After the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, the editors of America asked: “Will this prophet be heard in death as he was not heard in life? Will the martyr accomplish by his blood what he could not achieve by his words?”
The original meaning of the Greek word martyr is “witness,” taken in the Christian sense to mean one who witnesses to the faith with one’s own blood. Dr. King’s witness was not secular or politically partisan, but one profoundly inspired by his conviction that the biblical demand for justice was as pertinent in our day as in the days of the ancient prophets.
In the weeks that followed Dr. King’s assassination, religious leaders penned an interfaith statement to President Lyndon B. Johnson and the U.S. Congress, calling for concrete action to continue the work of the civil rights movement and to “lift up the burden of the poor and oppressed in our land.”
Was Martin Luther King Jr. heard?
On the one hand, interfaith and ecumenical groups have made great strides in the fight against poverty and racism. Groups like Circle of Protection bring together a broad coalition of Christians to oppose budget cuts that would gut federal programs like food stamps and Medicaid and disproportionately harm people of color. People of every faith joined voices to condemn the vile racism laid bare at last summer’s white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Va. The tenets of social justice are now firmly ensconced in the religious educational curricula of innumerable schools.
“Will this prophet be heard in death as he was not heard in life? Will the martyr accomplish by his blood what he could not achieve by his words?”
But it is impossible to ignore the bleak economic and social realities that many African-Americans and members of other racial minority groups still face. Decades after the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the War on Poverty, Americans of color continue to face social and economic inequality and a widespread lack of opportunity. In the United States, if you own a home, if you went to college, if your economic assets exceed your liabilities, if you have a positive view of law enforcement, you most likely are white.
Those realities are accompanied by a disturbing complacency in mainstream political and cultural discourse. The insidious notion that all Americans now enjoy equal treatment under the law or that our individual outcomes (economically, politically, socially) unfold independently of any legacy of racism and discrimination infects everything from Supreme Court decisions to tax policies that freeze economic inequality.
The rhetoric, from the president all the way down to local sheriffs, often blames ethnic minorities for social and health problems that are actually exacerbated by racially discriminatory policies. We as a nation seem more and more willing to see the racist structures of the past as past, when in fact they remain present today throughout the nation.
As we honor Martin Luther King Jr. for his witness in the struggle for equal rights, we do well to remind ourselves that the very concept of equal rights is robbed of substance in the face of the reality that some people’s equal rights in this country are still threatened.