Opinion: MLK, ideals should not remain ‘safely dead’

On April 9th, we will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the funeral of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., famed co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church and the greatest civil rights leader of the 2oth century. That day, throngs of people from across the country and around the world packed into the small sanctuary of Ebenezer church and into the streets, as the 39-year-old preacher, who transformed the whole nation into his parish, was celebrated. Among those offering their own eloquent obsequies in the public square were politicians and future presidents; athletes and entertainers; the powerful and the poor.

Then and now, it was suddenly too easy to forget that in the last two years prior to his death, Dr. King was more unpopular than ever. In fact, according to a 1966 Gallup Poll, the last to rate him, nearly two-thirds of Americans viewed unfavorably the man who now has a national holiday and a national monument in his honor. The prophet had managed to make even those who had supported him uncomfortable, daring to expand his focus from segregation in the South to segregation in the North, connecting America’s failure to wage a real war on poverty to a “spiritual sickness” that led it to wage war instead on the poor of Vietnam. In a speech delivered at New York’s Riverside Church exactly one year prior to his death, the principled patriot called his beloved America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

The criticism of Rev. King on the right and the left was withering and swift. The New York Times opined, “To divert the energies of the civil rights movement to the Vietnam issue is both wasteful and self-defeating.” The Washington Post predicted that “Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence.” Yet driven by his own moral compass, Rev. King continued to criticize the war, making the link between racism, poverty and militarism. On the Sunday following his assassination, he was planning to preach a sermon at Ebenezer church entitled, “Why America May Go To Hell.”

That Martin Luther King Jr. does not fit neatly into the official, public narrative we Americans like to tell ourselves about our nation or the movement. That’s why that Martin Luther King Jr. had to die. And, with his death came the canonization of a convenient hero. The poet, Carl Wendell Himes saw it coming as early as 1971:

Now that he is safely dead,

Let us praise him.

Build monuments to his glory.

Sing Hosannas to his name.

Dead men make such convenient heroes.

For they cannot rise to challenge the images

That we might fashion from their lives.

It is easier to build monuments

Than to build a better world.

The dangerous man who died in Memphis is a victim of identity theft. We have replaced him and the more radical aspects of his message with selected sound bytes that will not make us too uneasy. That’s why politicians feel comfortable invoking Dr. King’s name, even while leveraging a now-weakened voting rights law - the signature achievement of the movement - to pass voter suppression measures; refusing to raise a minimum wage that has less purchasing power than it did the year King died defending workers; and locking away the children we have failed in a bulging, carceral state that warehouses 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

Fifty years after Martin Luther King died, America needs to hold a national funeral for Dr. King – the faux King we have created - so that we might hear anew the real Dr. King calling us to what he called “a revolution of values.” Such a revolution would lead us to invest in quality public education for every child, early childhood development, universal healthcare and clean energy jobs for a sustainable future on the planet. We should bury the simple story so that we can actually build what he called “the beloved community.”

Rev. Raphael G. Warnock is pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church.