Marking the Meaning of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday
By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of Read the Spirit magazine
In a world where flat-out lies are celebrated as “alternative truths” and a rising tide of racist and antisemitic myths are paraded as “a matter of opinion” by certain celebrities—we all should read and share with friends: The Arc of Truth—The Thinking of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by Lewis V. Baldwin.
In an interview about this new book with Dr. Baldwin—Vanderbilt University professor emeritus of religious studies—he said, “Most of us know that Dr. King is a towering figure, a complex figure, who expressed ideas and translated them into a movement to empower and liberate humanity. For 40-some years, I have been researching, teaching and writing on Dr. King’s roots, his message, his work and his legacy. Through those years, I have become ever more convinced of the need for all rational and moral humans to be involved in this human struggle to empower people that he worked so hard to develop. Even now, so long after his passing, he can serve as a resource for all of us who are trying to reclaim a truth-telling culture.”
In the powerfully prophetic concluding section of his new book, Dr. Baldwin zeroes in on the urgency he feels in sharing King’s message as an antidote to social and political conservatives “with a callous disregard to truth and and humanity itself.”
Here’s just one passage from his book’s final chapter, describing Donald Trump’s four years as president:
Trump’s America encouraged an absence of concern for the weak, the destitute, and the vulnerable that we we have not seen since the King years—a spirit of sheer heartlessness and lack of empathy that is seemingly limitless, inexcusable in modern times, and really unfathomable. This became painfully real in policies aimed at immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, and especially the children among them.
What outrages Dr. Baldwin even more than these attitudes and policies themselves is the effort by Trump himself and many other conservative political activists to claim King’s legacy as their own.
In our interview, I asked him about the pointed attack he wages in that section of his book. Dr. Baldwin said, “You are reading me correctly about that. The main thing I’m concerned about is how Dr. King’s legacy is being hijacked by forces on the Right in the service of a conservative social agenda that the Right wants to impose on America. For example, voices on the Right have been claiming for years that Dr. King would be opposed to Affirmative Action.
“Some voices on the Right are even claiming that, if Dr. King were alive today, he would be a Republican. And that’s problematic. This distorts Dr. King’s legacy and what he means for America today. This falls into the pattern of lies that are toxic as we seek to operate in a functioning democracy. It’s part of an anti-truth-telling culture that is dangerous because, as Dr. King tells us: Truth is foundational to the workings of democracy.”
‘Speaking Truth To Us In the Here and Now’
That final prophetic section of Dr. Baldwin’s book builds on the first five chapters that examine King’s life-long passion to see, understand and speak the truth about injustice in America—and eventually about injustice in communities around the world. In those five chapters, Dr. Baldwin’s scholarly case about Dr. King’s passion for Truth—with a capital T—is what adds such urgency to his application of King’s principles in today’s world. It’s that deeply researched effort “to speak truth to power” in this new book that has drawn so many powerful endorsements.
One of them comes from Susannah Heschel, the award-winning scholar and author who is the daughter of Dr. King’s ally Abraham Joshua Heschel. About Dr. Baldwin’s new book, she writes:
Dr. King was a prophet who came to save our country, and Baldwin captures his spirit and his voice, ringing loud and clear, to arouse, inspire, and unite us. He brings Dr. King to our present era, speaking truth to us in the here and now, as we face rising white nationalism and cope with ongoing systemic racism and government mendacity. This book is extraordinary!
Racism as a Worldwide Phenomenon
Dr. Baldwin’s message in this new book is as broad as Dr. King’s vision became over the four decades he had before he was cut down at age 39 in 1968.
In a final passage in his book, Dr. Baldwin writes in a cadence that recalls the crescendos of some of Dr. King’s own sermons:
Truth marches on because nothing can stop or defeat it. It marches on because it is imbued with the power and spirit of no surrender. It marches on because it has a date with destiny. It marches on in this post-truth era with the people of all races who raise the banner of Black Lives Matter, with women who comprise the Me Too crusade, with youngsters involved in the March for Our Lives against gun violence, with those who struggle against voter suppression and intimidation, and with those who refuse to bow to Trumpism, post-truthism, or any other form of spiritual and moral perversion and anti-democracy. It marches on with those who honor and celebrate King’s legacy not simply with words but also with deeds that change lives, structures, and institutions for the better. Truth marches on because only truth can have the last word in history.
As our interview drew to a close, I asked Dr. Baldwin how he hopes his new book will affect the lives of readers.
“First, I hope they would come away from this book with a better understanding of Dr. King because, right now, so much is being said about him that is untrue,” he said. “I am very concerned about this effort to hijack his memory by people on the Right trying to promote a conservative social agenda.
“Second, I hope that readers agree that Dr. King is meaningful for our time. There is a timelessness to the messages he brought us about truth telling. As we recognize him as a celebrated national hero, we need to listen to his message. We all need to join in an effort to reclaim a culture of truth if we hope to preserve our best moral and spiritual foundations.”
Care to read more about Dr. King from Dr. Baldwin?
After our main interview, Dr. Baldwin agreed to talk about the central themes in some of his other books about Dr. King.
“These two books together are foundational in the trajectory of my scholarship on Dr. King,” Dr. Baldwin said. “I began in The Roots to establish that he was first and foremost a man of the Black South and was shaped by the religion and other aspects of culture in the South. Then, To Make the Wounded Whole is a companion to that first book—looking at how his cultural legacy has been passed down to subsequent generations of activists in the Black community.”
“Then, if you want to fully understand Dr. King, you have to understand his churchmanship,” Dr. Baldwin said. “He was first and foremost a clergyman with deep roots in the church. He talked more about the church in the 1950s and 1960s than any other subject. Throughout that period of his life, the church was the primary topic of his essays, his books and his talks. He had a vision that the church should lead in bringing about the fulness of the beloved community that he talked so much about.”
Dr. Baldwin also helped to produce two volumes in the Beacon Press 11-volume King Legacy series:
“Thou Dear God is a collection of 68 prayers by Dr. King falling into different categories,” Dr. Baldwin said. “Overall, that book falls into the spirituality genre in King studies. It’s an important book because we need to be clear that he was first a spiritual leader. I tried to convey that through my commentaries on these prayers.
“Then A Single Garment falls into the globalization genre in King studies. This book makes it clear that Dr. King was a global figure as well. He called himself a citizen of the world. He spoke as a citizen of the world who felt he had to talk about Vietnam and South Africa and antisemitism. If you don’t understand how he understood himself as a global figure, then you don’t understand Dr. King.”