One of my most cherished memories from college is the time I spent with Reverend Hosea Williams. Known for being Dr. Martin Luther King’s Chief Field Organizer, Rev. Williams visited my campus to speak for an annual Martin Luther King, Jr. federal holiday celebration. At 73 years of age, he was fiery, energetic and his passion was contagious. As an inquisitive student, I took full advantage of my time with Rev. Williams. My memory of our time together is very vivid.
There are a few things that still stand out about his recollection of Dr. King that I think are worth sharing. Rev. Williams said that Dr. King was a “Jesus fanatic.” He said that Dr. King tried to mimic Jesus in everything he did; particularly in his principles, beliefs, and leadership style. He said that Dr. King often gathered his leadership circle for retreats. A common retreat place for him and his staff was in Frogmore, S.C. During the retreats, they debated the issues and strategies of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King explained his points of view like Jesus using parables from the Bible. He was always very interested in everyone’s opinions, placing great value on what everyone said. Once he heard everyone’s opinion he often added, “Now gentlemen, I must go counsel with the Lord.” He literally left the group and went off and prayed.
It’s clear that Dr. King drew from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. He often said. “I am first and foremost a preacher of the gospel.” It is important to remember his work was guided by his religious beliefs–his religious theology was the foundation of his work. In his book “Strength to Love”, King wrote, “You must be willing to challenge unjust mores, to champion unpopular causes and to buck the status quo. You are called to be the salt of the earth. You are to be the light of the world. You are to be that vitally active leaven in the lump of the nation.” Dr. King’s religious beliefs influenced his political beliefs, not the other way around. A central message of his theology was the liberation of the poor. Challenging a social and power structure that allowed racism, classism, economic and social oppression was a responsibility of living out your faith.
Each year during the King Holiday, Dr. King’s image gets hijacked by political leaders, corporations and self-promoters. Many are quick to suggest that Dr. King would be very interested in their issue. However, none of us can say without a doubt what Dr. King would be advocating for. But the evidence is clear about what he stood for and what he stood against.
Such evidence suggests that Dr. King would have admonished Congress for leaving Washington, D.C. without extending unemployment benefits. Some 1.3 million Americans have been out of work for six months or more. These families rely on their unemployment benefits to provide for their families. Their benefits ended in December of last year.
At the time of his death, Dr. King was busy organizing the Poor Peoples Campaign. He planned to pitch a tent city in our nation’s capital, bringing poor people from all over the country, which suggests that he would be interested in the growing movement to address poverty and income equality in America. He’d likely argue that those who work at fast food restaurants 40 hours a week ought to be able to feed their families and have a decent living. Today, there are 1.6 million workers who earn $7.25 an hour and an estimated 17 million workers who make between $7.25 and $10.10 an hour.
The evidence suggests that he would be interested in mass incarceration–and the 2.2 million people who are currently in the nation’s jail. According to the Sentencing Project, “more than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For Black males in their thirties, 1 in every 10 is in prison or jail on any given day. These trends have been intensified by the disproportionate impact of the ‘war on drugs,’ in which two-thirds of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color.” He’d likely agree with Michelle Alexander, who suggests that mass incarceration has created the New Jim Crow, creating a legal system of second class citizenship.
Also, Dr. King would likely be interested in ongoing health disparities in America. In 1966, he took up residence in the slums of Chicago as part of the “Northern Crusade” (a direct action plan to change the racially motivated policies of Chicago). He was keenly aware that a person’s quality of life and health is a result of the zip code that person lives in. He was aware that zip codes forecast access to healthy, affordable foods, safe places to be physically active, safety and proximity to toxic waste. During this stay in Chicago, he declared, “Of all forms of discrimination and inequalities, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhuman.”
The King Holiday offers an opportunity for our nation to reflect on its founding principles and the teachings of Dr. King. Many of the speeches will suggest what Dr. King would say if he were still living. But none of us really knows. However, we do know what he stood for. He was simply a southern Baptist preacher who set out to live according to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Thinking back to Rev. Williams, the most profound thing he shared with me about Dr. King was, “I didn’t know God until I met that man. Don’t get me wrong; he wasn’t my God. But God was revealed to me through him.”
Kevin Dedner is the Managing Director of Forward Solutions. His unique background combines grassroots organizing, public health policy development, and administration. Dedner is a graduate of the University of Arkansas with a degree in Political Science and also holds a Masters of Public Health from Benedictine University. Forward Solutions is a consulting firm committed to helping local communities advance public policy and implement evidence-based interventions to improve the health and overall quality of life for citizens. Forward Solutions is based in Washington, D.C.