Remembering the Christian Roots of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

By The Rev. Canon Burace Jackson
Diocesan Canon for Black Ministries

On January 15, as has occurred for the past 42 years, our nation will honor the legacy of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – a great American visionary. His legacy will be noted by an official federal holiday, that will be marked by the likes of parades, dinners, and other festivities – mostly of secular fashions. 

Over time, King and his vision have been almost completely secularized by our modern culture. King, though truly a Christian prophet, has had his legacy morph into his being little more than a social reformer. And, he is generally applauded as such.

But we must not forget, as we honor him, that the movement King led was, at its core, a religious one. It was possibly a divine coincidence that King led his now-famous 1963 March on Washington on August 28, the day of the feast of St. Augustine. King has written that Augustine was one of his favorite church heroes.  King wrote that Augustine’s declaration that “charity is no substitute for justice withheld” was part of what moved him to his decision to fervently pursue a ministry for justice.

King viewed the March on Washington as being a religious experience as much as it was a political rally. His famous “I Have A Dream” speech was actually a sermon based on the writings of the prophet Isaiah, who also had a dream of a world turning to God’s loving justice concepts. 

King actually wrote of himself: “In the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher.” But the media coverage of King, and his holiday, hardly mentions the religious roots of his great achievements. And our modern politicians, who are increasingly paying lip service to religion for personal ambitions, seldom speak of King’s real core and inspiration.

For King, God was not just some means to get elected. For King, God was the source of all his so-called political activity. King’s relationship with the model of Jesus helped him to found the Southern Christian Leadership Council, which in the 1960s – while maintaining its nonviolent Christian positions – was the driving force of change that altered America forever.

By revisiting and understanding King’s religious roots and identity, we are reminded that religion, and particularly Christianity – at its best – can, and should be, a power to be properly used for the nation’s, and the world’s, good. King’s faith was the primary mover in helping him advance a powerful civil and human rights agenda that was based on his Christian underpinning.

King showed us that real, authentic religion – energized by prayer and community – can bring a society to wake up to a true reflection of itself: the good and the bad. And this can open our eyes to, and provide a willingness to, address social ills that our comfort and politics tend to not allow us to confront. King’s model of good religion helped liberate society from its most basic, primitive, and worst evils.

So, as we honor King on this holiday, let’s remember who King was in his authenticity. He was a Christian prophet for justice and equality – deeply influenced by his religious and personal identification with Jesus Christ. And let us also make his dream our dream – a Christ-centered dream for all of humanity.

Your brother in Christ,

The Rev. Canon Bruce A. Jackson
Diocesan Canon for Black Ministries