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Doing King justice

Next week a service at Westminster Abbey will mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death. One of the organisers of the service, Richard Reddie, tells Philip Halcrow why King’s life still matters

At the time of his death he was, to many people, persona non grata

TIME marched on between the speech given by Martin Luther King Jr at the March on Washington on 28 August 1963 and the message he delivered at a Memphis church on 3 April 50 years ago – the day before he was shot dead. ‘The fascinating thing,’ says Richard Reddie, who has written a biography of King, ‘is that at the time of his death he was, to many people, persona non grata. The King of 1963 could have been voted the most popular man in the world. The King of 1968 was not so popular. Yes, there was an outcry when he was assassinated, but the fact is that, because of some of the things he was saying, many people were critical of him.’

The world may have been changing during that time – not necessarily always for the better – and King may have been fighting different battles in different places, but in both Washington and Memphis he alluded to the same phrase from the book of the prophet Amos in the Bible: ‘Let justice roll down like waters.’

Next Wednesday (4 April), the word ‘justice’ will be the focus of a national service at Westminster Abbey commemorating the 50th anniversary of King’s death. The service, organised jointly by the abbey and Christian Aid, has been named Rediscovering Justice.

As well as being the author of Martin Luther King Jr: History Maker, Richard works for Christian Aid and is one of the people who have been planning the event. He has learnt that a mutual concern over justice led to a strong relationship being struck up between the British relief and development agency and the American.

‘At Christian Aid, we’ve always been interested in justice, and Dr King was also a champion of civil and human rights. Our organisation saw in Dr King an articulate individual who was passionate about justice and was working for it from a Christian standpoint. We supported his projects in the United States, and when he visited the UK we used to handle his media commitments, and he would come to our offices.

‘He used to visit Britain because he saw the connections between the work he was doing in the US and some of the fledgling civil rights work taking place here. When he came in 1964 he met with individuals who were interested in the passing of laws to tackle racist practices in employment and housing. Through King’s influence here, the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination was established, and it helped to bring about the first race relations legislation in 1965.’

As well as looking at social issues in the country, Dr King’s visit at the end of 1964 – when he was en route to Oslo to pick up his Nobel peace prize – had another dimension.

‘He went to St Paul’s Cathedral and preached at evensong,’ says Richard. ‘So he was here not only as a campaigner but also as a Christian minister. He wasn’t focused solely on issues of race and civil rights. He was also interested in people’s souls.’

Richard believes it is appropriate that Dr King is being honoured with a service.

‘It was his Christian faith that inspired and informed his activities,’ he says. ‘He was first and foremost a Baptist preacher. If you take that away from him, I’m not sure what you are left with.

‘The service will contextualise King. It will look at his motivation and his methods when he was campaigning. It will look at what was happening around the world at the time and how he responded.’

And, as Richard points out, King was prepared to speak out about a variety of issues – and attracted criticism for doing so.

‘The March on Washington was a wonderful moment in history. But Dr King was more than an eloquent speaker. He was also a campaigner and, particularly towards the end of his life, sought to speak truth to power and was often a purveyor of unpalatable truths. He was bold in the way he spoke out against the Vietnam War, poverty and marginalisation. When he was killed, he was in Memphis to support a march of binmen who were protesting for equal pay and rights.

‘He was a radical individual whose faith inspired him to be provocative – and ultimately that led to his assassination.

‘The night before he was killed he gave a speech in which he said that he had seen the “promised land” – and that “we, as a people” would get there even if he would not. He knew his days were numbered because of the things he was saying. As far as he was concerned, everything he was saying was in line with the Christian Scriptures, but he knew that there were people who wouldn’t like his anti-war talk and what he had to say about poverty, marginalisation and racism. He knew that some individuals wouldn’t like him using his position in the United States, using the fact that he had a Nobel peace prize to talk about controversial issues.’

As well as highlighting the causes that King took up during his lifetime, Christian Aid is aiming to encourage people to consider the injustices that still exist in the world. After the service at the abbey, it is running a symposium at a nearby church where people will be able to explore in greater depth some of the issues raised by King’s life.

‘Through the service and the symposium we are almost asking: If King were alive today, what would he be campaigning about? What does justice look like?

‘When Dr King was in Memphis, the men who were marching were carrying placards that said: “I am a man.” There was a need for people to recognise something so basic – that everyone has the right to be treated as a human being.

‘It seems to me that there’s a direct line from that protest to what is happening in America today with the Black Lives Matter movement.

There is still a need to recognise that all lives have value.

‘In America, there is also the situation of the “Dreamers”, individuals who were taken to the States as young boys and girls but who are now being told that their status is irregular and are facing deportation. These people have lived in America for most of their lives and are upstanding citizens – so what about their rights? It’s unquestionably an issue of justice. I can imagine that Dr King would be the first to ask whether it is right that America – a country that was built on immigration – is seeking to deport people who have contributed towards its economy.’

Through his work, Richard is acutely aware of injustices in other parts of the world.

‘Christian Aid is active in Bangladesh, where the Rohingya people, who were living in Burma for generations, have suddenly found themselves displaced because of their ethnicity and religious affiliation. Where is the justice there?

‘This year we’re campaigning to raise awareness of internally displaced people. For instance, in Nigeria, Muslims who don’t agree with the ideology of the Boko Haram group are being displaced, as are Christians. Often they don’t flee the country’s borders but are forced to leave one part of the country for another.’

Richard believes that, in the way he worked for justice, Martin Luther King changed the behaviour not only of the wider world but also Christians.

‘Christians may have sometimes felt there are certain issues they shouldn’t talk about, but King showed that if you see injustice, you should address it – you should be the person who makes a difference.

‘In the US, King emboldened pastors, giving them the authority to engage in social issues. He said the Scriptures clearly showed that all men are equal and created in the image of God.

‘I’m not saying that he started that way of thinking, but he definitely became an advocate of it.

‘If you look at American history, before Martin Luther King, the figures in the civil rights struggle tended to be intellectuals and academics, such as W. E. B. du Bois and Marcus Garvey. After King, they tended to be preachers. So now you have people such as Jesse Jackson – who was with King when he was assassinated – Al Sharpton and Michael Eric Dyson. They are all clergymen. King normalised the notion that people from the Church should be able to talk politics.’

In the end, Richard emphasises, Dr King saw himself as a man of God.

‘When people would ask what he was, he would say he was a Baptist minister. He knew he was called to preach the gospel.’

Richard feels that there is a poignancy in the fact that the 50th anniversary of King’s death falls so close to Good Friday and Easter Day.

‘It makes me reflect on the whole notion of sacrifice,’ he says. ‘And from the Christian perspective, there is not only death but also resurrection, bringing new hope.’

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