Full disclosure: I like Martin Luther King. This shouldn’t surprise most of us. Most of us in 2017 do. He had a vision for human rights that have since transcended the times, and I celebrate it. Dr. King worked to dismantle white power structures that defined (and, to a large extent, still do define) American life.
His message is so appealing that it now resonates with conservatives and liberals alike. Memory has been kind to Dr. King, kinder than his contemporaries were. At the height of his influence, politicians on both sides of the aisle considered Dr. King to be either a dupe of the Communists or an agitator himself. Radical right wing agitators deployed their own black speakers such as George Schuyler and Julia Brown to blast Dr. King as an enemy to the black community. Black nationalists such as Malcolm X saw Dr. King as a sell-out, a man whose desire was to eat lunch alongside the same people who hated him. His tactics of visible, non-violent protest were ravaged as disruptive, obtrusive, provocative, and insidious. While “I Have a Dream” rings in our ears, police officers (including my own grandfather, may he truly rest in peace and love) considered him to be a smooth-talking troublemaker seeking to undermine lawful and peaceful society. The majority of white Americans saw Dr. King in a similar light: as a demagogue willing to stir up black Americans into a frenzy, not much different than the Nat Turners or the Denmark Vesseys of generations past.
Today, there are commentators numbering more than a few who attempt to spin Martin Luther King, Jr. to be something of a libertarian activist. They cite his gun ownership (a gun he publicly and gladly gave up in 1960). They cite his emphasis on individual liberties to suppose that he never accepted notions of “white privilege,” “white power structures,” or systemic injustice. While some African-American commentators’ ideologies fit this description, both then and now (e.g. Julia Brown, George Schuyler, and Thomas Sowell come most readily to mind), we do violence to the historical record in refurbishing Dr. King as being some kind of proto-libertarian. He was not. We do violence to Dr. King’s memory if we suppose him to be free of moral blemish.; had we the time, we could—without much difficulty—catalog the grave moral sins of those whom we count as luminaries, whose ideas liberated and empowered millions to become the fullest and brightest versions of themselves. In telling that story, we cannot ignore it; indeed, the co-existence of light and dark in the same soul is one of the tensions that cuts through the human experience.
My faith community is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint. Ancestors on both sides were Mormons to the core: polygamists, pioneers, and victims state-sponsored terrorism and, according to Raphael Lemkin, genocide. They knew something about every institution of the state lining up for their destruction. Yet, we must be cautious in how we deploy their histories. Following after the pattern of White Church America, my faith community has a vexed racial history, teeming with contradictions, disappointments, potential, and tragedy. Even LDS Leadership sympathetic to civil rights causesexpressed resistance to the “civil disobedience” as practiced by Dr. King. In 1965, Hugh B. Brown, though asupporter of civil rights legislation, rejected the efforts of civil rights agitators and activists engaging in civil disobedience: “there are those among us today who advocate breaking the law as one means of calling to the attention of the nation that some have not been given the full benefit of the law. They argue that the laws they break are minor and that the breach is useful and justified because it assists in the enforcement of a greater law. This reasoning is fallacious and inconsistent with Christian principles” (Conference Report, October 1965). In 1995 James E. Faust, a noted Democrat and former civil rights attorney for the John F. Kennedy Lawyers’ Committee on civil rights, observed that “even when causes are meritorious, if civil disobedience were to be practiced by everyone with a cause our democracy would unravel and be destroyed.” Civil disobedience, he continued, “is an abuse of political process in a democracy” (“The Integrity of Obeying the Law,” Freedom Festival Fireside, Provo, UT, July 2, 1995). And this comes without touching the ardent opposition espoused by more conservative members of LDS Church leadership.
With such sentiments Is there a place within LDS theology and history to celebrate the life of a man whose life’s work rubs against the grain of conventional Mormon interpretations of the law?
I believe that there is. Orson F. Whitney taught that: “the Lord needs such men on the outside of His Church to help
it along . . They are among its auxiliaries, and can do more good for the cause where the Lord has placed them, than anywhere else. … Hence, some are drawn into the fold and receive a testimony of the truth; while others remain unconverted … the beauties and glories of the gospel being veiled temporarily from their view, for a wise purpose. . .God is using more than one people for the accomplishment of His great and marvelous work. The Latter-day Saints cannot do it all. It is too vast, too arduous for any one people.” (Conference Report, April 1921, 32-3).
