I’m convinced. America, now more than ever, needs new Martin Luther Kings. Men and women who boldly take up the prophetic mantle and speak truth to power. America needs new prophets who evoke a consciousness that is alternative to the dominant ethos of today. America needs radical revolutionaries that, like Dr. King, dare to dream, have the audacity to imagine, and the courage to act to advance God’s kingdom in our society. This country needs reformers, restorers, reconcilers, peacemakers, and Kingdom-cultural leaders.
King embraced a prophetic radicalism that compelled him to challenge the pervasive racism, materialism, and militarism of America. He could not sit still while gross injustices plagued cities and states across America. He once said, “to ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it.”
It’s fascinating how today, Dr. King is viewed as a civic deity. He is revered across the political spectrum in a way that few historical figures are. It’s quite ironic, because in his day he was despised. In the 1960s, Gallup frequently measured the public perception of King. The last poll ever taken of him revealed that 32% of Americans viewed him positively while 63% had a negative perception of him. He was called an outside agitator and race baiter. He was labeled a communist and a threat to the American power structure.
On the national holiday that celebrates his legacy, millions of Americans will quote parts of his “I have a Dream” speech, but many of them don’t know the historical context behind that speech and how it disturbed government officials so much that the F.B.I. started spying on him in what The Washington Post called “one of its biggest surveillance operations in history.” The speech even moved the head of the agency’s domestic intelligence division to label King “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of Communism, the Negro and national security.”
David Chappell, a historian who teaches at the University of Oklahoma, writes that, “King frequently referred to Prophetic Christianity in his later writings and speeches and cited Jeremiah, Amos, and Isaiah as examples of brave men who sacrificed their social position and standing when the preached to society of its corruption and insisted on total, rather than incremental, reformation.”
King’s philosophy and strategy was grounded in prophetic imagination. He dared to criticize the dominant power structure over the gross inequities and injustices that black Americans faced. King wrote, “whenever Christianity has remained true to its prophetic mission, it has taken a deep interest in social justice.
He also preached about the powerful force of hope. Walter Brueggeman writes that “Hope is an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims we have been told are facts. Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion.”
The night before he died, King spoke of hope in the midst of despair to a crowd in Memphis. He said, “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
My prayer, fifty years after his death, is that a new generation of leaders would rise up and fight for justice and equality in America. Leaders who are not beholden to the status quo, but who undauntedly press on with conviction to work to perfect our union. America desperately needs new Martin Luther Kings. I fully intend to be one.
I’m Harold Dorrell Briscoe. Thanks for reading.