A Holy Terror: Celebrating St. MLK

Today is, I’m sure you know, the national celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. You may not also know that two days ago was the Feast Day of Saint Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr..

My People, make a joyful noise! All Hail the Prophet of Justice, Human and Divine!

Now, before I say anything else, please read this. Everything I could possibly say about MLK should be taken as a footnote to that piercing piece of prose.

I feel a great Terror on this day, my friends. I peer out the window into the hazy-gray sky and sense Nemesis winking at me through the raven-flocked tree branches. What can I say about this man of whom so much has already been said? How can I, a young white man, speak about this black man who lived and died before I was even born? How can I speak his Holy Name while sitting here, wrapped up and comfortable in my college-kid apartment, while complicit in the knowledge that homeless people, mostly black women and men, still live on those same streets that I jog down toward my petty affairs? I am, after all, one of those academics that Lorenzo Komboa Ervin so-rightly criticized in the piece linked to above.

But, but, — Always so many Buts from you, Johnny! —  But I will speak that man’s Good Name in humility and reverence, apology and caution, nonetheless.

A few weeks ago I walked into a local Hoodoo shop to buy a few candles and noticed something interesting, something that has kept me thinking up until the present moment and this post: I found a glass-encased votive candle of the sort that are used to honor catholic saints, Orisha and Loa, and for a bunch of Hoodoo products, but this one had an image of MLK pasted to it. The implication is that MLK, like a saint, is someone to be praised as well as to ask for supernatural assistance. I thought, “Wow, them’s the big leagues!”

The “big leagues” is deityhood. I’ve seen plenty of pictures of black churches around the South Side that display a photo of MLK (and sometimes along with Malcolm X and/or Nelson Mandela) right next to a big photo of Jesus. The juxtaposition says it all: These two figures are similar — preachers and dreamers and, from my perspectives, holy persons.

I noticed a similar phenomenon a few days ago at the U of C’s Office of Multicultural Affairs: A whole room had been set aside as a sort of “Green Room” for the woman who was to speak at a MLK commemoration service that afternoon. I peaked in and saw that the room was empty (except for the friendly lady), some water bottles, and a big sign taped to a window that said “Room Reserved for Martin Luther King, Jr.” — Think about that. Though the room had its use, it was reserved for MLK — a patently dead guy — and not (according to the sign) for the presenter actually occupying the space. A friend I was with compared the to a Chair for Elijah, set aside to remember and, perhaps, just in case They actually do show up.

Of course MLK wasn’t perfect — of course. Of course! Is it too trite to say so? Or, would a choice not to say so be more damning? In a way, though, The Imperfect Saints, Our Tarnished Exemplars are all so very interesting and appealing, provocative and indeed sacred so much because of their humanity. As so well put in the piece linked to above, MLK was not “a saint,” not perfect, flawed, and yet I am awed by the things he did and is doing, things that seem so very much more immense than what I have done.

MLK’s flawed success is a clarion call to all of us — We will mess up, we will have shortcomings, even severe ones. Yet, nothing will happen if we do not allow ourselves to try. The photo at the top of this post is my favorite photo of MLK, and I like it so much because I see a different kind of Holy Terror in his eyes, the light of an immense, immense power and poignance. He is defiant, yet cool. Human, yet now more-than.

I encourage you, whoever you are, to look deep into his eyes and into the history of the civil rights movement and the 60s radical movements — think about other leaders, Bayard Rustin, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and others that I am too naive to know about; what do their memories have to teach us? What does it teach us that I cannot, simply off of the top of my head, name a deceased female civil rights leader besides Rosa Parks?–a failing on my part, surely.

May Martin Luther King, Jr. continue to be a guide to us all, that we may find peace and joy throughout the world, that there may some day be an end to oppression in all forms, an end to poverty, hunger, and war.

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About John Harness
John Harness is an artist and educator in Chicago. He is a member of Socialist Alternative and the Klingon Language Institute. He writes about political activism and roleplaying games.

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