Written by Bradley Bommarito
Last Monday marked the annual celebration and commemoration of the life and legacy of perhaps America’s greatest civil rights activist and most inspirational religious figure. Celebrated on the third Monday in January each year as a federal holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day provides an opportunity for all Americans to reflect on the past, consider the present, and envision the future of civil rights, race relations, and economic inequality. Roanoke College had the privilege of hosting Dr. Brad R. Braxton, Director of the Center for the Study of African American Religious Life and the Supervisory Curator of Religion at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC., to deliver a speech reminding us of King’s call to action on this special day. He holds a Ph.D. in New Testament studies from Emory University, where he was a George W. Woodruff Fellow, a Master’s degree in theology from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and a B.A. degree in religious studies from the University of Virginia, where he was a Jefferson Scholar and a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
Speaking with the fiery conviction consistent with his background as a Baptist minister and the seasoned fortitude indicative of his extensive educational background, Braxton addressed a diverse crowd composed of students, faculty members, his family and friends, community residents, and even members of his graduating class from Salem High School. Braxton’s refreshing lecture varied in cadence as he weaved among various topics, ranging from lessons from his upbringing and family life to discussion of urgent social problems and political tensions currently dividing the country today. Breaking into song throughout and engaging the audience with several anecdotes, the filled-to-capacity Wortmann Ballroom pulsated with a compellingly optimistic energy. Echoing King’s appeals to those who would consider themselves members of the Beloved Community, Braxton’s message was one of love, hope, and action.
“You came here tonight to hear an address,” said Braxton. “I came here to task you with saving the world.”
Discussing the trend of young people moving away from religion in droves in favor of seeking community within social justice groups, Braxton made the distinction between “good” religion and “bad” religion.
“Millennials have no tolerance for mean religion,” said Braxton, who founded The Open Church in Baltimore, Md., in 2011 to appeal to those committed to courageous social justice activism and compassionate interfaith collaboration.
Braxton urged the crowd to be wary of religious leaders who focus mostly on the restrictions religion presents instead of its opportunities. He explained his dismay with congregations that care more about judging people’s sexual orientations than spreading kindness, love, and acceptance.
“Don’t trust a prophet who doesn’t have a song. To be called ‘beloved’ is to simply say ‘yes’ to God’s ‘what if?’” said Braxton.
Eliciting enthusiastic praise from some and silence from others, Braxton stirred the room by expressing his view that Jesus would not be welcomed in our current society due to his unbridled selflessness, rejection of greed and material wealth, and penchant for spending time with society’s most ostracized and powerless segments. Braxton concluded his talk by correcting an unfortunate misconception about forgiveness.
“Forgiveness has nothing to do with forgetting. Forgiveness is a gift to yourself. It is recycling poison,” said Braxton.
Receiving several standing ovations throughout the event, Braxton graciously declined an invitation to run for president after being asked by an audience member whether he had considered doing so.
Several RC faculty members graciously offered to elaborate on King’s legacy and to provide further comment on his impact and how we can continue to follow in his footsteps today.
“To incorporate Dr. King’s legacy in our daily lives, you must really learn about the man that he was. He was not perfect, but he was willing to lay down his life for a cause. He died fighting for the rights of human beings. Dr. King fought for equality and human rights for African Americans, the economically disadvantaged and all victims of injustice through peaceful protest,” said Mrs. Juliet Lowery, Director of Multicultural Affairs at RC.
King died on April 4, 1968 after being shot at Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. by a fugitive. After his work helped secure the passage of substantial federal civil rights legislation and federal courts issued several landmark decisions that upheld civil rights, King began focusing more on addressing economic inequality.
“Most people remember King’s work against racism, but many forget his impactful fight against pervasive poverty,” said Reverend Chris Bowen, Chaplain of RC.
The U.S. ranks around the 30th percentile in income inequality globally, which means that 70 percent of all other countries have a more equal income distribution. A multitude of data suggests that income inequality in the U.S. has continued to increase since the 1970s, shortly after King’s assassination and the end of the civil rights movement. This contentious issue continues to be threshed out in contemporary American politics.
A true believer in participative democracy, King espoused the importance of collective social activism to influence the complex workings of our nation’s government institutions. Peaceful protest and his gifted oratorical abilities were his main tools.
“King had the ability to truly ‘speak’ to people. He used the breath and tone of his voice to wake us up to the truth and to inspire us to take action. You can take the preacher out of the pulpit, but it’s hard to take the pulpit out of the preacher,” said Bowen.
In the years since King’s passing, a nationally influential, widely respected leader with a similar demeanor and influence to King’s has yet to emerge. Nonetheless, King’s message continues to live on in the hearts and minds of all who take the time to listen to his wise words.
“King’s call for nonviolence carries the message that love will always have the last word. When you consider his nonviolent approach along with his insistence on speaking the truth, it would be nice to have some voices like that today. And that’s hard work,” said Bowen.
Those who wish to take up King’s mission can get involved in furthering change in a variety of ways. Striving for communication is the first step; taking action through social and political activism, volunteer work, and living in accordance with King’s values are other ways to ensure that his legacy lives on.
“Communication is paramount if we want to strive for the Beloved Community Dr. King spoke of. On our campus this is true as well as within the communities we each call home. I believe Dr. King’s words say it best: ‘In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’ Speak up, engage in service and action, and do the right thing even if it is not the popular stance,” said Lowery.