Happy birthday, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.!
I appeared on WIBA 1310 AM Radio this past Monday on Mitch Henck’s “Outside The Box” show to talk about Dr. King’s legacy and what it means to me and the American people. (Mitch and I have co-hosted a segment on WIBA for the past three years called “Dear Alex,” a bi-weekly call-in life coaching program.) It was an honor to sit with Mitch and our listeners and reflect on the importance of King’s legacy. Here is a recap of some of my questions —and thoughts —since the broadcasting of that show:
1. Would Rev. Dr. King be encouraged or discouraged about the progress made along the lines of racial harmony and the advancement of marginalized people of color?
I think that overall King would be grateful for the strides made by middle-class African Americans. The normalcy of integrated schools would have elated King. I am certain that he would have been thrilled to see the impact of the Voter Registration Act and the eventual election of an African American president. And although King was a pacifist, I am sure he might’ve been encouraged by high ranking African Americans in the various branches of the military. Yet on the flip side, I think that King would’ve been saddened that some aspects of the civil rights movement have turned into a civil rights industry. The poor academic performance among many students of color that still exists has created a greased pipeline to the prison system that is sure to have King turning in his grave. The negligent absence of African American fathers in the homes and lives of their children would be appalling to King.
2. How would Rev. Dr. King feel about the fact that we often politicize his work (we all know that his message had an impact on politics and government)?
However, he was the first to say that he was a minister of the gospel and that his training, motivation, and modeling for non-violent civil disobedience was modeled in the rich spiritual legacy of his father, grandfather, and their spiritual roots.
King’s work was deeply rooted in African American spiritual roots. This was not unique. It was these same deep spiritual roots that carried African American slaves through some of the darkest periods of American history. King, though far from perfection, as are we all, was careful to never confuse his love for democracy with a love for public office. He was able to challenge business and government because there were not his support base. It was his sense of calling that ratified that base by causing others to affirm that he had obviously been called to the loneliness, stress, depression, and martyrdom of this work. The use of Negro spirituals, biblical references, church meeting spaces, ministerial alliances, and a plethora of Christian Church congregations was both ingenious and advantageous. The groundswell popularity of King and his message to a cross-cultural, cross-social and cross-faith environment in a pre-social networking era was nothing short of miraculous.
I feel that social activism wanes severely today because too many communities — like Madison —fail to properly collaborate with the African American faith community!
3. Would it surprise Rev. Dr. King that race is still a hot topic in America?
Yes! I believe that King would be sickened by the fact that way too many Whites still feel superior and way too many African Americans still feel inferior. It is a shame that many powerful inner circles of universities, corporations and government are still lily White. And it is a shame that too many people of color are still intimidated by the notion of breaking into these arenas.
4. What would Rev. Dr. King say to would-be community activist and civil leaders regarding the true cost of leadership?
Rev. Dr. King has left behind a rich arsenal of incredible reflections, sermons, letters, speeches, and community mobilization strategies. I would love to have someone simply extrapolate the key leadership principles that he mastered and exhibited so that we can both study and apply them to today’s endeavors. I believe that to would-be community leaders and activists Rev. Dr. King would say the following: Don’t lose focus of the prize through spiritual and personal discipline; train the next group of up-and-coming leaders continually; have thick skin, strong shoulders and balanced emotions; put the community’s needs above your own; keep strong capable people around you who balance your perspective and round out your weaknesses; and, lastly, have faith in God because leading hurting people requires a calling and not just a resume and good skill set.
Phew! Of course, I have no way of knowing what King would actually say today. However, I am enjoying the process of thinking about what he might feel concerning these issues.
In closing I want to say that King and his associates both affirmed existing leaders (Ms. Rosa Parks) and raised up unsung heroes and potential leaders, as well. Our great American society and communities today, if not very careful, might think that we’ve sung enough Kumbayas and read enough King speeches to make racial harmony a done deal. Heck, we’ve even elected an African American (bi-racial) president...twice!
With all this being the case, we can’t ignore mass incarceration, high school dropout rates for black and brown boys, teen pregnancy, absence of parental involvement in school matters, crime, drug addiction, and unemployment. We need churches to be a prophetic voice again on issues of community injustice that also raises up leaders, educates the community, and holds corporations, universities, and elected officials accountable. We need community-based solutions as alternatives to incarceration. We need corporations to work harder to hire individuals who are trying to get back on track. We need corrections to rehabilitate individuals and not merely penalize and warehouse people with untreated drug and mental health issues. We need schools to properly educate ALL children adequately. We need our community leaders to challenge families to take responsibility for teaching our children to respect elders and authority. And we need men to challenge younger men to be respectful of women and responsible for their own children.
Everyone has a huge part to play in keeping King's great dream alive. It's worth our joint efforts. It's not enough to merely discuss the dream ... we need to all wake up and make it a reality.
Dr. Gee is the senior pastor of Fountain of Life Church and the president/founder of The Nehemiah Corporation. You can find out more about Dr. Alex Gee at www.alexgee.com or follow him on Twitter at @alexgeejr.