History as Story
I’ve written before about how our stories create us, how the memories we hold make us who we are.  This is true for us as individuals and as a society. Now, as we in the United States prepare to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. on Monday, we explore this topic again, because how we tell the story of this man’s life and ministry affects how we either carry on, or obstruct, the work he did.
Perhaps King’s story doesn’t seem complicated enough for multiple interpretations. After all, he led a Civil Rights movement, he believed in beloved community, and he said we shouldn’t concern ourselves with the color of people’s skin. Right?
There are many ways to interpret history. Dana Goldstein, for a recent New York Times article, analyzed forty-three junior and senior high school history textbooks.  These days, publishers print different editions for different states since laws about what should be taught vary. Looking at two versions of a particular textbook, one meant for Texas and one for California, Goldstein discovered that, while both were less racist than textbooks from the 60s, the two versions differed in predictable, partisan ways.
For instance, although the California textbook mentions redlining and white flight from racially-diverse neighborhoods, the Texan textbook does not. California’s 842-page social science “framework” section includes historical details about many minority groups, including racial and gender ones. For Texas, editors reduced the section to 78 pages. The two textbooks offer different views of capitalism, immigration, gun rights, and global warming, as well.
Mythologizing the Person
The publisher tailored the two versions by emphasizing or ignoring certain information. Neither book contains factual inaccuracies or purposeful falsehoods. We won’t find there inventions such as the oft-quoted story about George Washington and the cherry tree, fabricated by Mason Locke Weems after Washington died.  From such tall tales, generations of children learned life lessons, and through stories like Weems’s, Washington became more myth than person. At a certain point, most, if not all, historical figures, become mythological, for time obscures some things and not everyone will read complex, historical books about famous figures.
Even when we try to be factual in our retelling, what we say about men and women of the past and the way we use their quotes is political. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a real human being with loves and fears and dreams. We may think we know a lot about him, yet he has been dead long enough to become more myth than man. The stories we share about him, and how we interpret them, matter.
For instance, let’s look at how people sometimes interpret King’s dream speech, in particular his hope that one day his children will “live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  Tanner Colby, writing for The Guardian, has suggested these words might constitute “the most abused and misunderstood phrase in American political history.”  Used by many to support “color-blind” policies, quoted by others to prove we shouldn’t “see color,” King’s dream has lost its power to shock and transform us.
“Whitewashing” King’s Legacy
But it is not only King’s dream speech that has been “whitewashed,” as Kaitlin Byrd puts it in her opinion article published by NBC News, “Martin Luther King Jr’s True, Radical Legacy Is Being Whitewashed by People Looking for Easy Absolution.”  We toss about his quotes regarding peace and beloved community, repeat his statement that “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” and proclaim the virtues of nonviolence and forgiveness that he promoted, because, according to Byrd, we want to be absolved of our guilt.
Absolution is not simple. Though forgiveness does not free us from obligation or debt the way absolution does, even the search for forgiveness takes courage, for by asking to be forgiven, we must admit we have done wrong. No matter how ashamed and sorry we feel, however, we cannot demand forgiveness. It must be offered freely, from a place of courage and of power.
To forgive others takes courage because, to forgive, we must first name the harm done and claim the right to not be harmed in the future. The power of forgiveness is a power grounded in love for both self and others.
Love, Forgiveness, and Justice
This was King’s real message, that power must be grounded in love and love in power. He preached a message of love and forgiveness, yes, but he also demanded justice and change.
By quoting him out of context and interpreting his teachings based on those snippets, we do to his legacy what we have done to the teachings of every religious and political leader whose message is more complicated than we are comfortable with: we water it down, making it fit the lifestyle we want for ourselves rather than use it to call us to create a world that is fair for everyone, a world in which we and our descendants can grow to become our best selves. We thus take from King his power and turn him into the insipid, but likable lover who will challenge neither our lifestyle nor identity.
That kind of vapid love was something King spoke against at the eleventh annual convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967. He said that love is often “identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.”  Because of this, we fear power as dangerous and relinquish it in the name of love.
Love and Power Together
We needn’t do so. Indeed, we shouldn’t. As King pointed out, when we give up our power, we render love meaningless, for “power without love is reckless and abusive, and . . . love without power is sentimental and anemic.” 
Yet power alone is not enough. Power might know how to make demands, but without love, it is empty and cruel. King said that, at its best, power “is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” 
In his essay about this speech, Mark Nepo likens King’s words to the difference between wanting to be “Godlike,” to bask in the thrill of riches, glory, and power, versus wanting to be “of God,” to express the godliness we feel around us, to live in “kinship” and “alignment” with the whole of creation. 
Where Do We Start?
So what do we do? How do we make real King’s dream? Do we pretend we don’t see a person’s skin color? If we really could respond to skin color the way we do to hair or eye color, perhaps that would be a good thing. But that’s not where we are in this country, and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous.
What’s the alternative, then? Where do we start?
We start by paying attention to our personal and cultural responses to color, acknowledging we have reactions that, sometimes, we aren’t proud of. That’s why it’s important to recognize that our thoughts and feelings come and go. We can’t control them. Knowing this, we can observe without judgment. When we reduce our judgment, we react less and respond more. Then, we have some control over hoe we act.
Moving Forward in Power and Love
Once we can do this, Colby suggests we learn to show honest interest in the character, not the color, of others. This means listening to their stories, imaging what it might be like to “walk in their shoes,” and discovering how “their character was shaped by the reality of the color of their skin.” 
We can start with ourselves. No matter what our color skin we have, our life has been shaped by it. Even if our skin is pale, we have a racial story it behooves us to understand. Our story is both societal and personal.
How we live in kinship and alignment while also seeking change, resisting hate, and demanding justice is our challenge. There’s no place in this for taking quotes out of context, for insipid and anemic loving. No matter how much we might fear or deny it, all of us have power. We are responsible for using the power we have for the common good.
Defining that common good can be complicated, and social policies always have unintended consequences. We will sometimes misquote and misunderstood our mythological figures, whether they be political or religious. But when we base our decisions on love tempered by power and power tempered by love, we have a chance of getting it right.
In faith and fondness,
- For example, “What Is Hidden in the Parable of the Leaven,” https://urcpdx.org/what-is-hidden-in-the-parable-of-the-leaven/, “Climate Change and Telling New Stories,” https://urcpdx.org/climate-change-telling-new-stories/, “Opinion, Fact, and Truth,” https://urcpdx.org/opinion-fact-truth/.
- Goldstein, Dana, “Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories.,” The New York Times, January 13, 2020, A1, A2, A14, and A15.
- Uva, Katie, “Parson Weems,” Washington Library Center for Digital History, Digital Encyclopedia, https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/parson-weems/, accessed 1/14/20.
- King, Martin Luther, Jr., “I Have a Dream,” March on Washington, 1963, https://www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf.
- Colby, Tanner, “Politicians Have Abused Martin Luther King Jr’s Dream,” The Guardian, August 23, 2013, https://www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf, accessed 1/16/20.
- Byrd, Kaitlin, “Martin Luther King Jr’s True, Radical Legacy Is Being Whitewashed by People Looking for Easy Absolution,” NBC News, Think, inJanuary 21, 2019, https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/martin-luther-king-jr-s-true-radical-legacy-being-whitewashed-ncna960756, accessed 1/16/20.
- King, Martin Luther, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?,” Annual Report Delivered at the 11th Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, August 16, 1967, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/where-do-we-go-here-address-delivered-eleventh-annual-sclc-convention, accessed 1/16/20.
- Nepo, Mark, Finding Inner Courage, San Francisco, CA: Conari Press, 2017, 73.
Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved