In part because of the pro-life activism of his niece, Alveda King, this question has sparked some debate and contention. In a piece reflecting on Martin Luther King Jr., whom he knew and marched with, the late Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote (responding, in part to Marshall Frady’s Martin Luther King Jr.):
Frady tends to agree with those who say that King died at the right time and in the right way. “Some have since suggested that it was just at the point where King seemed passing irretrievably into decline that he came by the terrible exaltation of violent martyrdom — a kind of historical editing, before the disillusionment could become total, that spared him from what could well have become a progressive marginality and tiresomeness and bankruptcy of his image. . . . If King had lived, most likely he would, with his increasingly radical gospel, have departed steadily further from the temper and received liberal sophistication of his times, drifting to the outermost fringes of apparent relevancy.”
I am inclined to the view that Dr. King was taken in mid-passage; he was not yet forty and nobody knows what he might have become and might have done. He might have departed further “from the temper and received liberal sophistication of his times,” not because of the radicalism that Frady attributes to him but because of a deeper radicalism grounded in the Christian gospel. I have entertained the hope that King would have confronted the epoch-defining moral crisis posed by what then was called, long before Roe v. Wade, “liberalized abortion law.” That is no more than a hope. I have no idea what he would have done with respect to this crisis of all crises in our time. But recall that Jesse Jackson, to his credit, was a powerful defender of the unborn for several years after 1968. About abortion he declared, “The war on poverty has been replaced by the war on the poor and the most defenseless.” To his great shame, he promptly switched sides when he was bitten by national political ambitions. Had King lived and continued in his aversion to politics, it is reasonable to hope that he would have made the obvious connections between the civil-rights struggle and abortion, both being the cause of expanding and defending the community of human dignity. That is, of course, no more than a hope, and we will never know.
About all that we know about King’s life today, Father Neuhaus concluded (after a more thorough treatment — the piece is worth reading):
If everything was known then that is known now, Dr. King would early have been brought to public ruin, and there would almost certainly be no national holiday in his honor. But God writes straight with crooked lines, and he used his most unworthy servant Martin to create in our public life a luminous moment of moral truth about what Gunnar Myrdal rightly called “the American dilemma,” racial justice. It seems a long time ago now, but there is no decline in the frequency of my thanking God for his witness and for having been touched, however briefly, by his friendship, praying that he may rest in peace, and that his cause may yet be vindicated.
I can’t help but think it is so appropriate that today is also St. Augustine’s feast day on the Catholic liturgical calendar. Key to the Christian life is knowing we’re sinners, knowing that we are in need of a Savior, in a witness of continual humility and conversion. A preacher, King knew this. You don’t have to be a saint to know it. It’s something that weighed on him, particularly in a leadership capacity. Father Neuhaus wrote:
Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian. Despite all. As we are all, in the final analysis, Christians despite all. Many of his biographers, and the public-school texts, tend to downplay that. Much is made of his having been enlightened by reading Gandhi, and he is frequently depicted as a forerunner of New Ageish spirituality. But King was emphatic in asserting, “This business of passive resistance and nonviolence is the gospel of Jesus. I went to Gandhi through Jesus.” Frady and others have recounted his telling of the time in Montgomery when he was first receiving death threats and wanted out. Frady tells it this way:
He was overwhelmed with woe over his own unworthiness, his life of bourgeois privilege even during this ordeal into which he had led the city’s black community, and finally about the superficiality of his “inherited” call into the ministry, although he “had never felt an experience with God in the way that you must . . . if you’re going to walk the lonely paths of this life.” As he later recalled that late night hour of desolation, “I couldn’t take it any longer” and “tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward.” Dropping his head into his hands, he suddenly realized he was praying aloud in the midnight hush of the kitchen: “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. . . . But Lord, I’m faltering, I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this. . . . But I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.” And at that moment, as King would tell it, he seemed to hear “an inner voice . . . the voice of Jesus,” answering him: “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” That voice of Jesus, King recounted, “promised never to leave me, no, never to leave me alone.”
A few days after the assassination, I took part in a huge memorial service in Harlem. The service was reported on the evening news. The reporter, microphone in hand, stood in front of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church and said, as I recall his words, “And so today there was a memorial service for the slain civil-rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King. It was a religious service, and appropriately so, for, after all, he was the son of a minister.” That rather totally missed the point, as the point has been missed so often in the years since then.
A little more on Augustine here over on a Catholic corner. Ditto MLK here. And know you can get an e-mail subscription to “K-Lo at Large” posts, for those interested in what are almost always quotes or reflections from spiritual readings and insights I happen upon — which I actually do try to spare The Corner from! (See “Subscribe by Email,” down the page a little on the right side.)