Reverends Irene Monroe and Emmett G. Price III joined Jim and Margery on Boston Public Radio For a special Martin Luther King Jr. Day of All Revved Up.
[Some quotes have been paraphrased and edited for length]
MARGERY: I’ve read two or three biographies of Martin Luther King Jr., and they all talk about this pivotal moment when he was basically a very young man, scared to death, with death threats to his family… and he has this kitchen-table conversion where he basically talks about Jesus Christ talking to him and saying, ‘I will be with you, you’ll do the right thing.’ We almost never hear about that—is that because it makes him sound too wacky?
EMMETT: We talk about him as ‘Dr. King’ and we think about him as an intellect, as an activist, but we forget that he was a faith leader first. This particular evening, in his kitchen, happened no January 27, 1956. He was 27 years old, he was married, his oldest daughter, Yolanda, was one years old, and he was getting up to 40 death [threat] calls a day. He was afraid to leave his home, because Mrs. Coretta Scott King would be home with Yolanda, and she would pick up the phone, and these calls were heinous. The notion was that he believed in god and had a faith, but when the stuff got really icky and sticky he did wonder, am I doing the right thing? As you mentioned—he felt that he heard the voice of god and saw the presence of Jesus Christ, and said, ‘stand for justice, and I will be with you until the end of the world.’ and that was a pivotal moment for him.
IRENE: One of the things that we always have to remember, though, is that King’s —not only theology, but social gospel—is very much grounded within the activism of the black church. He had that epiphany-on-the road-to-Damascus kind of experience in the way that Apostle Paul did. He understood, at that moment, that anything he does around justice will be, always, a life-threatening situation, but that’s not the reason to move forward.
MARGERY: Why don’t we hear about this more? Is it the uncomfortableness?
EMMETT: It’s the uncomfortableness, but also, in the world that we live in, being an evangelical means something other than what it actually is. Most evangelicals believe in a conversion-moment, a moment where you feel the presence of god and have this conversion, and be born again. King has this pivotal moment, which aligns him with the authenticity and the authority of the bible, the importance of Christ’s soul-saving work, and the power of evangelism, it aligns him with the evangelicals. The liberals don’t want to be associated with that because of everything else that King was for.
IRENE: King always talked about the beloved community. Even if he disagreed with you, which certainly he disagreed with J. Edgar Hoover, and at times with LBJ. He wasn’t attacking, there was never a character type of assault, but he also always felt that there was a way to talk across differences in a way that we don’t have that kind of public discourse today.
One of the things that we must always remember is that we cannot take him out of the historical context that he comes out of. One of which was the homophobia of the black church, but also a waning popularity because of the uprise of the black power movement, as well as his waning popularity with LBJ. One of the things that we find out is that Coretta Scott King and Yolanda King, the eldest daughter of King, were very much LGBTQ advocates. Bernice and Alveda, King’s niece, were very much against LGBTQ rights. Alveda says, ‘a gay person never had to sit in the back of the bus’ and one of the problems with that is that you make that assumption that all the gays are white. And then you ignore people like Bayard Rustin, who was the chief architect of the Civil Rights movement. Bernice, in 2004, stood at her father’s gravesite and said, ‘I know in my sanctified soul that he did not take a bullet for same sex marriage.’
MARGERY: Many people urged King to get rid of Rustin, because he was gay, and he stuck with him.
EMMETT: Well, he stuck with him behind the scenes.
IRENE: Adam Clayton Powell was annoyed that he wasn’t the ‘anointed one’ to really lead the Civil Rights movement from Harlem. He got annoyed that this no-name little guy down in Alabama was really the key figure for this. [Powell] said if you continue to hang with Ruston, we will rumor that you’re gay. It was sort of on the down-low, because King did not, and could not, at that time, really support Bayard.
It was a year after Stonewall comes to our understanding. I make a distinction between the man and the words. Where the man, most likely, being a part of the black church, probably would not have stood for same-sex marriage, (although he wouldn’t march against it) his words are transcendent. Because his words are transcendent, we can latch on to the immigrant movement, the LGBTQ right movement, and the Women’s Rights movement. His words are everlasting, even though he himself isn’t.
Bayard Rustin got arrested for public sex. J. Edgar Hoover, days before the March on Washington, didn’t want Bayard to even be seen in the march, because he was going to use that arrest against him and the movement. We later found out that J. Edgar Hoover was as queeny as one could be.
JIM: What do you guys make of the argument made by Cornel West and other that we have over-sanitized Martin Luther King Jr?
EMMETT: Oh, we have. Clearly. We’ve made King an icon, but we’ve also made him an idol. We forget that he was a flawed man, with some serious flaws. As much as he did wonderful things for not only this country and the world, he was a human being and he had some challenges. I think we want to scrub him clean of those challenges so he is this person that we can put on the mountain of great figures.
MARGERY: By challenges, do you mean that he was fooling around, or you’re saying that he was much more radical, which I think is what Cornel West is saying.
IRENE: Cornel is going both places. He’s a human being. We no longer have these hagiographies about King, and making him a human individual, we realize that he’s not a one-issue man, we understand that he has family problems, but what we don’t want to recognize is the radicality of his social gospel, and see, he’s the one who allows me, today, to use the words “white supremacy.” His speeches talk specifically about the harmfulness of white supremacy within a system.
To hear All Revved Up, click the audio link above. Rev. Emmett G. Price III is a professor of music at Northeastern University, and the author of The Black Church and Hip Hop Culture. Rev. Irene Monroe is a syndicated religion columnist who writes for Huffington Post and Bay Windows.