In 1865, a black union officer exclaimed upon his marriage: “I praise God for this day! The Marriage covenant is at the foundation of all our rights.”Equal access to the institutions of our society has always been about more than a teenager being able to eat lunch where he wants, drinking from the same water fountains, or shopping at the same department. Slavery and laws segregating black from white impacted the family unit. Housing covenants and redline mortgage policies throughout the nation prevented black men and women from attaining quality housing for their children. Laws banning interracial marriage compelled both black and white men and women into a state of legal subversion simply for daring to feel affection. Whether in pro-slavery pamphlets or in abolitionist literature, whether in the scholarly writings of E. Franklin Frasier and his opponent, Oscar Lewis, observers have not considered discrimination as a problem faced by the individual but as a structural problem demanding that black families adjust. The Family: A Proclamation to the World declares the family to be “the fundamental unit of society.” And fathers faced angry white lynch mobs or mothers feared rape while working as domestic servants, the legal structures Dr. King fought made the endurance of functioning black families all the more difficult.
So I have jotted down a brief lesson plan for families who wish to celebrate Martin Luther King day as a part of their Family Home Evening lesson (in Mo-landia, that’s a weekly family gathering where we learn moral lessons, play a dopey game or two, and play the role of those photogenic families we saw on television as kids. Or something).
LESSON: What Families Can Learn from Dr. Martin Luther King
LESSON OBJECTIVE: Learning How Martin Luther King’s Vision Can Teach Us To Be Better Friends and Neighbors
A. Hold up two dolls, one with darker skin and one with lighter skin. First, ask your children what they have in common (e.g. “they have two arms.” “they have two eyes.” “They have hair.”). Then, ask what is different (e.g. the skin tone, curly v. straight hair, etc.).
B. Show a brief video from the LDS Church’s “Race and the Priesthood” site (e.g. “God’s Children in Every Aspect” on top or Darius Gray’s “Diversity is Good.” If using the former, it would be good to point out that some of them don’t speak English as a first language, making it not possible for us to hear their fully authentic and articulated voice).
A. Give a brief lesson on how Africans came to live in the Americas. Explain that they were sold as chattel to European traders to work on sugar and cotton plantations. The trade broke up families and relationships, creating an enduring instability in African and African-American families for generations. Discussing this need not be graphic in order to be powerful–though it should not be soft-pedaled either. Walking this balance, as with most things, requires a intuition and sensitivity. But no account of the civil rights movement can be told properly without it (note: I offer no claim to exhaustiveness; we’re talking about the brief attention spans of little ones, so only much time and nuance can be spent here).
NOTE: Emphasize that not all Africans were alike and that they saw themselves as different groups of people, just as Germans see themselves as different people from the English or the French from Russians.
B. Since the arrival of Africans in America, they have faced struggles with discrimination in a number of arenas of American life. Lawmakers and communities supported legislation or promoted attitudes preventing non-white American men and women from receiving the same access to resources that whites. Whether denied the right to attend the same schools, to vote, or to receive medical treatment, African-American men and women in America did not generally had equal access to healthcare facilities on the basis of their ethnicity.
C. Use stories of Mormon ancestors as a point of entry for discussing how whole communities can experience persecution. Tell of how the Saints appealed to the public, journalists, and political candidates in order to raise awareness to their suffering (Caveat #1: this does not suggest equivalence; it points to how the Latter-day Saints have harbored a robust and defensible collective memory of systematic persecution, a memory that can be translated into positive social action; Caveat #2: these persecutions had complicated racial dynamics of their own; while noteworthy, they are not necessary to use these stories as a teaching tool).
D. Point out that some laws are unjust. Maintain many of the rights Dr. King fought for were guaranteed by the Constitution, such as the right to equal protection under the law and the right to vote. Like the Mormon ancestors, many tried to appeal to government officials first. But at every level, they were denied (e.g. Dred Scott v. Sanford, 1856; Civil Rights Cases, 1885, Plessy v. Ferguson 1896, ). After over 300 years (including several violent rebellions and a horrific civil war), “civil disobedience” marked one of the more moderate approaches oppressed African-Americans could take.
