We drove into Memphis, Tennessee last night, this old south city where some of our family live. Memphis is always bristling with activity and life. Blues clubs on Beale Street. World famous BBQ. Tonight, Memphis plays UCLA in the Final Four, so that adds to the mix.
However, this weekend, Memphis (and the nation) mourns one of our darkest and most tragic days. Forty years ago, yesterday, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down by a sniper as he stood on the third floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
About two years ago, I spent a morning in downtown Atlanta visiting the house where King grew up and sitting in the sanctuary of Ebenezer Baptist Church listening to recorded sermons King preached. The day spent in King’s world profoundly moved me. It moved me because I realized how disconnected I had been from this violent scar in our nation’s history. I knew the story. I was ashamed of our racist past – but I hadn’t really allowed the evil of it all to truly weigh on me.
The experience also moved me because I was inspired and honored to be immersed in the life and memory of a man who deeply believed in human dignity and justice and who had the courage to stand against the Powers in order to speak out for the oppressed. I was haunted by this question: What side would I have been on if I had been alive during the Civil Rights struggle?
I don’t the answer. I pray to God I would have been on the side of those who resisted both the visible and subtle ways that our culture demeaned and subjected fellow human beings created in God’s image. But, truthfully, I don’t know.
I don’t know, in part, because the whole affair raises the memory of one of my deep regrets. In college, I had an African American roommate (a fabulous soccer player by the way) who began to allow me into his world, sharing parts of his story, little bits of what it was like to grow up black in a very white culture. During one of our conversations, we got into a disagreement about MLK. Much to my embarrassment now, I remember throwing out lines about King being a communist and a womanizer, using these liable accusations as wholesale dismissals of King’s life, conviction and legacy.
King was not Jesus. King was not perfect. However, my lines were merely a reaction, blindly parroting rhetoric I had heard growing up. I hadn’t dug into the facts. I hadn’t asked how my white upbringing had colored my historical perspective. Worse, I didn’t stop to listen to my friend who was offering me a piece of his heritage, one of his (rightful) heroes. Truthfully, I was an ignorant white kid spouting trash. And I am so sorry.
I never had a chance to apologize. I wish I could find my friend and tell him how sorry I am. Sorry that I was still trapped in my subculture. Sorry I hadn’t gotten enough of the story yet. Sorry I hadn’t seen enough of the world. Sorry I hadn’t realized that the man whose character I assaulted truly is a hero.
In recent conversations, I’ve realized how some of us who are white still think of Dr. King as “their hero.” There are multiple distressful realties to such a posture. However, as a starting point, Martin Luther King, Jr. should be a hero of every person (particularly every Christian) who decries evil and oppression, who believes that the Kingdom of God announces freedom in every human sphere, who marvels at the mystery and beauty of every single human.
The Scriptures forcefully declare that every man and women bare in our body and soul the glory of the image of God Almighty. Dr. King believed this. Preached it. Lived it. Died for it. We ought rejoice in his message and deeply mourn his death.