The Truth about Martin Luther King Day

Richard Hill

By Matthew Burdette

In southeast Dallas there is a place where Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard intersects with Malcolm X Boulevard. A large image of the 1964 meeting between Martin and Malcolm is on a wall. Despite repeated attempts, it was the only time the two men met. That they would shake hands at their meeting was not assured. King feared that a meeting with Malcolm would alienate his white supporters. Yet they met. Photos of the event are among my favorite of the Civil Rights Movement.

Both men were undeniably political radicals, and, as James H. Cone has argued, one way to understand the basic political difference between them is to contrast their judgments about the United States.[1] In Martin’s view, America lives in contradiction to its lofty ideals, perpetually captive to three key problems that arise from “ethical infantilism”: racial injustice, poverty, and war. By contrast, Malcolm concluded that America’s espoused ideals were little more than ideological smoke and mirrors; systemic white supremacy, poverty, and violence did not contradict American identity, but expressed it.

In Dallas, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is home to a variety of both open and defunct liquor stores, convenience stores, pawn shops, and payday lenders. The neighborhood is almost exclusively black and brown. Public education in the area is struggling. Homelessness and hunger are prevalent.

This year I was part of a group that marched in the annual Martin Luther King Day parade in Dallas, which includes a mile of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The group, Reconcile Dallas, is composed of lay and ordained Christians from different churches in Dallas intent on expressing cross-confessional and racial solidarity and working toward visible and spiritual unity. A Church divided racially is still a divided Church, and so it is fitting that our ecumenical efforts would address both theological and sociopolitical conflicts. The Diocese of Dallas has committed to participating in Reconcile Dallas efforts, and Bishop Sumner has insisted that addressing poverty and racism is a priority for Christian mission. So, on January 15, I and others gathered early in the morning and rode to south Dallas to march in the parade. On the way there I remarked to a friend that I found it off-putting that the event was called a parade rather than a march, the former denoting that the mission has been accomplished, while the latter acknowledges the work to be done. (As I write this, I cannot say that my mind has changed on this matter.)

While we waited for our turn to enter the parade procession, we stood in a notably depressed neighborhood and watched various school marching bands and teams of cheerleaders — almost exclusively black people — practicing their performances before marching. They were incredible. And theirs was an unqualified spirit of celebration, despite their depressed surroundings. This spirit of celebration was no less the possession of thousands of people — again, almost exclusively black — who lined the street to cheer and to shout to us, perhaps the only racially mixed and explicitly Christian group in the parade, “God bless you!”

But what were they celebrating?

We approached the intersection with Malcolm X Boulevard, and the image of Martin and Malcolm came into view. I remarked, to the same friend, “Next year: a march on Malcolm X Day.” Of course, there is no such day, nor is one currently imaginable. The existing state of affairs does not permit it. Black and brown neighborhoods are still trapped in a web of poverty, drug addiction, crime, inadequate resources for education, debt, and low-paying jobs. That is to say, despite legal desegregation, it is difficult to say without equivocation that integrationist efforts have been a success. Malcolm’s judgments about American society have yet to be falsified by the evidence.

But just as I was patting myself on the back for my social analysis of the situation (which was correct), congratulating my own dismay at the unqualified celebration of the presumed meaning of King, which is far less radical and less theologically Christian than who King actually was (which is true), and thinking that Malcolm’s speeches and autobiography ought to be required reading (which they are), it struck me that the other participants in the parade and those in attendance understood something that I was failing to grasp. And what I was failing to grasp has a great deal to do with the tradition of black worship and the place of the black church in the black community.

To give my misunderstanding context, I must indulge in a brief autobiographical excursus. I am the son of a white father and a Haitian mother. I grew up in a racially diverse, middle-class area of New Jersey. Having grown up with much of the black experience (i.e., being treated as black people are treated), I nevertheless did not share the cultural background of other black people in my community. Always unconsciously identifying as Haitian, I learned black American history not as my history, but their history. Likewise, the churches I grew up in were not black churches, nor did they share in the rich liturgical tradition of black worship. My coming to “black consciousness,” if I may use the old phrase, has been as much the result of education as it has been the outcome of reflecting on personal experience. Solidarity with poor people and non-white people is a consequence of Christian formation. I cannot claim black culture as my own, nor can I claim that this culture is intuitively understandable to me.

The black church has been and remains a central fixture in black communities. Or, rather, Christianity as it has been received and practiced by black Americans has been formative for black culture — also for those black people who do not believe or practice the Christian faith.[2] Principal among the black church’s gifts to the black community has been its tradition of preaching and music, which are very often celebratory, not as a response to the lives of black worshipers, but in faithful contradiction of the condition of their lives.

Celebration in black worship is not denial of reality, nor an opium to quell disquiet or resistance. Rather, this celebratory spirit that has infused both black church and black community arises from trust in God’s eschatological promises.[3] And what God promises is not pie in the sky, but his very presence in the struggle for justice. He will not abandon us even if our struggle takes us to the grave, and when, as with Martin and Malcolm, the struggle takes our lives, God’s promise is that his presence with us shall prevail over the powers of death and hell. Eschatological hope has been the lifeblood of the black church, and this is the blood that flows through the veins of black community. On Martin Luther King Day, as we marched through a region of Dallas shaped by generations of racism and economic injustice, that eschatological hope was expressed in the spirit of celebration.

Of course, none of this is understood if it is taken as an opportunity to deny or minimize the facts on the ground. Yet I cannot deny that I was heartened and indeed spiritually blessed to share in this event in the life of the black community in Dallas. I was among fellow Christians, gathered around a common hope. What is needed is that parallax experience of shifting perspectives, ever in a dialectic: the courageous empiricism of Malcolm, the faithful trust of Martin. The truth of that day is not that we have already succeeded, nor that America must necessarily fail. What is needed is a deeper Christian vision of God’s promises, and trust that so animates our action and solidarity with one another that we are called to deeper bonds of communion as we strive for justice.

The Rev. Matthew Burdette serves as curate and director of student ministry at Good Shepherd Church, Dallas.


[1] Classically, James H. Cone, Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare (Orbis Books, 1991).

[2] Stephen C. Finley, Torin Alexander, and Anthony B. Pinn, eds., African American Religious Cultures, 2 vols. (ABC-CLIO, 2009). See especially volume 2.

[3] James H. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (Orbis Books, 1972).


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