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Searching for Dr. King in a War of Words

In the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr. used words to reclaim the power of love; in 2018, we use grace to reclaim the power of words.

(Warning: This story repeats graphic language allegedly used by the President of the United States.)

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great American who deserved his own holiday. In the 1960s, his words took the Christian message of love and made it palatable and relatable to the 20th-century world in a manner so powerful that it has remained unrivaled by any pastor since. His words also led a pop-cultural love revolution which has influenced the arts, academia and styles of religious teachings, not to mention modern philosophy. Dr. King’s words begat real actions that supported the Christian concept of love, yet he was a sinner just like the rest of us. This week, we might find ourselves thinking, If only the President of the United States understood the power of words the way Dr. King did.

If only, if only, if only. If Americans are waiting around for a 21st-century idealist to rescue us, it’s too late–that voice of love would have already intervened in the divisiveness that’s been growing steadily in our country since 9/11. The power of mass media which gave Dr. King a platform to speak to the world more than fifty years ago has now been shattered into seven billion fragments in our palms. Today, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2018, instead of merely relying upon a human icon for inspiration (no matter how worthy), we must find new words and power within ourselves by first taking a long, hard look in the mirror (and for a reason other than a selfie).

That said, we will never stop learning from Dr. King.

Andrew Young, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., member of Congress, and mayor of Atlanta, was a guest on NBC’s Meet the Press yesterday. An elder among the remaining living associates of Martin Luther King, Jr., he sat in front of a photo of Atlanta’s most famous buildings and talked about the importance of words. Atlanta’s U.S. Congressman John Lewis and U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson had already weighed in with their disapproval of POTUS’s Thursday remarks about shitholes. Now it was Uncle Andy’s turn. To the surprise of many people, he refused to call the President of the United States a racist.

Americans must quit demonizing people who are of a different race, nationality, religion, or opinion, and each one of us must “learn geography and global economics” in order to understand our complex world driven by technology, Young said. “Dr. King said that we were born into an unjust world, and none of us can take any virtue in being born black, white, liberal, or conservative,” Young emphasized. He recalled a moment in the 1960s when Dr. King refused to comment after a U.N. meeting about Vietnam; Young also touted his own work in Birmingham, Alabama, where he helped untangle race relations in the 1960s.

Trump didn’t get the first word on racism and he surely won’t get the last, Young insinuated. You don’t help an alcoholic by calling him a drunk, he added. Then Young returned to what bound him in friendship with Dr. King in the first place–the faith they shared. He gave a little chuckle as he said, “I am a Christian.” He spoke the words swiftly, with a confident smile, as if it only takes the tiniest upturn of the corner of one’s mouth to symbolize the joy and freedom packed so tightly into such a brief and declarative statement. By God, he made it look so easy. Words are ripping families, friendships, and our country apart, but he reminded us we’re all in this proverbial shithole together, and we have no choice but to make it work. I had to watch the video clip about ten times to absorb the power of Young’s four words, and then the tears fell.

Maybe Dr. King would have thought of 2018 as just another moment in the struggle, a grain of sand in the hourglass. Or, more likely, he might have reminded us of the annual winter miracle that glows from a shit-and-straw manger in the retelling of the Christmas story. We will do the work. We will march, and we will stand up for good with disregard to left or right–even when our elected leaders can’t or won’t. We will not accept the hate of words which belittle and divide. Yet, those who believe in the power of love as exemplified by Dr. King’s words must remember that redemption is an equal-opportunity grace to which access cannot be withheld from any human. Or any president. It’s a hard bite for an active tongue to swallow, but also what makes grace such an amazing word, today and every day.

The face of Martin Luther King, Jr. is represented in a mobile sculpture inside The Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.

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