Every Martin Luther King Day, Lerone Martin, director of American culture studies in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, re-reads the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
“It’s a wonderful piece that lays out the principles of nonviolent protest,” said Martin, who is also associate professor of religion and politics and of African and African American studies. “I love how King displays his commitment to nonviolence is a lifestyle, not just as a tactic for protest, but an all encompassing worldview. It was an important message then and an important message today.”
For the 34th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration, Martin will explore King’s legacy with Peniel E. Joseph, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” Published in 2020, the book challenges persistent misconceptions about the leaders’ relationship and quests for justice.
The virtual commemoration will take place from 7:30-8:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 18. Join the event here. The School of Medicine also will host Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Week, featuring speakers and panels. View a full list of events here.
Here, Martin previews the discussion and shares King’s lessons for students.
What is new for readers in this book?
One of the many things this book does so well is to continue the conversation concerning how we understand both Malcolm and Martin. They are often pitted against each other in public conversation, media depictions and educational curriculum. This book complicates that story and proves that they were not as opposed as many have concluded. Dr. Joseph points out how they learned from one another and how the public perception we have today is too narrow. By seeing them and their political visions in a broader scope, we can engage our current political moment and social protests — Black Lives Matter, Antifa and the insurrection at the Capitol — as historical informed citizens.
How did King’s religion shape his politics?
I love the fact that his radical vision of American democracy was thoroughly shaped by his faith. The imago Dei, the belief that every human being is made in the image of God, was the foundation of his political philosophy. Everything else — his belief in nonviolence as well as his critiques of segregation, racism and his capitalism — was an extension and expression of his faith. In our political moment, faith is often associated with conservative politics that yearns for the days of yesteryear. King reminds us that there is a Christian faith that has a progressive and expansive vision of democracy, justice and citizenship. King is popular today, having achieved civil sainthood, but he took stands that were not popular at the time. Nevertheless he was always guided by his faith and his courage, not political popularity. He tried to keep his eyes on the prize, not the polls.
Sen. Josh Hawley may be saying the same thing at this moment.
I believe Senators Hawley, Ted Cruz and other likeminded elected officials would say this. Indeed, they have said it. Moreover, they annually champion MLK, at times even pitching themselves and their political ideals as in line with the civil rights preacher and leader. So it is so very important for us to be clear — their faith and politics do not sit in the same tradition as King’s. King’s faith, for example, led him to preach and practice that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…” He taught us that racism, militarism, and economic inequality — what King called the evil triplets — were perpetually sinful, not just when they are politically inconvenient.
Students are submitting questions for you to ask the author. What do they want to know?
With a summer full of protests and the violence at the Capitol, our beautiful and earnest students want to know two things. One: Who is Martin Luther King Jr. beyond the landmark “I Have a Dream” speech? Second, they want to know if he has anything to say to us today. With violence in the streets, students are asking if Martin Luther King and his commitments to nonviolence are still relevant. They want to know if King’s dream was fulfilled or was it a flawed nightmare. I believe my conversation with Professor Joseph will help to address these questions and more.