I started off my sermon this past Sunday by complaining about Martin Luther King Day. It might have been a bad call.
My problem with Martin Luther King Day, I explained, is that I think it focuses too much on Martin Luther King. I know that sounds like an odd complaint--the holiday falls near his birthday so it makes sense that we use the occasion to learn about King's life and to honor the work he did. And that's exactly what our kids do in school beginning in Kindergarten. They read stories about King's life and later, they read his "I Have a Dream" speech. They hear him talk about his vision of what the world should be like. They might even see a picture of him giving that speech to a huge crowd of people standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
But here's what we don't tell our kids. Those people did not come to Washington, D.C. to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. give a great speech about his vision for America. They came to protest policies and conditions in the United States. They came to pressure the government to enact civil rights legislation. And they also called for the creation of a public works jobs program, an increase in the minimum wage and for home rule for Washington, D.C. It was the largest protest ever held in Washington up to that point. The size of the crowd was, in the end, even more eloquent than King's memorable words.
King was, without a doubt, a gifted leader. But it was the movement that made the difference. King was a part of a large, well-organized coalition of organizations that trained thousands of people in the tactics of non-violent resistance to injustice. Because we so often lift up King without lifting up the movement, we have not passed on the organizing strategies that the movement worked hard to teach. We teach our children and teach ourselves to admire King’s work instead of continuing King’s work.
I said all of this on Sunday as an introduction to the point I wanted to make about Jesus, so I couldn't spend much time making my argument. To be honest, I didn't think that would be a problem because I thought everyone would agree with me. But once I got talking, I could tell I had lost more than a few people. "I was worried you were going somewhere I couldn't go," one man told me afterwards with a smile.
So my King Day Complaint was still on my mind when I went running Monday morning. I was listening, as I often do, to the podcast of the NPR talk show "On Being". This week's show spoke to the issue of how we can tell the story of the organization that surrounded and supported King and his work--with much more eloquence and insight than I was able to muster on Sunday. The topic was "Deromanticizing the Civil Rights Movement--and Rediscovering its Humanity". The host, Krista Tippett, interviewed Gwendolyn Zohara Simmons and Lucas Johnson, civil rights activists from two different generations. What first caught my attention was this comment from Simmons explaining the start of the Black Power movement:
And more and more, the understanding became that this is more than a moral issue. This is more than getting white Americans to love us. This is about us sharing power.
When I heard those words, it suddenly occurred to me why we tend to talk more about King than we talk about the Civil Rights Movement. It is a way to avoid talking about power, a topic we have little experience discussing or analyzing.
When I went through a 10-day training on community organizing with the Gamaliel Foundation back in 1992, the first thing I learned was this: if we are going to talk organizing people to make change, we need to talk about how people get and maintain power. We have to talk about privilege and class and money, topics that most of us never really discuss. Christians especially avoid these topics. We talk about right and wrong as moral questions and then talk about the importance of standing up for what you believe in. We pretend that good people change the world simply through the moral force of their own good lives.
Civil Rights leaders were not naive about this. They understood that people in power rarely share power just because it is the "right" thing to do. They begin to share power when it becomes clear that it is in their self-interest to do so. In order to affect people's self-interest, a movement needs to organize people to march and sit-in and vote and boycott and go to prison.
And here's the thing: because those who participated in the civil rights movement learned about how to acquire and utilize power to make change, they had hope. That's why it is so important that we talk to our kids--and talk to each other--not only about what King did, but how he did it. As Gwendolyn Zohara Simmons said towards the end of the On Being interview,
So, you know, there are changes even though there are so many problems still. So I can never give up that, on the idea that we the people can organize and bring change. That I just – I know we can because we did it. And because we did it we can continue to do it.