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How Martin Luther King’s Focus Changed in His Last Years

Are the differences between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X as big as some make out?

Personally, I don’t think so.

About three years before his death, King underwent a conversion. Agreed, it did not parallel Malcolm’s Mecca conversion, but it was significant enough to lead to a dramatic change in King’s thinking and behavior.

For the most part, King had been trusting of white people. He believed that regardless of how racist you are and how malevolent its manifestations, black suffering would bring about a change of heart and mind among white people.

In his heart of hearts, he believed that all white people were good, and, in time, their racist shackles could be removed. He believed in the intrinsic goodness of whiteness.

However, sometime after his “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1963, this belief changed.

It was a conversion that led him to question the capacity of whites to respond adequately to appeals of conscience. Sometimes, he argued, their racism would be explicit and other times implicit but often present.

King’s conversion did not result in a diminishing of love for white people. Rather, he understood their limits and inability to be fully inclusive.

This led him to become increasingly vocal in calling out racism as well as other forms of oppression. King’s revised beliefs fly in the face of his sanguine image.

Because this year marks the 50th year of his death, I have been giving much thought to King’s image.

Casted as a global, benevolent hero, he is locked in the niceness of the reconciliatory “I Have a Dream” speech, which encourages the holding of hands in a utopia oblivious to white repentance.

It is not surprising that this image has been embedded into the history books. For King is portrayed as a conciliatory man. Slightly on the side of the elite.

For as long as King waxed eloquently about how southern segregation could be overcome with nonviolence, he remained the darling of northern white liberals.

When he preached that blacks sacrifice their bodies to redeem whites, many liberals lauded his nobility.

When he encouraged blacks to love whites, even hateful racists, King was crowned as a hero.

And when he risked his life for the beloved community, he was regarded as a black saint.

No wonder history often remembers his name with affection. I am a little surprised that a book titled “Our Martin Luther King” has not been written. Still, there is time.

For the civil rights movement to have integrity, King had to convert. And, perhaps in part due to the amount of black suffering and deaths he witnessed, he was forced to convert.

Now here is the question: If King’s conversion had not led him to a place where he was able to call the U.S. out as a racist country, deepen his commitment for the nation’s poor, condemn the U.S. invasion of the Vietnam War, galvanize disenfranchised African-Americans and organize them into a revolution (a nonviolent force that challenged the triple evils of racism, war and poverty), would King have been assassinated?

Malcolm X suffered a premature death because of his revolutionary posture. Christ died an early death because he became a threat to Rome – Caesar.

King’s condemnation of the triple evils and his undermining of the state and its racist laws made him a force to be reckoned with.

I am sure that King’s conversion experience put him firmly and squarely on a hit list, but that is what a race conversion can do.

Fifty years after King’s death, I see a connection between King’s final years and the sermon preached by Bishop Curry at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding.

The bishop’s sermon began and ended with a quote from King. Nothing unusual about that.

But the rest of the sermon, its style, rhythm and, of course, its black liberation focus is not something witnessed in the hallowed, lofty walls of the pinnacle of the Anglican establishment at a royal wedding.

This ardent campaigner of racial justice, himself a descendent of slaves, questioned colonialism and racism in the House of the Lord.

The same House of the Lord that endorsed – even encouraged – slavery. The same House that was urged to remember “even in the midst of their captivity, there is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.”

Just like the “I Have a Dream” sermon, the bishop’s sermon will be remembered as a sermonic great.

Not only for its sublime eloquence, but also for the moment when the enduring seat of colonialism “was brought before the Lord and questioned in its own house.”

Curry did what King did in the latter years of his life; he outed white silver-spoon complicity!

As much as I understand some of the reasons why King’s appeasement approach to securing justice and equality seemed appropriate during the heights of the civil rights movement, his conversion became necessary for the U.S. to move toward shalom.

It is not always easy to speak truth to power and continue speaking it. But for the sake of world peace and justice, “calling out” is essential.

Granted, there are often consequences to speaking out. The negative flurry surrounding Curry’s sermon makes interesting reading.

But history reminds us that one of the prerequisites for the coming of the Kingdom of God, here and now, is the outing of racism and other forms of evil.

It may have taken King a while to get to this place, but he got there in the end. Few other Baptists have.

Wale Hudson-Roberts is an ordained Baptist minister who serves as the racial justice enabler for the Baptist Union of Great Britain.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series focused on racism and the local church.

Previous articles in the series are:

Recognizing Hidden Racism’s Grip on Our Society by Ryon Price

When Will Churches Begin to Reflect Racial Diversity? by Timothy Peoples

Engaged Advocacy: Working Together for Racial Justice by Stephen K. Reeves

The Church Will Never End Racism by Ignoring It by Starlette Thomas

Lynching Memorial’s Haunting Reminder of Present Brutality by Charles Watson Jr.

Royal Wedding Lesson: Becoming an Intercultural Church by Chris Smith

Charlottesville Faith Communities Respond after Aug. 12 by Michael Cheuk