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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: Legacy or Metaphor?

The campaign of Senator Barack Obama to be the Democratic nominee in the 2008 United States Presidential election is prompting renewed conversation about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Both men are able to speak with an eloquence that engages voters who usually don’t follow politics. The civil rights movement is seen as incomplete until the presidency is filled by a person of color – something Obama seems able to achieve. So forty years after his assassination, Dr. King’s legacy lives on. Or does it? Few would argue with Dr. King’s international reputation is as a symbol for racial equality. But is it his theological or political legacy that is debated today?

Michael Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, the second child of Rev. Martin and Mrs. Alberta King. His father was a prominent Baptist pastor and a major figure in the civil rights movement. In 1935, King Sr. had both his and his six-year old son’s name changed to Martin Luther King in honor of the Protestant Reformer.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a gifted student. He entered college at 15 having skipped two grades of high school (although never formally graduating), and by the age of 26, had a BA in sociology, a BD from Crozer Theological Seminary, and a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University. At the age of 24 while completing his doctoral studies, he became the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

Although already active in the civil rights movement, he rose to national prominence when a local black seamstress, Rosa Parks, was arrested for not obeying the segregation laws in December 1955. She boarded a bus and selected a seat that was designated for colored people. However, as the bus filled with white people, the bus driver moved the section boundaries. Parks refused to move (her’s was now designated a white seat) and the police were called. In response, under the leadership of Dr. King, a bus boycott was organized. For 382 days, between 20,000 - 40,000 members of the black community who usually relied on the buses for transportation, walked (in some cases up to 20 miles or found other means of transportation. At last, a Supreme Court decision and the loss of revenues for the Montgomery Bus Company resulted in a changed policy. However, the momentum for civil rights change had been unleashed leading to the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act.

So where did Dr. King develop his passion for leadership and the strategy for non-violent protest that proved to be so effective? Since his seminary training in liberal theology, King considered himself to be “an advocator of the social gospel.” His sermons were blunt in denouncing the “racism, materialism, and militarism” of his times. He told his hearers that being a good Samaritan “was only an initial act.” He called them to work “see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed.”

His seminary training built on ideas shaped in his youth. His preacher role models included his father and grandfather who used the pulpit to address the everyday concerns of the working poor. In a paper entitled “An Autobiography of Religious Development,” King recounts how at the age of seven, he came forward in a revival meeting and was baptized. However, “at the age of 13, I shocked my Sunday School class by denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus. From the age of thirteen, doubts began to spring forth unrelentingly.” However rather than driving him away from the church, King pursued theological studies. His theology borrowed from a neo-orthodox personalism which, to use his own words, “gave me a metaphysical and philosophical grounding for the idea of a personal God, and it gave me a metaphysical basis for the dignity and worth of all human personality.”

Although his theological perspective was distinct, his roots in the African-American preaching tradition continued. “I am many things to many people,” he said, “but in the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher.” This provided his preaching with a very strong sense of the reality of sin, the importance of themes of brotherhood, and the hope of a better future. Unlike the focus in white Protestantism which, when thinking about religion and politics, looked nostalgically at America’s past, King’s combined his theology and politics to paint a hopeful picture of America’s future. He inspired his audience to hope for a time would come when they would experience justice, brotherhood and peace that at present seemed so foreign to them.

Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955-56 marked the beginning of a decade in which under King’s leadership, the civil rights spread across the United States. So did the opposition to it. King’s home was bombed, he was arrested and subjected to personal abuse but this served only to raise his profile and following. In the eleven years between 1957 and 1968, he made over 2500 speeches travelling to wherever there were examples of racial injustice to protest. In 1963, he organized a “March on Washington” which attracted over 250,000 supporters and at which he gave his famous “I have a dream speech.” That year, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to him.

As his popularity grew, there was tremendous pressure and expectation for him to be a candidate for the US Presidency. However, the civil rights movement was divided, with a more violent wing promoting a “Black Power” mantra. Dr. Martin Luther King did not accept. He decided to continue leading the movement and promoting his non-violent strategy. On April 4, 1968, while in Memphis, Tennessee in order to lead a protest march in support of striking garbage workers, Dr. King was killed by a sniper bulletin as he stood on his hotel balcony. He was 39. James Earl Ray was convicted of his murder, although many (including some of the King family) believed him to the victim of a conspiracy. The hope of many that a person of color would implement these changes as President was unfulfilled.

It was a speech at the 2004 Democratic convention that brought Senator Obama into national prominence. He struck a King-like chord: “There is not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America – there’s a United States of America.” However, the issues facing Obama are quite different than those King addressed. Some suggest the civil rights movement has moved to a “post-racial” phase and is defined by advocating for affirmative action policies, the promotion of gay rights, and immigration reform. Obama himself tries to walk a delicate line on the question. He talks about seeing “a split screen” in which the progress on racial issues is acknowledged and celebrated while still “acknowledging the sins of our past and the challenges of the present without being trapped in cynicism or despair.”

Like King, Obama does not shy from using religious language in doing his politics. He does not pretend his to be an orthodox evangelical faith. In defending his views in support of gay marriage he confesses that he is not “willing to accept a reading of the Bible that considers an obscure line in Romans to be more defining of Christianity than the Sermon on the Mount.” Instead, he says his faith provides him two clear political insights – a belief in the power to change and the ongoing reality of struggle. Christ serves an “ally in this difficult journey” and faith as “an active, palpable agent” of change that inspires hope for the future.

Forty years after his death, Dr. Martin Luther King’s shadow still looms large in US Presidential politics. As a potential first black President, Senator Obama seems the natural heir to King’s legacy. But politics is a competitive sport. All of the candidates are generously quoting King in their speeches these days. It takes careful work to distinguish between a vision of human equality rooted creation; a secular liberal notion of rights that has little room for orthodox religion; or an updated version of liberation theology combined with identity politics – or for those entirely cynical, just empty rhetoric that has no consistent philosophy. In the meantime, King’s name will continue to be used as a metaphor for hope and change and it will take historians to sort out his real legacy.

Ray Pennings is Vice-President of the Work Research Foundation ( and a media commentator on public affairs issues. He is a member of the Free Reformed Churches ( and is based in Calgary, Alberta Canada.