“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late….Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but beautiful—struggle for a new world.” –Martin Luther King Jr.
Even as I type the above quote, I can hear King’s voice; one that challenges me through words spoken long ago yet which remain as fresh as my last drawn breath. Dr King’s invitation to “struggle for a new world” still resonates with radical force today. His clarion calls to participate in a revolution of values that will usher in a society characterized by an “all embracing and unconditional love for all men” remains beating with prophetic vitality. It is because of his brilliance, courage and resilience in the midst of fire that his name and legacy is continually evoked in the freedom struggles of today, whether in the streets of Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, Stanford FL, or beyond.
As one born seven years after the tumult of 1968 (that included King’s assassination), it is obvious that I never bodily shared the Earth with him. Nevertheless, it is hard to think of King as dead because his spirit continues to be a living force within this nation’s imagination. King lives—whether in the faded picture hung above the doorway in my grandparent’s house, or in the countless February-time recitations of excerpts of the “I have a dream” speech in grade school. King lives—whether in the numerous schools, centers, boulevards, or avenues that bear his name, or in my mother’s voice as she recounts how she, as a 20 year old young mother, made it home from her job at the phone company on an early April afternoon when my father was out of town—a harrowing journey of navigating through the mist of fresh anger in Southeast DC–an anger that quickly turned into riots in the aftermath of King’s assassination.
As a child, my relationship with King was one where he was this transcendent presence hovering across the American landscape; his iconic visage appearing in grainy black and white images commanding crowds with oratory gusto. When I was a teenager in the early nineties, this unexamined and naïve conception of a hero was challenged. I was heavily involved in the Black intra-community debate that could be boiled down to one question: “Malcolm or Martin?” Indeed, Malcolm X did give birth to my sense of race consciousness and my burgeoning ideal of Black manhood. However, it is King who is presently nurturing my maturing sense of spiritual formation; his life modeling what it means to be a minister committed to societal transformation.
There is no doubt that King remains an indelible fixture of our popular American imagination—an iconic presence that looms large as a symbol, aspiration, the embodiment of things hoped for; an ideal and a dream. However, I strongly believe that King is most powerful when he is liberated from our force-perched pedestals of mythology. When this happens, he ceases being some transcendent character in our history books, to being one with transcendent character who is firmly rooted in history. Only by enfleshing him in the reality of his humanity can we begin to truly see his life not as an exception, but an example of what is possible.
Ultimately, King was just as human as any of us; the beautiful and flawed creatures that we are. Further, there is a special power in recognizing and encountering each other in the ground of our mutual beingness–to truly see ourselves in each other, to be moved by what we find inspiring in others, and to be appreciative of the myriad of opportunities that our sisters and brothers give us to practice patience and forgiveness. King was human like me; going through the movements of life that metes out generous measures of both joy and grief. Sometimes these burdens take us to our knees in prayer…and sometimes it has us sitting down with a friend and lighting one up…
Regardless, I am thankful for Dr. King in all of his humanity; one who inspires me to stay engaged in the beautiful struggle of working towards the full realization of the Beloved Community.