E. Martin Luther King believed that economic and political white political and economic power structures had become so entrenched in their commitment to excluding black Americans that certain laws needed to be disobeyed in order to raise awareness of their injustice.
Share verses and quotes (which can be adjusted depending on the age group).
From Martin Luther King
1. “Men and women have a moral obligation to obey just and right laws” (from “Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience,” November 4, 1961).
2. “If you confront a man who has been cruelly misusing you, and say, ‘Punish me, if you will; I do not deserve it, but I will accept it, so that the world will know I am right and you are wrong” (from A Testament of Hope, 348-49).
3. “Noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as the cooperation with good” (From “Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience”)
LDS Texts on Racial Justice, Conscience, and Advocacy
1. 2 Nephi 26:33 (“All are alike unto God…”)
2. Gordon B. Hinckley: “A man has to live with his conscience, his principles, his convictions and testimony, and without that he is as miserable as hell. Excuse me, but I believe it” (Daily Universe, November 5, 1969).
3. Robert S. Wood: “Even in a free and constitutional regime, where the commands of the law and the wielders of political power may be changed, one must follow the prescribed process through which change is sought while adhering to the demands of the current injunctions . . . unless the demands of the law are so antithetical to the clear direction of Heaven as to dictate civil disobedience” (Robert S. Wood, “Rendering Unto Caeser.” Emphasis mine).
4. President Dallin H. Oaks: “The command of loyalty to laws and rulers does not compel a citizen to participate in or submit to a government edict that runs counter to the common consensus of humanity. . . Nor should it require a person to violate the fundamental tenets of religious faith.” (From “I Have a Question,” Ensign, June 1976).
What LDS Families Can Do
Do something. There are lots of ways to approach social ills. With your children, you can identify one issue in your community for which you, as a family, would like to advocate. As a family, learn about the policies that perpetuate these problems. Dr. King said that “true compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Learn how to serve marginalized communities. For example:
A. A refugee resettlement program. In Salt Lake City, there are several options: Catholic Community Services, Women of the World, and many others. And you can watch videos and get ideas from the LDS Church’s website: www.lds.org/refugees. As a family, you can save up for a donation.
B. A chapter meeting for the NAACP.
C. A local homeless shelter, particularly for those from typically marginalized communities (I list this one with caution since many of these institutions are overrun with “humanitarian tourists” who want to do their Good Turn D’Jour).
D. Religious awareness. King said that “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” While Dr. King’s comments related to Christianity, the principle is sound outside of Christianity as well. Whatever our religious views (or lack thereof), attend a house of worship for a religious group with decidedly distinct views from your own. As we enter their sacred space, I don’t suggest that you go around asking people about the difficulties or discrimination they’ve faced. That’s personal information, and most of us would not be eager about sharing it with a stranger. Simple politeness and kindness will go a long way.
E.Civic awareness. As a family, attend a portion of a town hall, school board, or PTA meeting to discuss a topic that matters to a marginalized community. It might relate to a homeless shelter, to school curriculum, or to a local mosque. Explain to your kids why it is you’re going. Participatory democracy is not only about seeking the interests of our own group; it’s about advocating for the rights and access of those outside of it.
Dr. King envisioned a nation in which the brotherhood and sisterhood of man transcended citizenship in a world defined by harsh national boundaries. In Moses chpt. 7, Enoch “knew and looked upon [mankind’s] wickedness, and their misery.” He “wept and stretched forth his arms, and his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned; and all eternity shook” (Moses 7:41). Mormonism invites us to see each other—and The Other—not only as a vast human family but as part of a vision that celebrates and pushes toward proactive empathy and yes, even public advocacy. And no electoral vote in any state can tell me I should feel otherwise.
Is there a place for Dr. King in our theology? If there is not, then our theology suffers from a myopia of vision, a limitedness of view, and a massive collective amnesia that does our pioneer ancestors no favors and no honor. It’s in our cultural DNA for us to sense when state power and private citizens are colluding against a targeted minority. I believe in Martin Luther King’s vision not in spite of my Mormonism but because of it.
Tera W. Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Black Women’s Lives and Labors After The Civil War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 38.