He wasn't a perfect man. He wasn't a messiah. He was dragged into the civil rights movement and only reluctantly accepted his inevitable destiny as its focal point. But I'll take him, blemishes and all, as someone who taught me— albeit posthumously— to believe in a higher ideal than the ugly state of affairs we, as African Americans, daily find ourselves in. King's gospel wasn't an “over yonder” gospel. It was a Stick Your Neck Out Gospel. A Spend Your Last Dime Gospel. A powerful example of true and relevant ministry.
All through the house, women screaming, a blood-curdling howl
that absolutely terrified me. Then people were running, as if
they were insane, slamming into walls, heading outside, picking
up the phone. It was so very loud, and so very terrifying and I
had absolutely no idea what was going on. These were people who
were, typically, drunk all the time anyway. Black ghetto folk
who enjoyed barbecues and Motown records. Who made me sing in my
pajamas before I went off to a restless sleep as they partied
well into the night. Parties that inevitably ended up in
screaming anyway, domestic squabbles and, on at least two
occasions, bloody violence.
So, yeah, I was used to the screaming. But that day, something was different. That day's loudness had a ghastly quality that I, at age seven, could not assimilate into the typical black folk cacophony. That night, there was no singing.
Martin Luther King Jr. was dead. And I didn't even know who he was.
I remember asking, “Who is Martin Luther King?”
and one of the
party guests screamed at me, calling me ignorant and other
things. They may have screamed at my mother, I don't recall. But
I do recall my sister and I being put on a steady regiment of
Black History studies. My mother, a Licensed Practical Nurse
barely treading water above the poverty line as she raised two
children on her own, nevertheless begged, borrowed, or stole the
money to buy us a set of black history encyclopedias, and
dedicated herself to our regular, monitored study of black
history— a subject we were certainly not being taught in the
white, predominately Jewish grade school we attended in Little
Mom forced us, on pain of the belt, to learn who Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was, and what he stood for. And, as I did, I tried to reconcile what I was learning about the man and his mission with the drunks at the party.
See, as a kid, I was always around drunks. My mother wasn't a drunk, but she would always take us to these parties where people drank. And I began to associate the smell of alcohol with people getting stabbed, women being abused and cursed out, and people driving into trees with us in the back seat. That's probably why I've never had a drink in my life, and, likely, never will.
My greatest living example of black people in America has been, largely, anti-intellectual and anti-social. People who use foul language to excess. Who party to excess. Who ridicule academic and intellectual and even spiritual pursuits. Loud, greasy, ignorant, drunk black people. Who thought it was funny to ridicule me about loving books and music and church, and for wearing glasses and being more interested in learning than in basketball. This was black people to me.
Then, under a voluntary busing program, mom sent me to grade school in a Jewish neighborhood, hoping I'd get a better education than I would at the school around the corner. I did and I didn't. In Little Neck, I was alienated from my own race. And, sadly, I took great comfort in that. I felt safe in Little Neck. I was around people who spoke in complete sentences, and whose days weren't filled with the terror that surrounded me at home.
The few times I stayed over some friend's house in Little Neck, I was The Novelty Item: the little black kid on a sleepover. My, how progressive and liberal these parents were. At age seven I was in tune enough to pick up on the pride, the swelled chests of these white Jewish liberal parents, allowing me to play with their children and sleep in their beds.
These people had carpeting. I had never seen carpeting. Their TV was in color. I had never in my life even known TV came in color. And they had something called an air conditioner, that kept the house cool even in the summer. It was wonderful. It was magic. And I hated my home and hated my so-called friends and hated my own race— these ignorant drunk bastards tripping over me and spilling the beer they swilled night and day. These people who screamed when Martin Luther King died, as if they actually lived lives worthy of what he stood for.
I've frequently heard people say they'll never forget where they were the day John F. Kennedy was shot. I was too young for Kennedy, but today, at 40, I can still hear the screaming.
He wasn't a perfect man. He wasn't a messiah. He was dragged into the civil rights movement and only reluctantly accepted his inevitable destiny as its focal point. But I'll take him, blemishes and all, as someone who taught me— albeit posthumously— to believe in a higher ideal than the ugly state of affairs we, as African Americans, daily find ourselves in. And, while several states refuse to acknowledge his national holiday, and many of us, of all races, go about our daily lives with barely an acknowledgement of the man, his greatness, his sacrifice, and his glorious victory for us, all of us, cannot be diminished by our indifference, cynicism, or ignorance.
...I'm always happy to see a relevant ministry.
It's alright to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in
all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and
dresses and shoes to wear down here. It's alright to talk about
“streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us
to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who
can't eat three square meals a day. It's alright to talk about
the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preacher must talk about
the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los
Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.
“A relevant ministry.” In King's case, the understatement of the century. King attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, to continue his study of Christian theology and philosophy. Here he received intensive instruction in the “Social Gospel” of Walter Rauschenbusch, which stressed that Christianity should be an instrument for reforming social institutions, and in the “Christian Realism” of Reinhold Niebuhr, with its emphasis upon the inherent sinfulness of man and the pervasiveness of evil. He was introduced also to Mahatma Gandi's philosophy of non-violent resistance and to Henry David Thoreau's theory of civil disobedience. 
King's gospel wasn't an “over yonder” gospel. It wasn't a “we'll
try and schedule it after the Nurse's Auxiliary Annual Weenie
Roast” Gospel. It wasn't the pathetic caricature the Black
church has in large part become in the decades since his death.
It was a Stick Your Neck Out Gospel. A Spend Your Last Dime
Gospel. A powerful example of true and relevant ministry:
Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus; and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters in life. At points, he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew, and through this, throw him off base. Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn't stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his brother. Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn't stop.
At times we say they were busy going to church meetings—an ecclesiastical gathering—and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn't be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that “One who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony.” And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem, or down to Jericho, rather to organize a “Jericho Road Improvement Association.” That's a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the casual root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effort.