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The Other Side of the Tracks blog by Word Press

King Is Not Complicated

The Other Side of the Tracks: A Socially Speaking commentary               By Perry Redd

The man himself was controversial, notes LaSalle University sociology professor Charles Gallagher in a CNN article. King— bound up with issues of racial and economic inequality that spotlight America’s worst sins—is a “Rorschach test,” Gallagher says, that people see in King what they want to see. No one agrees more with that analysis more than me.

I read more than a few commentaries this weekend on King and his philosophy, and what I know is that everybody is more complicated once they’re dead! One cannot answer the questions people want answered, which makes for more complication. People complicate King. I read one commentary that asked would King have supported gay rights…since he was a Christian. Christians ought to be able to answer that for themselves: Was he for you or against you when he was living? Well then; there you are.

I’m sure some of the organizers of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C. would not have expected the scrutiny of every little detail, including criticism that has continued right up to the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day since the memorial opened last fall. The memorial features a commanding 30-foot statue of King, arms folded across his chest, emerging from the “Stone of Hope.”

Late Friday, the Department of Interior, which has jurisdiction over the memorial, announced a change in a quotation inscribed in one of the walls at the site. This action followed months of complaints about the language of the quotation, which had been paraphrased from a passage in a King sermon. The quote is prominent among a total of 14 of King’s most notable lines inscribed on that wall.

The quote in question sparked controversy last summer, when the worldly acclaimed poet and author Maya Angelou said its abbreviated, paraphrased version made the civil rights leader appear arrogant. The line reads: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

In fact, King’s original words, from a 1968 sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, were: “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.” Angelou said that leaving out the “if” changes the meaning. The “if” definitely places King’s intent in a different context. Why would someone be compelled to change his words? That just complicated it for the rest of us.

I went down to the memorial on more than a few occasions. I took my mother, I took pictures and I took deep breaths. It’s all good. The only memorial dedicated to peace on the whole National Mall, yet we call ourselves a “peaceful nation.” The complication ain’t with King, it’s with America. The complication comes in where you get your ideals. Does your worldview come from God or from white America? That will be the telltale of how complicated Dr. King is to you.

The misquote at the memorial wasn’t Dr. King’s doing; it was that of others. Isn’t that usually how complications work in our lives? Other people complicate what we are trying to say or intending to accomplish, or what we want for the world. If we could place ourselves in a state of understanding that, then we could get to a place of forgiving others more readily. Trying to interpret human beings is among the most difficult of tasks. But I’m not letting you get off the hook that easy.

Your view of Dr. King—his work, his vision—does not rest with you alone; it is not settled in your time. His life, work and vision are a “community” interpretation settled in the resolution of humankind. America is the laboratory of his work. This country is where his vision is played out…. You see, most Americans agree that Dr. King’s actions were the right thing to do, at the right time, and for the right reasons.

To the contrary, King’s life, vision and words were extremely non-complicated, so don’t place that burden on him. He was no enigma. The enigma lied in the government that opposed him, in the Blacks that shied away from him; the enigma lied in the Christians who stood in staunch opposition to his objectives: provisions for the poor, justice for Americans, and equality for all. So, the question today is ‘did we get it right—are we carrying out Dr. King’s work, his vision.’ If you don’t get that, then you are the one complicated.


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