Saturday, January 26, 2013

From the Dream to the Mountain Top and Beyond: Martin Luther King and the African American Prophetic Tradition

by Andre E. Johnson
R3 Editor

*This is part of the keynote speech I gave at Viterbo University on King Day, January 21, 2013 

There is a story found in the book of Matthew. It is right at the beginning of chapter 11 in that book and it’s the story of John while in prison wondering if Jesus was the One. You are probably familiar with the story—he sent word by his disciples to ask Jesus this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Now Jesus in Jesus fashion answered John this way, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

Now if that was not crazy enough, Jesus then turned to the crowd gathered and asked, "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” And using this a starting point in our conversation tonight, I came to ask in a similar vein, Why are we here tonight? What did we come out to see? What did we hope to see? In short, why are we celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tonight? Why are we here for this man?

This man, who while living was called the most dangerous man in America by the head of the FBI. This man, who was called everything but a child of God. This man, who was constantly surveyed and spied upon—every phone call, every meeting and just about every time he opened his mouth. This man, who folks called a troublemaker; folks who thought he was a glory hound; folks who called him a socialist, a communist, a rabble-rouser. This man, who if truth be told was not loved by everyone in the Black community. There were many folks within the black church that had problems with this man coming to their towns and starting trouble. So I ask sincerely and seriously, why are we here tonight celebrating the life and legacy of this man? What did we expect to see—what did we expect to hear?

Well many of us are here because this holiday and weekend has turn into a day of service. That’s what we say—that since Dr. King serve, we too must serve, we should all be about serving others. So on this day off, we turn it into a “day on,”—a day of service. Many of us go out and service in our communities doing a host of projects—painting and cleaning, offering food and clothes, helping and assisting others. We do this because we feel that we are honoring the life and legacy of Dr. King.

But then again, some of us in here know that it’s much more than that. Some of us here know that it goes much deeper. So maybe for some of us, we are here because we heard that King was a Civil Rights leader—from the days of the Montgomery boycott to his death. We watch series like “Eyes of the Prize” and we come away with a since of awe of just what it took to achieve some of the rights that many of us take for granted today. So we come here tonight to celebrate the Civil Rights icon.

Maybe we are here because we heard how King was a staunch supporter for worker rights and how we wish we had a powerful voice that could command an audience and move the crowd that talked about the importance and dignity of workers. Maybe we are here because we heard how King was a proponent of non-violence and supporter of the Peace movement. We heard how his non-violence stand eventually led him to come out against the war in Vietnam.

Maybe we are here because we heard that King was first and foremost a preacher—a minister of the gospel and he told that to anybody who would listen. King clearly stated that what I am doing is because of my call and commitment to the gospel that I preach. So again, why are we here?

What I want to suggest tonight is that for whatever reason we are here celebrating this King Day—let us remember that King, for most of his public life, adopted a prophetic persona to house his most stirring oratory. In short, King participated in the prophetic tradition—but more explicitly, the African American prophetic tradition. So whatever we say and think about King and whatever we do in this and subsequent King days, let us remember that King came speaking and preaching in the prophetic tradition, housed within the African American community and given birth out of the black church tradition.

Birth from slavery and shaped in Jim and Jane Crow America, the African American version of the prophetic tradition has been the primary vehicle that has comforted and given voice to many African Americans. Through struggle and sacrifice, this tradition has expressed black people’s call for unity and cooperation as well as the community’s anger and frustrations. It has been both hopeful and pessimistic. It has celebrated the beauty and myth of the American exceptionalism and its special place in the world, while at the same time damning it to hell for not living up to the ideals America espouses. It is a tradition that celebrates God’s hand in history—offering “hallelujahs” for deliverance from slavery and Jim and Jane Crow, while at the same time asking, “Where in the hell is God—during tough and trying times. It is a tradition that develops a theological outlook quite different at times from orthodoxy—one that finds again God very close, but—so far away.

It is this tradition that shaped King. Adopting the prophetic persona of prophetic figures that preceded him—figures such as Richard Allen, Maria Stewart, Frederick Douglass, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Henry McNeal Turner, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, Sojourner Truth and a host of others, King joined the great cloud of witnesses that called folks to the better angels of their natures.

King’s prophetic trajectory also lines up perfectly with the African American prophetic tradition. While we want to freeze King at the Lincoln Memorial dreaming, King soon leaves there and begins a journey of discovery and discernment. King starts as an optimistic visionary believing in the American ideals and that if America would just practice “what you said on paper,” that everything will be all right. However, as time went on and as King saw the massive resistance, both in the South and North—as the economic plight of the poor did not change even though we declared a war on poverty, King begin to become more of a pessimistic prophet—one who abandoned an absolute belief in the inherent goodness of the country to one who began to question the very fabric of America. This deep questioning and reflecting did not make King run away or hide. I suggest it made him stronger. It made him still get up every day and to pronounce that God is still at work—and while we cannot see God or understand what God is doing all the time, nevertheless, God is still here.

