(RNS) — Fifty years ago this Monday (April 9), Ebenezer Baptist Church hosted the funeral of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., its famed co-pastor and the greatest civil rights leader of the 20th century.
That day, throngs of people from across the country and around the world packed into a sanctuary that comfortably holds only about 400 people. The overflow crowd spilled into the streets as the 39-year-old preacher, who transformed the whole nation into his parish, was eulogized. Among those offering their own eloquent obsequies in the public square were politicians and future presidents, athletes and entertainers, the powerful and the poor.
Now and then, it is too easy to forget that in the two years prior to his death, King was more unpopular than ever. In fact, according to a 1966 Gallup Poll, the last to rate him, nearly two-thirds of Americans viewed unfavorably the man who now has a national holiday and a national monument in his honor.
The prophet had managed to make even those who had supported him uncomfortable, daring to expand his focus from segregation in the South to segregation in the North, connecting America’s failure to wage a real war on poverty to a “spiritual sickness” that led it to wage war instead on the poor of Vietnam. In a speech delivered at New York’s Riverside Church, exactly one year prior to his death, the principled patriot called his beloved America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
The criticism of King on the right and the left was withering and swift. Judging his analysis to be “facile,” The New York Times volunteered its counsel that “To divert the energies of the civil rights movement to the Vietnam issue is both wasteful and self-defeating.” The Washington Post averred, “Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence.” Many even in the black press and the civil rights community were critical. Philanthropic friends withdrew their largesse.
When Whitney Young, head of the National Urban League, a premier civil rights organization, added his voice to the criticism, King was undeterred. He rejoined, “Whitney, what you’re saying may get you a foundation grant, but it won’t get you into the kingdom of truth.” Driven by his own moral compass, King continued to criticize the war, making the link between racism, poverty and militarism. On the Sunday following his assassination, he was planning to preach a sermon at Ebenezer Church titled “Why America May Go To Hell.”
That Martin Luther King Jr. does not fit neatly into the official, public narrative we Americans like to tell ourselves about our nation or the movement. The royal courtyard priest, Amaziah, in his complaint to the king about the ancient Hebrew prophet Amos, provides an apt description of America’s prophet: “The land is not able to bear all his words.” Accordingly, the dangerous man who died in Memphis has become a victim of identity theft. Following his death, we replaced him and the more radical aspects of his message with selected sound bites that will not make us too uneasy.
That’s why politicians and their supporters feel comfortable invoking King’s name, even while leveraging a now weakened voting rights law — the signature achievement of the movement — to pass voter suppression measures; refusing to raise a minimum wage that has less purchasing power than it did in 1968; and locking away the children we have failed in a bulging, carceral state that warehouses a quarter of the world’s prisoners.
Fifty years after Martin Luther King died, America needs to hold a national funeral for King — the faux King we have created — so that we might hear anew the real King calling us to what he called “a revolution of values.” Such a revolution would lead us to dismantle systemic racism and to invest in a high-quality public education for every child, early childhood development, universal health care, a living wage and clean energy jobs for a sustainable future on the planet. We should hold another funeral and bury the simple story so that we can actually build what King called “the beloved community.”
(The Rev. Raphael G. Warnock is senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and author of “The Divided Mind of the Black Church.” He holds a doctorate in systemic theology from Union Theological Seminary. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)