid details about King’s misdeeds, but it also includes:

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Christian. Despite all. As we are all, in the final analysis, Christians despite all. Many of his biographers, and the public school texts, tend to downplay that. Much is made of his having been enlightened by reading Gandhi, and he is frequently depicted as a forerunner of New Ageish spirituality. But King was emphatic in asserting, “This business of passive resistance and nonviolence is the gospel of Jesus. I went to Gandhi through Jesus.”

. . . .

[I]t was in those latter years, especially the last two years, that I came to know him personally. Not on a day by day basis, to be sure, but enough to form a firm judgment of the man. From the first day I met him, I was impressed not by any morbid preoccupation with failure and mortality but by what appeared to be his inner peace, an almost triumphant tranquillity. Surrounded as world-class celebrities are by groupies and sycophants, he seemed not to be taken in by it all. I most clearly remember thinking, “Here is a man who has his ego under control. He knows who he is, and who he is not.” I admired, and I envied, that. And that, despite all, is the way I remember him to this day.

Marshall Frady and others are right: If everything was known then that is known now, Dr. King would early have been brought to public ruin, and there would almost certainly be no national holiday in his honor. But God writes straight with crooked lines, and he used his most unworthy servant Martin to create in our public life a luminous moment of moral truth about what Gunnar Myrdal rightly called “the America dilemma,” racial justice. It seems a long time ago now, but there is no decline in the frequency of my thanking God for his witness and for having been touched, however briefly, by his friendship, praying that he may rest in peace, and that his cause may yet be vindicated.


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