April 4, 50 Years Out

by Kristin Kobes Du Mez.

Fifty years.

Fifty years since the shot rang out. Since Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

Over the years there has been a lot of reflection on the legacy of King, our “inconvenient hero.” But 50 years out, how do we confront the legacy not just of his leadership in the movement, but also of his assassination?

What has his death meant for the civil rights movement, for the church, and for subsequent American history?

As we try to grapple with his death, perhaps King himself offers a place to start. It was 1956, and King was only 27 years old, the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptists Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He had just started leading the Montgomery bus boycotts, and he was receiving death threats daily—sometimes dozens.

It was on the night of January 27 that he received a call that shook him to the core. With his wife and 10-week-old daughter sleeping nearby, he heard an anonymous caller threaten to blow up his house if he didn’t leave within the week. He felt his courage slip away. He began to search for a way out of the work before him. But then he bowed over the kitchen table, and prayed. He later recalled experiencing in that moment “the presence of the Divine” as he “had never experienced Him before.” He heard an inner voice telling him: “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” His fear left him, his uncertainty was gone.

Three days later his house was bombed, but his family escaped injury, and his inner calm and conviction persisted.

He lived in the shadow of death from that point on. He knew it, and his family knew it. And he was not alone. Yet he persisted with a boldness, even a recklessness, that astounds.

There is power in this story, the “power of unearned suffering,” as Mika Edmondsen describes it. But when outsiders—white Christians, for example—find inspiration in King’s courage, his commitment to nonviolence, his martyrdom, is there a danger of overlooking the terror, the evil, that caused this suffering? Is there a temptation to resist the necessary work of interrogating how some of us might be implicated in the cause of this suffering, historically or in the present day?

Finish reading this post at The Anxious Benchhttp://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2018/04/april-4-50-years-out-unearned-suffering-white-terror-and-the-legacy-of-a-death/ 

 

Kristin Du Mez is associate professor of history at Calvin and teaches courses in recent America, US social and cultural history, and Gender Studies. Her book A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism was recently published with Oxford University Press. Follow her on Twitter @kkdumez.

About historicalhorizons

The blog of the Calvin College History Department
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