Martin Luther King: prophet and tragi-hero

Forty years ago today Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in circumstances that remain unclear, despite a civil trial in 1999 in which jurors declared that the US government was party to a conspiracy against the civil rights leader. But this is not the place to revisit the death of King. I’m more interested in his life, and what it means to be a prophet in the modern age.

Last week there was broadcast on British television a documentary that focused on the prophetic aspect of King’s character. In this programme the secular Jewish former parliamentarian Oona King declared that a recent study of her distant relation’s life led her to revise a long-held opinion of the man. Martin Luther King cannot, she says, be seen other than in the context of his religious faith, and in particular as a prophet similar to the Isaiah of scripture he so often quoted in his speeches.

Being a former Christian of a liberal catholic persuasion, the prophets of Israel and Judah are of great interest to me. I see parallels in the lives of many great men and women of history, and Martin Luther King was certainly one of the greatest. He may have been a very human, flawed individual, but so too were his prophetic predecessors.

And what is a prophet? A prophet is a messenger of God: a man or woman who speaks by divine inspiration, and is at the same time intensely motivated and fearless. Or simply someone so connected with himself and the world around him that he sees deeper and further than others, and uses this grace to help guide them to a better place. As an atheist this is the only way I can make sense of the person that was Martin Luther King.

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

In this conclusion to the “I have a dream” speech, King expressed a combination of foresight, resignation and hope, and a firm belief that he was doing what he had to do. Foresight is a recognised quality of prophets. It does not require the ability to see into a time that has yet to be; the surgical application of reason, combined with a little wisdom, is enough.

King was a clever man (even if he did plagiarise parts of his doctoral thesis), and I think he saw clearly what was coming to him. He made enemies of former friends in the Whitehouse when he spoke out against the Vietnam war, and expanded his preaching to include economic injustice and fundamental flaws in the American political system. But this King had to do, both because it was right, and also because of the growing influence of radicals to the left such as Malcolm X.

By this time King’s life had taken on a dynamic that he could no longer control, and this appears to be a common characteristic of the prophet. He gives so much of himself to others that instead of leading them, they begin to control him. This often leads to a tragic end, and in that sense the martyrdom of Martin Luther King Jr was little different from that of the semi-mythical Nazarene whose example he followed.