- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Every year the historical figure grows more ceremonial, distant, symbolic, less alive. More a decoration than an influence. It is the fate of heroes. Their pictures are relegated to banners, their words become cliches, their very names become streets and boulevards instead of a living presence. Our familiarity with them may not breed contempt exactly, but a kind of boredom, and indifference. Haven't we heard all that before?
Maybe not all of it. Maybe we've heard only the protest, not the most important part: the reconciliation. We forget that the prophet is also a comforter, and that if he tears apart our comfortable preconceptions, in the end he reconciles us with the truth he is compelled to utter.
From his first appearance on the national stage and in the national consciousness the Montgomery bus boycott of the 1950s this black Baptist preacher out of the South kept his eye on the prize: not victory over others but reconciliation with others.
The young minister's message back then had a lot more to do with Exodus than Marx, with joining together rather than rending apart. Listen to what he said in the midst of his first confrontation with the already crumbling power of Jim Crow. How easily he could have cast out these demons and proclaimed the moral superiority of Us over Them. But he knew better. And, in the rhythms of the black church, whose son he was, he tried to get those he led to understand, too:
"A boycott is just a means to an end. A boycott is merely a means to say, 'I don't like it.' It is merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor, but the end is reconciliation. The end is the creation of a beloved community the creation of a society where men will live together as brothers not retaliation but redemption. That is the end we are trying to reach."
This wasn't just a boycott. This wasn't just a political or economic or social struggle. The powers and principalities involved were of a different order, and so would be the victory.
The legal victory in Montgomery came on Nov. 13, 1956, when the United States Supreme Court agreed that racial segregation on the city's buses was unconstitutional. Vindication. A great mass meeting was held the next night two separate meetings to hold all the celebrants. It was time to exult. But this preacher did not exult in himself or his people or even in his principles.
Instead, he embraced the enemy as brother. He compared the white segregationists he had fought so hard, who had locked him up, who had 'bused and scorned him, with the prodigal son who had only been misled:
"I must still believe there is something within them that can cause them one day to come to themselves (That's right. Yes.) and rise up, walk back up the dusty road to the father's house. (Yes.) And we stand there with outstretched arms. That's the meaning of the Christian faith."
Powerful stuff. And this preacher went beyond Bible stories and Sunday School illustrations. He named names: "I believe that the Ku Klux Klan can be transformed into a clan for God's kingdom. (Yes.) I believe that the White Citizens Council can be transformed into a Right Citizens Council. (Yes.) I believe that. That's the essence of the Gospel."
It's a toss-up who was more scandalized by that kind of talk the Kluxers and their nice respectable white-collar counterparts in the Citizens Councils, or the young SNCC organizers in the back pews who had come down from their Northern campuses to give Marx a push and found themselves confronted by all this Godtalk, by a language and worldview counter to all their assumptions, and it was coming not from those they proposed to struggle against, but those on whose side they wanted to struggle.
Even then the young and impatient, the proud and angry, the ideological and sophisticated, were snickering at this nice preacher innocent of their dialectic, and calling him De Lawd behind his back. What could he know of the world, he who preached nothing but love?
But whatever Martin Luther King was, he was anything but naive. If he was gentle as the dove, he was cunning as the serpent. Indeed, he would prove far more cunning than those who thought themselves worldly wise.
If by now we have forgotten the love he preached, if his words sound strange and new when we hear them again, maybe that's because we weren't listening the first time. His time, it turns out, is all times. That is the great advantage of a biblical point of view; it does not age.


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