40 years ago: Modern martyr

02 April 2008

Friday, April II, I968

IN THE heroic destiny of Martin Luther King, the victory will in the long run be with him and the things he stood for. A sign of this is the world’s horror at what was done in Memphis last week. Some are perhaps tempted to ask: how can this be God’s world when men like this are martyred by the forces of evil?

It is not a question Martin Luther King would have asked. He knew very well that he was vulnerable, and said so on the eve of his death. He expected it. And all through history there have been men of courage and integrity who could have led a safe and easy life but instead have chosen the path of danger in pursuit of justice as they saw it. Such men as these indeed reflect in a singular and dramatic way the underlying moral order of God’s world.

So, an ardent and convinced advocate of non-violence, Martin Luther King had no illusions. He believed in the power of non-violence, but he did not think that it would ensure personal safety. Sadder even than his death has been the killing, burning and looting that came in its train. Men who spurned his non-violent tactics have taken advantage of the tragedy of his murder to add to the terror of the situation, and many who admired him reacted in a way for which he would not have thanked them.

What he said was that violence begets violence, and this week’s events have been a grim corroboration of his words. If in the long term racial justice prevails, as surely it must, there is a long hot summer to get through first as White and Black react to last week’s events in a mounting crescendo of hate.

But what is assured now is the honour of this Negro Baptist pastor’s name in the annals of his country and of the Christian Church. He followed his vision of racial justice with unflinching courage and can rightly be described as a modern martyr.

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