So what did you come here to see?? Why are you celebrating King Day? This question became clear to me while sitting in a graduate seminar that focused on the rhetoric of King. Throughout the semester, we traced King’s rhetorical trajectory—starting with his speech he delivered at Holt Street Baptist Church and ending of course with the Mountain Top speech. However, we began to notice a shift in King’s rhetoric around 1965-66. King seemed to shift from the conciliatory “I have a Dream,” to a more, at least for King and some of his supporters, a radical position. Then we got to the Vietnam speech and it really just did not make any sense.

And I remember our professor asking a question out loud, “Why would King make this type of speech?” By asking that question, what our professor attempted to do was to get us to look at the rhetorical situation because in truth, politically and rhetorically, “Beyond Vietnam” did not make any sense. It did not make any sense because to come out against the Vietnam War was to alienate the administration that helped usher in major Civil Rights legislation—to in some estimation, finish the job started in Reconstruction. And even though King had his detractors, he had a groundswell of support and he above all things, loved America—so the question of why King—why change was an appropriate one to ask.

I remember sitting there with all the other students as we tried to answer the question and then all of a sudden I just said, “He was a prophet.” My professor asked me to explain my answer and I said that the prophet is always moving us to do better. In short, while we are celebrating gains and victories and resting on our laurels, the prophet is always discerning; always listening; always seeking the Spirit of God. For King, the next step was economics; because he quickly realized that it does not do any good for folks to sit at lunch counters when they cannot afford the meal. Why are we celebrating King Day? So what did you come hear to see tonight? A prophet—I say yes, a prophet indeed.

A prophet—one who got his start at his kitchen table one night after some deranged man called and threaten his life. A prophet—one who stood up to the powers that be and challenged the consciousness of a nation. A prophet—one who would not rest on his laurels, one who did not stay above the fray, but dwelled in it. A prophet—one who called out the nations sins and offered a nation to repent. A prophet—one who saw the face of God even in his enemies and one who pushed us to see another dream—the dream of the Beloved Community.

And people always ask me, Johnson, how can we achieve King’s dream? And I always answer back, I think it would be good at least to be on the same page when we talk about King’s dream. King’s dream has been hijack by some of the same people who would have been and who were diametrically opposed to what King stood for. When people can claim that by having a gun appreciation day is a good way to celebrate the life and legacy of King, we know we have gotten off track. And if we are not careful, we too can get caught up in all things masquerading as authentic King.

Let us be clear, King’s dream is not about declaring a service day where we go out and fix up and paint. King’s dream isn’t about King Day sales or King day parties. King’s dream isn’t about getting some folks to move up to the “middle class” so we can live in gated communities and forget about our past. King’s dream isn’t about Obama or any other person of color getting into the White House. King dream isn’t about any of that.

But to stand on the side of the dream, is to stand with the poor and marginalized and to see the world from their vantage point. To stand on the side of the dream, is to stand for a livable wage; good decent health care and dignity of and in work. To stand on the side of the dream, is to stand for an inclusive community that does not strip you of who you are, but celebrates the diversity—unity but not uniformity. To stand on the side of the dream, is to stand for non-violence is all forms and to be concern for Newtown and Chi-Town, uptown and downtown, urban and suburban, city and rural, religious and non-religious, gay, straight, PhD to no D, from CEO’s to mopping floors, to stand on the side of the dream, is to stand for and with humanity! That’s what King was doing in his last days. Out of this prophetic pessimism came the answer for King—the Beloved Community.

So I charge us today, to take this day as the starting day of establishing in our communities the Beloved community. A place where all people are invited to sit at the table of sisterhood and brotherhood. A place where people of faith and people of no faith can come and reason together. A place where race is not erased, but seen in all of its complexity and historical context. The goal here is not postracial, but post racist—not to transform race into the ubiquitous melting pot of whiteness, but to transcend race to a point that our racist presuppositions do not override the beauty of our diversity. A place where love abounds and we no longer have to be afraid of the other, but at the table of fellowship, we get to know the other—we recognize the humanity in the other because we see ourselves in the other and for us who claim faith, dare I say, we see God in the other.

That’s our charge, but it is also our hope. May we continue until that day comes.

Thank you

Follow Andre on twitter @aejohnsonphd


Vicki said...

Wow. Andre, this is an outstanding speech. Your words painted the picture so well, I could see the society you wrote of. For me, I see a disconnect between the depth of what theologians such as yourself know and that which is preached and taught in pulpits ordinarily on Sunday mornings. If we are indeed called to this, why isn't this the norm?

Andre E. Johnson said...

Vicki, thanks for reading and for your question. I think one of the main reasons why we do not do this as you say is that, first, it is not easy. But two, there are forces who are diametrically opposed to this and will do everything in their power to stop you. Folks just do not want to make the commitment.