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The Radical King

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The Radical King

New Year – and I’m working on honing my potential for prophetic witness and challenge. So maybe I can manage to resume blogging.

Here’s the speech I delivered this morning at the Rogers Memorial Library (of Southampton, NY) annual MLK Breakfast. (it’s long for a blog – and it’s a speech – so better heard than read, but here you go)


I’ve been thinking about which Martin Luther King, Jr. to talk to you about this morning. King the pastor. King the prophet. King the organizer. King the Dreamer. Which King do you remember and recall and pass down?

I watched the television show Black•ish, last week. (If you’re not watching it, you’re missing out). This episode was mostly about how people, and how this Black family is responding to the election of Donald Trump as President. At the father’s workplace, actual work has ground to a standstill. At the children’s high school, relationships have deteriorated to the point that they have been given the day off to reflect and to prepare for a “Unity Day.” The son, Jr., has been asked to deliver a part of Rev. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech—delivered during the March on Washington in 1963.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. …That one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.[1]

Jr. is reminded, though, by his grandfather of a different King. The King who also in that speech said:

This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality—1963 is not an end but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.

There will be a neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundation of our nation until the bright days of justice emerge.[2]

I want to talk to you this morning about this King. The Radical King. The prophet who preached change. The organizer who understood power. The pastor, who remained grounded in love.

In the introduction to his collection of speeches by King—titled The Radical King, Dr. Cornel West writes

In Dr. King’s own time, he would say repeatedly, “I am nevertheless greatly saddened…that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling.” It is no accident that just prior to King’s death, 72 percent of whites and 55 percent of blacks disapproved of his opposition to the Vietnam War and his efforts to eradicate poverty in America. When much of the black leadership attacked or shunned him, King replied, “What you’re saying may get you a foundation grant but it won’t get you into the kingdom of truth.” In short, Martin Luther King, Jr., refused to sell his soul for a mess of pottage. He refused to silence his voice in his quest for unarmed truth and unconditional love. For King, the condition of truth was to allow suffering to speak; for him, justice was what love looks like in public.[3]

West continues: “Although much of America did not know the radical King— and too few know today— the FBI and US government did. They called him ‘the most dangerous man in America.’”[4]

The most dangerous man in America.

They understood his revolutionary power. The power to organize tens of thousands of Black people to successfully boycott the bus system in Montgomery Alabama. The power to inspire millions of Americans—Black and White and everything in between to support and fight for a vision—a dream—of a more just society. The ability to harness the transformative power of love to challenge business as usual in order to change our world.

King tells us that power is not a thing to shy away from, but to cultivate and to harvest and to use skillfully. One of his associates (and I think friends) was Walter Reuther. During the March on Washington, Walter Reuther marched with Dr. King. And during his speech, Reuther stood by his side. This association—between King and Reuther—is especially meaningful to me because before ministry, I was a member of and then an organizer for the United Auto Workers Union (the UAW), founded by Walter Reuther. In his last speech before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967, King says this about power:

Now, power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change. Walter Reuther defined   power one day. He said, “Power is the ability of a labor union like UAW to make the most powerful corporation in the world, General Motors, say ‘Yes’ when it wants to say ‘No.’ That’s power.”

Now a lot of us are preachers, and all of us have our moral convictions and concerns, and so often we have problems with power. There is nothing wrong with power if power is used correctly. You see, what happened is that some of our philosophers got off base. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love. It was this misinterpretation that caused the philosopher Nietzsche, who was a philosopher of the will to power, to reject the Christian concept of love. It was this same misinterpretation which induced Christian theologians to reject Nietzsche’s philosophy of the will to power in the name of the Christian idea of love.

Now we got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best, power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on.[5]

Power, paired with love. Power in the name of love. That is transformative. And used skillfully, with purpose. This is what King was calling us to all those years ago. To remember our purpose and to keep our eyes on the prize. I think about that a lot lately in our current presidential climate. Now, I don’t want to be partisan—but I have a political point of view. And so, I’m going to go there. Because when I look at our politics today—and especially our President Elect, I can’t help but characterize it as chaos. So much chaos and distraction and–in my opinion-foolishness surrounding this president, that my work is to keep my eyes on the prize. To stay focused on what’s at stake. To not be distracted. And instead, to be maladjusted.

In a 1963 speech, The Rev. King talked about creative maladjustment. He said

there are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of good‐will will be maladjusted. I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self‐defeating effects of physical violence.

In other words, I’m about convinced now that there is need for a new organization in our world. The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment—men and women who will be as maladjusted as the prophet Amos. Who in the midst of the injustices of his day could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” As maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln who had the vision to see that this nation would not survive half‐slave and half‐free. As maladjusted as Thomas Jefferson who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery would scratch across the pages of history words lifted to cosmic proportions, “We know these truths to be self‐evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator certain unalienable rights” that among these are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” As maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth who could say to the men and women of his day, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you. Pray for them that despitefully use you.” Through such maladjustment, I believe that we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice. My faith is that somehow this problem will be solved.[6]

We ought to be maladjusted—yes. Creatively maladjusted. Filled with the force of a righteous anger at anything that stands against love. Filled with a force of anger at anything that stands against justice. At discrimination, at religious bigotry, at economic injustice, at militarism, at senseless and useless violence. As urgent a message today as it was 53 years ago.

I want to leave you with just one more thing from King The Pastor. King The Theologian. The King who was always guided by Love.

And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. For I have seen too much hate. I’ve seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I’ve seen hate (on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens’ Councilors in the South) to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love. And the beautiful thing is that we aren’t moving wrong when we do it, because John was right, God is love. He who hates does not know God, but he who loves has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality. [7]

This message of love. This is the Radical King. This is my inspiration for the work of ministry.

Like King, I choose love. And I will talk about it everywhere I go.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have A Dream,” 1963.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Martin Luther King Jr., The Radical King (King Legacy), Beacon Press. 2015. Kindle Edition.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Martin Luther King Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here,” in The Radical King (King Legacy), Beacon Press. 2015. Kindle Edition
[6] Martin Luther King, Jr., speech at Western Michigan University, Dec 18th, 1963.
[7] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here,” August 1967.