A letter from Dr. Brad Braxton, Chief DEI Officer
The civil rights movement in the United States, which reached an apex in the 1950's and 1960's, was a world-altering moment. The movement exposed, and began to correct, the horrific inequities of a nation created through a financially lucrative “slavocracy,” which the nation’s founders ironically called “democracy.” The civil rights movement affected lasting attitudinal and legislative changes in the United States and continues to serve as a paradigm for other liberation efforts, including the Black Lives Matter movement and global movements for women’s rights and LGBTQIA+ equality. In this sense, the civil rights movement was, and is, a world-altering moment.
The most well-known leader of the civil rights movement was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was a world-changing figure. His status as a world-changing figure has created across the decades the unfortunate phenomenon of “hero-worship.” This hero worship causes us to misunderstand, and misrepresent, Dr. King’s life and legacy.
First, hero worship blunts the sharp, even revolutionary, edges of the audacious moral claims and political overtures of the movement that Dr. King inherited and led. As a result of those claims and overtures, Dr. King was literally stabbed near his heart in 1958 and figuratively stabbed in his back at times by his own country which sought to discredit him, if not destroy him.
Second, this hero worship inappropriately removes Dr. King from the religious soil that nourished his soul and the soul of the movement. In other words, we laud the fruit of Dr. King’s labor, while ignoring the root that made the fruit possible in the first place. African American religion was that root—the same religion that sustained the liberation longings of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, of Henry McNeal Turner and Frederick Douglass. Often when Dr. King’s legacy is examined, people recall his work as a civil rights leader and social strategist, forgetting that his primary life callings were ministry and academic theology. Before he was a civil rights activist, Dr. King was a preacher, a theologian, and a person motivated by Spirit.
We will host our school-wide Martin Luther King, Jr. Chapel Service on Wednesday, January 19 at 8:30 a.m. on Zoom. The service will accentuate the role of spirituality and moral formation in fostering a more inclusive and equitable world. During the service, our Upper School students will read and reflect on one of Dr. King’s brilliant sermons “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart.” Dr. King first preached this sermon in his early ministry at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama and later refined it for publication in his classic book of sermons Strength to Love.