On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. At 39, his life was prematurely ended by an assassin’s bullet, but the power of his nonviolent message of justice and peace could not be killed. Today marks the 50th anniversary of that fateful day. As a result, the sobering commemoration has sparked reflection among many Christians who know the church’s troubled history regarding racial justice.

Though King is beloved now as a symbol, his life was far more contentious and prone to opposition than what we selectively remember about it. Parts of his message tend to fall by the wayside in the dialogue surrounding his legacy of justice for all. We must remember the length and breadth of his stances to properly glean form his example. Here are 4 things we should never forget about Dr. King as we speak about his legacy.

1. King spoke about more than just racism

Racism was the initial impulse for his activism and continued to be a driving force until his dying day. Yet, Dr. King was involved in far more than just race relations. At the time of his death, he was organizing a sanitation workers strike in Memphis for fair wages and better treatment in the workplace. Before his death, he spoke fiercely about “the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.” It is easy to remember him as an advocate on behalf of the victims of racial injustice. But that would be far too simplistic of a way to remember his broad legacy. He consistently stood in solidarity with the marginalized and vulnerable in all spheres of life.

To learn more about the breadth of his stances, read his speech “America’s Moral Chief Moral Dilemma”: http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/americas-chief-moral-dilemma

2. King was a tactician 

As the movie Selma brilliantly demonstrates, Dr. King was more than a voice who delivered feel-good, human principles. He was a strategist who believed in organizing groups of people toward structured advocacy. As he once famously stated, “Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war.” From organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott to presiding over the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the time of its founding, King believed that organizational strategy were key to bridging gaps and bringing people together for the sake of holistic justice.

3. King possessed a robust theology

It is easy to minimize this in light of his activism, but Dr. King was a brilliant theological mind. He was not simply moved to solidarity with the marginalized because it was a useful sentiment. He pulled from a deep well of theology. His seminary background taught him robust principles of humanity in light of the Scriptures. As a son of the black church tradition, he was familiar with the legacy of injustice that his church and others were forced to stand against and the Biblical principles that motivated those stances. He never believed that his advocacy was separated from his Christianity, but rather that it was intimately connected to his faith. King was truly committed to what we have called “justice as a mission of life.”

4. King would not be who he was without his wife Coretta

Any mention of Dr. King should not fail to reference his courageous wife, Coretta Scott King. Far beyond just a silent supporter, Coretta provided the backbone, strength, and insight that make King the man who he became. Historians have frequently mentioned that when the two met, she was far more of an activist than he was. She taught him on anti-war activism and challenged him to remain true to his convictions. Once her husband was killed, she honored his legacy by continuing his work until her death in 2006. Dr. King simply would not be remembered as he is now without Coretta Scott King.

It is important for people of faith to continue Dr. King’s example. While we learn from his example, we should never forget his holistic stances and his strategic activism. As we commemorate his life and remember his death today, ask yourself this question: “What can I do today to further this courageous legacy of peace and justice right where I live today?” Regardless of where we live and our situation, we all can do something to stand in solidarity with our neighbors.

Tyler Burns

Author Tyler Burns

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