Martin and the Message of Life
Written by Mike Higgins and Michelle Higgins
As I think about the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I feel tired and challenged. Tired of being the subject matter and expert on all things Black. And at the same time challenged to keep assisting those who say they really want to understand the race problem. One of my white friends asked me why I wasn’t in Memphis during MLK50, my reply was I had an engagement in Washington DC. My reply should have been “why aren’t you in Memphis?”
I would have loved to attend the anniversary events, but I have to continue to prepare for challenging people to show up in places where there is no fanfare. To show up in their everyday lives when it seems like there’s no space for anti-racism, generational reconciliation, Black power ethics and faith-rooted social justice. The faith community needs to show up in the many Memphises, Fergusons, Selmas, St. Louises, Philadelphias, Baltimores and New Yorks in just as many ways.
We should remember the Black struggle on more days than April 4th. We should remember Dr. King’s work and his many words of faith and agitation. We must also remember his fatigue, the pains he took, and the sure hope that he expressed, however weak and wavering at times, that drove him to continue the work for the good of the people - especially Black people and the poor.
April 4th 1968, April 5th through mid-May of 1968 - and beyond - were some of the most trying days in US History. People of Color faced so much under the threat of white supremacy unchecked, and we have faced more since those days because the United States has not practiced real repair of its wrongs.
On April 4th, I woke up feeling guilty of not doing enough to bring about the changes that Dr. King hoped could happen in the United States. I woke with a sense that I had failed at demanding action from the Church and her many organizations.
But the challenge remains, and there is no time or space for feeling like we are either “not working hard enough” or that we have finally reached our goal. The goal of Faith for Justice is obsolescence. We look forward to a Kingdom where the justice movements that speak God’s truth will see their truest affirmation: the full empowerment of people whose constant struggles have called the powers of this day into account.
This is why we fight for freedom, this is why we sing. Because mass interest in Black Heritage still lives only in the month of February. Because white men in New York are still vowing to hate and dehumanize people of color as a rite of passage. Because we still have to use the phrase “everyday racism”, because the phrase “All Lives Matter” is still code for “only white lives are real lives”.
If we hold to the truth that our labor is not in vain, then we must begin to admit that our failures must teach us to labor for Godly purposes no matter the cost. Martin Luther King, Jr. died knowing this. He was assassinated while laboring for the fulfillment of a people’s dream, a people’s demand for what we deserve, and it is the failure of this nation that killed him.
Martin’s death is still fresh to me. I believe that it should be. It is possible to remember our collective wounds even when we have healed. But I do not believe that we have healed, not collectively. We certainly are at risk every day of being scarred over anew.
I remember learning to read and becoming interested in newspapers and magazines when I was a child. I remember seeing “The King Family” on the cover of Ebony magazine and asking my mother why we always saw recent pictures of Coretta Scott King and their children, but none of Martin. She told me about that tragic day. She told me about Malcolm. She told me about Medgar. She told me about the deaths of many Black people by lynching and apathy. She told me that we still had work to do, because the country had not changed much in seeing Black people as people at all.
I wondered what that could mean, and I wept. I was five or six I think, and I felt crushed. April 4th has been a dreadful day ever since.
This year Resurrection Sunday fell on April 1st. And I wondered what the many people working the Poor People’s Campaign must have been thinking, doing, on that day 50 years ago - just days before the death that still shakes our world.
I wondered the same when I saw a timeline of the last days of Martin’s life. His funeral was April 9th, only a few days later. I wondered what that did to his family, to the people who knew him, who shared his calling and inherited his work. I wonder what they felt. I wondered and I prayed that we might feel it too: Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. He is gone, we share in the common pain, the common groaning- but he is not dead. We preach the same gospel he knew, and by the Spirit of truth we know it too: he is not dead. We cannot die.
I wonder what this means for his legacy in faith communities today. I appreciate some important differences and similarities. Black women are more often given the attention they deserve, though we still suffer under the presumption that our connection with men is for protection or keeping us in check. Mother Coretta believed that women are the soul of the nation.. that acknowledging this was the only way to save the soul of the United States. Gender interdependence is still a struggle, so we march. We protest. We are still protesting because it is the calling of the people of God. We are still marching for freedom, because there are no chains in the beloved community. We are still being threatened and killed for basic truths that ought to be taught to all children: that people are precious, that it is right to repair the pains our forgetfulness has caused. We must learn, teach and preach that our skins are not made of metal, that our whole world is amiss if we are painted as predators and hunted like prey.
Martin said “America, you must be born again”, and we must not only begin to preach that, we must live it. Too much blood has been shed in vain attempt to cover the sins of America. Martin’s, Mike’s, Eric’s, Walter’s, Rekia’s, Sandra’s…. we speak their names in hopes of never adding more. We are King’s legacy, the daughters, sons, siblings and cousins of people empowered to demand dignity. We must continue this long march, an inter-generational, multi-gender, multi-racial walk of faith. Faith in the God of the Resurrection is evidence of the victory we strive to see. His is the story we strive to continue: just as Jesus will bring life to his people by defeating the enemy of death, we protest to preach an end of injustice. We march because we refuse to be sacrificed for America’s sins. We march because we are tired of dying, and it is time to name our enemy, face it, and fight. We march because we know that in order for our nation to be born again, racism has to die.