The following editorial, the work of then-editor Carroll Simcox, was published in The Living Church fifty years ago this month, on February 8, 1970. A bill to make the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, January 15, a national holiday was introduced in Congress by Representative John Conyers of Michigan on April 8, 1968, just four days after King’s assassination in Memphis. The highly controversial proposal was eventually signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on November 13, 1983, over fifteen years later. In 2000, New Hampshire became the final U. S. state to name an annual holiday for the Civil Rights leader.
These lines are being written on the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. [in 1970]. At the time of his death we eulogized him editorially as a prophet, and some readers who thought him a subversive were upset. Now we can all try to see him in the perspective of hindsight. What was his total impact – regardless of what one thinks of each particular one of his opinions and tactics? That question should be answered by the answer to another question: Since King’s death, has there been progress or regress in race relations in this country? If progress, then his absence from the present scene is a blessing; if regress, then his death was a disaster.
We are sure that the latter is the case. Dr. King taught and practiced non-violence, but that term does not do justice to his positive philosophy. He believed in the healing and uniting power of goodwill, understanding, reconciliation; his dream was of a community of “black and white together” in a free, voluntary community of brothers – equal but yet diverse, mutually enriching one another through their very diversity. There was something Pauline in his conception of the beloved community. At his death the dominant movement in race relations turn from his vision and goal to that of American apartheid. It is in that direction that the nation is moving today. We do not see how any Christian can be happy about this terrible turn.
Was King, then, a prophet? The term is capable of protean extension. Isaiah, John Baptist, Augustine, Luther were prophets; so were Marx, Nietzsche, and Hitler. Was he a prophet in the Christian tradition? Assuredly he was, if what we hear in the Sermon on the Mount is the Lord’s word to his people today. We believe that he merits the prophets honor, and if making his birthday a national holiday is the best way of honoring him we are fortunate. He is violently controversial, to be sure; but then so was Lincoln for many years after his death, and in some quarters he still is. Those who hold that our cup of national holidays already runneth over make a strong point. There is no sense in adding another one unless it is made an annual occasion for national re-dedication to the truth which the prophetic hero proclaimed. It is vastly more important that we should try to recapture Dr. King’s dream and try to make it come true. His dream is the only alternative to the nightmare of apartheid.