Martin Luther King, Jr.: one white man’s gratitude

When I was in fifth grade, I had a classmate named C.L. Armstrong. C.L. was black, and even back then, I was not. I have my share of prejudices, but I will say this on behalf of ten year-old Thad: he did not understand why anyone cared about the color of someone else’s skin.

This was not a virtue of my own making, nor was it a function of an ignorance that some people did, in fact, care. Dozens of times I had heard the n-word from one of my great grandfathers, who was born in 1889 and lived through my freshman year in college. This man would have been as at home as a barely believable character in a classic southern novel as he was in the real world. I don’t recall him ever referring to me, my brothers, and our cousins as anything other than “my little jackasses,” always in a roaring guttural voice that echoed for a half mile, the result of him being almost totally deaf from working in saw mills when he was young (before, apparently, anyone thought stuffing something in your ears might be a good idea).

He was a man who was deeply flawed beyond his vocabulary, but he was sort of a mythic figure in our lives simply for living so damn long, never mind the fact that he abused his body for a century, drinking copious amounts of hard liquor for decades, using tobacco from his childhood (and regularly offering it to his little jackasses), and daily eating exactly what experts will now guarantee to kill you by 40. He died a few months shy of his 105th birthday because, while in the hospital for an infection in his toe, he successfully physically resisted an army of hospital staff trying to put a feeding tube in him, then decided he was done and quit eating. I’m not kidding.

Anyway, my point is neither to demonize nor lionize him. He was wrong about race, but my heritage – and yours – is littered with saints and sinners, most of them mixed up in the same bodies. Papaw Jim probably leaned more toward the latter, but I certainly don’t mean to suggest that he was my only connection to racism. I mention him to note that in 1986, I had a living link to racial attitudes of someone born less than 25 years after Lincoln was killed. That covers a lot of dark history in this country.

And yet, while not unaware that race seemed to matter to some, I did not understand why. Although my boldest move – integrating the boom-chicka-boom circle on the playground – wouldn’t come until the following year (yes, that really happened), one January day in 1986, C.L. came to class wearing a bright orange t-shirt screen-printed with a black man’s face and some words. (Only today, upon finding the very same shirt online, did it dawn on me that this happened on the first nationally recognized Martin Luther King Day.) I was vaguely aware of Martin Luther King by then, but I was ignorant enough both of his legacy and of the need to be embarrassed by how little I knew about him to simply ask C.L., “Why are you wearing that shirt?”

This is exactly the shirt C.L. wore that day.

This is exactly the shirt C.L. wore that day. As I searched for a picture of it, I found an ebay listing for the exact shirt (vintage, not a replica) in my size. I now own it.

I don’t remember exactly what he said. I wish I did. I just know I suddenly became aware of three things: this thing between white people and black people has been messed up for a long time, C.L. seems more affected by that than I am, and I want to know more about this Martin Luther King. Soon after, I found a book about him in the school library and read it for a monthly book report. That began what has grown into a deep fascination with and appreciation for Dr. King and the struggle of so many who labored before, with, and after him to return us to not merely a more perfect union, but a more perfect humanity – a way of being human that is more reconciled to who we were created to be.

As I watch Martin Luther King Jr.: More than a Dream tonight, as I wandered into our local Martin Luther King Day rally too late to hear the speakers but just in time to be the only white man in the house (there were others who had already left, but I suspect far too few), and as I’ve read the numerous King quotes posted on social media today, I’ve had two persistent thoughts. The first is that I see more of my white friends embracing and, I think, understanding Dr. King and his words every year at this time, a phenomenon I can’t help but think demonstrates both real progress in the struggle and the opportunity for many of us to understand and engage lingering issues of race more deeply and more often than once every January.

And I mean us, not you. I have studied Dr. King and the movement more than your average white guy, but I am not an enlightened beacon of racial progress. Our political culture continues to poison the well of human dignity and understanding, and we must do more and give more and be more to resist the resulting cancer.

The second thought is this: as I have said about Rich Mullins, Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the handful of people who I never actually knew but who I deeply miss. He died seven years, two months, and nine days before I was born, but I miss him. And I think we all miss him, whether we know it or not. He was uncommon in his vision for who we all were created to be and his ability to give everyone in the room eyes for that same vision. God, send us more folks like that.

So I am grateful that, even though his life was cut short as a sacrifice for many others, his words and legacy endure. I am grateful on so many levels…

As a writer and a preacher, I am grateful that Dr. King left us with timeless words whose skillful arrangement is matched only by the spirit of grace and penetrating truth that permeates them. He reminds me that writing and preaching matters. He reminds me that writing and preaching well matters. But mostly he reminds me that those things matter most when infused with a spirit that enables words to call into being realities previously unarticulated, maybe unimagined. If I ever write or preach again, may it be for that purpose. Do yourself a favor and read his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and thank God for the written word and for Martin Luther King, the writer. Watch his final sermon, given the night before he died, and thank God for prophetic men like Rev. King, who give their lives to speak the truth.

As a pastor and leader, I am grateful that Dr. King, in his own words, was not worried about longevity of life or his own well-being, but gave himself fully to God’s will for those he led. I am grateful that he was brave enough to go up to the mountaintop to see the promised land, knowing he might not get there himself. He reminds me that without courage, we shrink back from the bigger vision, fearful that seeing it without guarantees might be too much. His audacious, selfless faith inspires me to pray for the kind of courage required to see the promised land.

As a father, I am grateful that Dr. King dared to dream of a world where my children, if they live to be 105, won’t recall a day of their lives when their closest friends didn’t include people of varying shades and hues. If I could speak a word to Dr. King today, I would tell him that we grownups have many miles to go to see his dream realized in its fullness, and then, daddy to daddy, I would say this: “But your dream is fulfilled, fully, in our children.” God, grant that we would faithfully tend their innocence and purity, empowering them to be lifelong ambassadors of the dream.

Finally, as a Christian and a man, I am grateful that Martin, the Christian and the man, was imperfect. While he certainly was a hero, he was no superhero. He struggled with the brokenness, temptation, and sin that plague all men. He was not other. He was a man, ruined by God to follow Jesus through death, convinced that was the way to resurrection. He was right, and bless God for the grace that enables a flawed man to lead so many others – even generations who will come after him – to take that same journey. He reminds us all that life and liberty are a gift of God’s grace to us, and that no man, including ourselves, has the right or the power to deny us that grace or that gift.

Let freedom ring!