MLK’s birthday as a national holiday, which was Monday, was controversial in the 1980s. President Reagan initially opposed but then endorsed it. MLK had communists in his circle, had opposed the Vietnam War in a way that minimized the evil of North Vietnam’s repression and aggression, and his marital infidelities were notorious. It was remarked at the time, including by Reagan, that his FBI file, which is sealed until 2027, would include additional unflattering disclosures. In 2019, it was revealed the FBI file includes a tape of a purported 1964 orgy at DC’s Willard Hotel with MLK and other clergy with various women. The details were much gossiped about in DC at the time, by the Kennedys, by LBJ, even by other civil rights leaders.
With all his moral failures, MLK was the irreplaceable advocate for America’s civil rights revolution. He came from an upper middle-class background and could easily have lived comfortably as the pastor of a large and prestigious church, removed from danger and controversy. Instead, from a very early age, he spoke boldly and across 15 years repeatedly risked his life and the lives of his family in his tireless and visionary advocacy for a more just America. MLK advocated an America that abided by its Christian-inspired founding principles of equality, liberty, and justice for all. He did so as an advocate of non-violence and of Christian charity, rejecting revenge and acrimony. He genuinely seems to have avoided personal bitterness and hatred for his many enemies. Ultimately of course, he gave his life for the cause of civil rights, a martyrdom that he fully anticipated.
Persons under a certain age cannot fully appreciate the depths of MLK’s accomplishments and what America was like before the civil rights revolution. There was a reminder recently with the story of two black U.S. Army soldiers in France who, after serving honorably and having survived the war as guards of German prisoners, were shot by two white military police for conversing with French women at a Red Cross tent serving donuts and coffee. A white soldier bystander who survived a German prison camp was also killed in the crossfire. The two military police were acquitted of all wrongdoing. The widow of one of the killed black soldiers received a gratuity, but the widow of the other slain black soldier was denied any gratify or pension, since he was supposedly killed for disobeying military police.
This story was horrible, tragic, sad, but it’s also absurd. The hair-trigger prejudice of two white military police needlessly destroyed three human lives, with repercussions across generations. The grandson of one killed black soldier recalls his mother grew up without a father. She now refuses to talk to reporters about what happened to her father. Her mother, a reporter at the time recalled, turned off the radio during the National Anthem, she was so embittered against the country. Her husband had served his country and yet was killed needlessly because of racial animosity.
Racial prejudice is sinful of itself because it assumes some people God created are less worthy than other people. God of course makes no distinctions based on race and expects the same of us. But it’s also true that racial prejudice and injustice are irrational, stupid, destructive, endlessly wasteful and distracting, corrosive to persons and societies who succumb to it. Cultures and societies captive to such irrational prejudice are less prosperous, less stable, less peaceful, less free, and less democratic. America’s slave states of the 19th century were much less wealthy than the free states of the north. The states later with racial segregation were less prosperous than the states without legalized segregation. Depriving some of opportunity, by law or custom, because of race or ethnicity, hurts all of society. The race or ethnicity that are imposing the rules may think their controlling restrictions on others benefit themselves. But the opposite is true. The prosperity and their targets would far more benefit them. Nobody truly wins when there is a permanent underclass who are refused the chance to perform to their full potential.
In World War II, the U.S. Army was racially segregated, which meant having to construct separate facilities for white and blacks. Originally, donated blood for transfusions was kept separate by race, absurdly. Such a waste of time, resources, and energy. Blacks were kept out of senior positions and mostly relegated to menial work. Who knows what could have been accomplished, how much shorter the war might have been, had blacks been permitted to perform and advance as white personnel. We’ll never know. Of course, many blacks returned from the war and faced ongoing segregation and injustice. In several high-profile cases, black personnel were brutalized, without legal ramifications for the assailants. The particular outrage on a black soldier in South Carolina, who was beaten and blinded, with a local jury refusing to convict his attackers, outraged President Truman and motivated his own commitment to civil rights, which included desegregating the military.
But it would take another 20 years to achieve civil rights legislation, and many battles even afterwards for what we assume to be normal justice today. MLK’s tirelessly advocacy for human equality and justice, based on Christian principles accessible to all, was central to this social transformation. Prejudice and injustice persist. But laws no longer permit segregation. The public no longer tolerates brazen racial violence. Nearly everybody at least gives lip service to racial equality, and most truly believe it. We often focus on the exceptions without fully appreciating the vast changes for improvement. These reforms were achieved by flawed persons who still were God’s instruments for achieving a better society.
MLK’s birthday is for honoring the man but also for reflecting providentially on how God deploys many of us flawed humans to achieve His purposes. All of us are called in some way to improve life on earth and advance God’s work. Some do so on a wide historical scale, like MLK. But all of us can participate in smaller but still deeply meaningful ways if we hearken to the call.