On this day in Memphis, Tennessee while on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was silenced by an assassin's bullet. We celebrate his birth but often neglect his death and why he was killed. We all love the day off and think of Stevie Wonder singing "Happy Birthday To 'Ya!" We sleep in. We plan parties, we even try to figure out which club or bar will have the best drink specials. We take trips to Atlanta and enjoy the three day weekend. But we are just celebrating Dr. King, right? Does that help to lessen who and what King was to us and what he meant to the nation? Unfortunately, I think so. We have allowed King's memory to be denigrated to the point that he is a sound bite, used once a year to remind of a dream that we don't even understand, and likely don't care to. When will African Americans reclaim their heroes for themselves and stop letting the so called white liberal (or conservative) media tell them who their heroes/leaders are? How many "heroes" do young African Americans have that are not on BET's 106 & Park, or MTV's TRL? Simply put, why have we allowed our spokesmen (and women) to be those who entertain the normative population (i.e. whitefolk)?
In one of his most powerful verses, Bob Marley asks us, "How long shall they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look?" Those lyrics come from "Redemption Song." In that tune, Marley is the pure essence of the prophetic voice of African American culture that cries out to injustice...seeking liberation. Unfortunately now, even in death we still "kill our prophets" by not taking time to understand their untimely deaths and really internalize and study their sacrifice. Moreover, when we allow popular media to continue to place our heroes in nice palatable boxes of safe, convenient, historical memory we slowly kill their legacy.
Do not misunderstand me. I do not want to exalt King to anything more than what he was. He was just a man. He was filled with the flaws and greatness that any of us are capable of. He was an ordinary man of extraordinary circumstance. To his own estimation he was merely a symbol of a much larger movement. In a more contemporary context rapper Mos Def confesses to listeners in his The New Danger album, "if you see or hear goodness from me than that goodness if from the Creator...you should be thankful to the Creator for all of that, because I am not the architect of that...I'm only the recipient. If you see weakness or shortcoming in me, it is from my own weakness and shortcoming, and ask the people and the Creator to forgive me for that." This show of humility is an example of an artist aware of the prophetic. Well known public intellectual, Rev. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, in a recent lecture at Cornell University said that the prophetic voice of the black church has been silenced. He soberly commented "that some of the things I hear people doing in the name of God scares me." I would agree. I would also add that some of the things that people don't say is just as damning. What am I getting at? I'll tell you.
Actually one year to the day of his death, April 4, 1967 in a speech entitled, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence" Dr. King gave his most poignant critique of the United States and his own thinking about social change. King's words were the prophetic voice of the oppressed crying out. It was his critique of the Vietnam War that would ultimately place the bullet in the chamber of the firearm that would end his life. James Earl Ray did not act alone...there was behind King's death than a lone racist gunman. King however, was beyond worrying about an assassin's bullet. As he emphatically professed the day before his death, "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I am not concerned with that now," ("I've Been to the Mountaintop"). The statement of the executive committee in 1967 of the Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam was "A Time Comes When Silence is Betrayal."
Understanding this, King had no reservations about calling out the biggest purveyor of violence the world has ever seen...The United States. Speaking as he did, and continued to do for the next year did not make him many friends. In fact he encountered staunch criticism from the White House to fellow ministers and other black civil rights leaders. Vietnam according to the critics had nothing to do with civil rights. Kings rebut was that his commitment was to the soul of the nation and not just civil rights. More importantly the war exposed some of the dire hypocrisies of this nation. Ironically enough our present day quagmire in Iraq is the modern day reincarnation of the Vietnam conflict, but I would dare say that the stakes are much higher and the final results will likely be more catastrophic for the citizens of this America.
Silence is passive acceptance, or "betryal" as the slogan says. As we think about the courage, selflessness and sacrifice that not only King exuded, but also in Medgar Evers, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, and countless others...let us look to our institutions of black culture. For the moment and for the sake of argument, I believe it is fitting to cast our critical gaze on the social silence of black ministry. I have heard many folk refer to ministers such as Bishop T.D. Jakes, Creflo Dollar, or Bishop Eddie Long as so-called "prophets". If that be the case why are they silent on issues such as Iraq, and myriad issues that are pertinent to African Americans? I would open that critique up more, but my point is that I don't hear the prophetic voice of the church and seldom is it in our music lately either (another discussion).
Our prophets don't have to be shot now, there are not prophets now. Those who might be able to share a prophetic word stand aside and look just like observers at the Macy's Day Thanksgiving Day Parade. They sit in awe of a government and a regime that has purchased it's spiritual death on the installment plan. Do not let white folk define and confine Dr. King to the steps of the Washington Memorial on August 28, 1963. So on this day think and reflect on the sacrifice not just of King but of so many nameless, faceless others that gave their blood that we might continue to live, and do so more abundantly.
April 3, 1968, Dr. King's last public words speak not only to the prophetic voice of the church, as Dyson would likely agree with, but also speak to the essence of self-determination combined with an undying faith in our God, our people, and our future.