Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Significance of the Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Vincent Bacote, Jonathan D. Fitzgerald, Xavier Pickett


January 21, 2011

In celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we asked a few Capital Commentary contributors to reflect on the significance of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday provides us opportunity to consider how we regard public figures.  First, King typically is presented as a man who was zealous for “truth, justice, and the American way” and was incidentally Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  This oversight leaves us with a narrative absent of the fact that the religious character of King’s participation in the civil rights movement is central, not peripheral. His “Kitchen Table Experience” was a crisis moment when he clearly felt a divine call to the pursuit of justice.  

Second, every public figure is imperfect, even the most heroic and virtuous.  King’s detractors often bring up issues like plagiarism and sexual infidelity, missing the very point of the holiday. King is not honored as moral exemplar in private life, but as someone who symbolizes significant advances that nudged the United States closer to its ideal as a nation that genuinely provided equal opportunity for all.  The holiday does not encourage us to be blind to his flaws, but directs our focus beyond them to a greater public good that transcends his personal frailty. 

— Vincent Bacote is Associate Professor of Theology and Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College and a Trustee of the Center for Public Justice

Martin Luther King, Jr. is remembered for many things—his power to inspire, his oratory skills, his martyrdom—but we don’t often talk about his ability to argue, particularly with other religious leaders. This is precisely what he does to great effect in what I consider one of the most influential pieces of prose ever written in English, his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The letter was penned in response to a statement signed by eight white Alabama clergymen misleadingly titled “A Call For Unity.” In reality, their “Call” was actually for nothing more than an end to King’s nonviolent resistance.

King handedly dismisses each and every one of their points. He appeals to their shared faith and reason, insisting famously, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He appeals to pathos, citing examples such as having to explain to his six year old daughter why she can’t go to an amusement park like other children, and sleeping in a car when no motel will open its doors.

Though I’ve performed some perfunctory research, I have been unable to find any record of the clergy’s actual response to the letter. But we know the response. King’s arguments are woven into the fabric of this country. They are distinctly Christian in their origins, while simultaneously universal in their application. Every semester when I teach the persuasive essay form, my students read “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” But I read it more often than that. I read King to test the strength and validity of my own arguments, to measure the quality of my prose, and the clarity of my focus. I read King to remember the power of words, and the reason why I bother to write at all.

— Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is managing editor of Patrol magazine

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. diagnosed the fundamental problem that beset the U.S. in 1967:

One night, a juror came to Jesus and he wanted to know what he could do to be saved…Jesus didn't say, "Now Nicodemus, you must stop lying.”…He didn't say, "Nicodemus, now you must stop drinking liquor if you are doing that excessively." He said something altogether different, because Jesus realized something basic - that if a man will lie, he will steal. And if a man will steal, he will kill. So instead of just getting bogged down in one thing, Jesus looked at him and said, "Nicodemus, you must be born again."

He said, in other words, "Your whole structure must be changed."…What I am saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, "America, you must be born again!"

King’s Jesus-inflected call is not merely to a spiritual reawakening. Rather, it is a moral vision that is inaugurated when we as citizens die to our indifference to injustice in order to be resurrected with a deeper hope in humanity and love for the least of these. King is attempting to unleash a recreated moral citizen into our fragile American democracy that refuses to be arrested by arrogance, chained by cowardliness, and held hostage to hatred.

— Xavier Pickett is the Founder and President of Reformed Blacks of America, a Philadelphia based think tank, and a Ph.D. candidate in Religion & Society at Princeton Theological Seminary

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”