Reflections on “Death of a King”

When I think of the Martin Luther King that is idolized in contemporary settings versus the Martin Luther King of which Tavis Smiley and David Ritz projects in the early chapters of Death of a King, much is left to ponder. The ambiguous space from which King has been launched, in the 21st century, situates a King, that is settled in reconciliation without any variance or critical lens. Tavis Smiley and Davis Ritz interrogates that particular notion by isolating a King that is wrestling with the establishment of an evolving identity. I, purposely, employ the word wrestling instead of developing because this process is ever-etching King toward meaning- making within the Poor People’s Campaign. King is reluctant to embrace the vast changes shared with him from Bayard Rustin; highlighting that racism must be coupled with economic freedom in order for the impact of the Civil Rights Movement to be substantial nationwide. It is Rustin who is in King’s ear, years prior to his enlightenment, that folks with access and no money is just as bad as no access. King experiences this reality as he is matriculating through the West Coast, it is there where the epiphany of a new direction engulfs his persona. The events of the moment are galvanizing within the instance, a resurrection of a new agenda — thoughts that are lying dormant but re-energized by his encounters on the West Coast. The identity shift that happen through the encounters on the West Coast assisted King in reimagining freedom for Black people in the United States, it tilted his overall thinking about nonviolence and served as a marker for change.

            Moving throughout the West Coast produced an economical perspective for King that he appeared reluctant to grasped, previously. While in those locations, he not only encountered a hatred from white folks but a particular angst that engulfed Black folks as well. These folks were not as concerned with racism as they were with economical stability — jobs. They preferred to have decent living spaces and opportunities to good paying jobs. King’s naiveté in such areas never embarged upon his status in the South because his previous work secured his reputation. But, in the Midwest and on the West Coast, King was not as much of a redeemable entity. What had he accomplished in such settings? This begins to be an unsettled rendering for King and the movement as he is trying to garner support. What makes King such a viable figure that the folks in these areas would want to listen to him? Yes, he had done some things in leading the marches in the South but the dynamics were different in these cities. The shift is King’s identity is starting to reveal itself at this moment. As a leader, he is questioning himself and the people are moving in a more militant direction. King is out of step with the happenings of the day which is halting his progress for effective change. King is the “ultimate Negro at a time when Negros are seeing themselves as blacks.”[1] This produced a dialectical difference of King and the constituents of the cities. Ultimately, this produces a wall that would prove unavoidable for King.

            Because King is attempting to wrestle through the very issues plaguing his progress on the West Coast and Chicago, his view of nonviolence becomes tilted. This understanding of tilted is framed by Melissa Harris-Perry’s concept of the crooked room.[2] She uses a study conducted by H.A Witkin that placed people in a “crooked chair, with crooked pictures and asked them to align themselves properly.”[3] These folks were placed in a titled chair with titled pictures but some still contorted their bodies in order to make the object straight. What I am proposing is that King does some of the same contortionist maneuvers when it comes to negotiation within a non-violent agenda. King never, openly, denounces the use of non-violence, and, consistently, commits to non-violence, as a mean to win against the structure of violence until his death. The appropriation of the tilt, nonetheless, comes into play as King begins to respond differently to why Blacks are suddenly responding with violence on the West Coast and the Midwest. After major riots and other protest over his position of the Vietnam War, King fires back about violence. He responds to an inquisitive reporter, “In the final analysis a riot is the language of the unheard.”[4] King goes further with his tilting of his position on non-violence when he claims” that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice.”[5] Though King is not advocating for the total dismissal of non-violence, what he is proposing is an explanation: Why do Black people have to have a legitimate reason to be violent? He is tilting his head just bit in order for some clarity to surface in this space of ambiguity. In white folks’ hurry to move to tranquility, they have failed to assess the violent structure that is harming Black bodies and minds. Thus, King is calling for a readjustment, but he is starting with himself.

            Lastly, King’s travels to the West Coast served as a marker for his new emerging identity of Blackness. He is having to come to grips with the Black Power movement and it is pressing him to reinvent himself and his message. Smiley and Ritz denotes that King was still dressed in “black suits and ties” when the mood of the day was “dashikis, leather jackets, dark glasses and berets.”[6] King is observing, literally, that he is becoming obsolete in an everchanging climate that is moving toward a different type of militancy and resistance with white supremacy. His non-violent rhetoric was losing the day while Black Power was becoming an existential rally cry for poor Black people. What Smiley and Ritz exhibit is that King was so steeped in his traditionalism that it begins to blind his leadership in particular places where change was vastly needed. It was in those very places where King begins to envision how he was misguided on his overall approach. He needed to find a way for people to actually eat at the very counters that he had fought for them to sit at. Here is where the Poor People’s Campaign starts to become a reality.

            King identity goes through a transformation during the last year of his life. King has become a major cog in the wheel for justice but is greeted by a force that is gaining strength, quickly — Black Power. It is something that he has fought against but has preceded to back him against the wall. King embraces the concept but reimagines it through the lens of economic empowerment, doing his best to shield the Civil Rights Movement from being an isolated endeavor. Interestingly, we find Smiley’s and Ritz’s King becoming radicalized into the leader of the Poor People’s Campaign. Honestly, a movement that would have changed the trajectory of the United States if he would have been able to fulfill the objectives of its mission. King dies being loved as one of the greatest progenitors of a reconciliatory ethic, but he was killed with a spark of genius that might have reframed the story of the United States. 


[1] Tavis Smiley and David Ritz, Death of a King, New York: Back Bay Book, 2014., 74.

[2] Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.,29.

[3] Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen, 29

[4] Smiley and Ritz, Death of a King,42.

[5] Smiley and Ritz, Death of a King, 43.

[6] Smiley and Ritz, 79.

Songs of Protest

21 After threatening them again, they let them go, finding no way to punish them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened. 22 For the man on whom this sign of healing had been performed was more than forty years old. (Acts 4:21-22)

Peter and John on their way to the temple encounter a lame man and, ultimately, become conduits for healing. This man whom many had passed by numerous of times, on their way to whatever pressing “Godly matters” is now in the presence of two concerned brothers. Peter and John dapped the brother up and encouraged him to “rise up and walk” in the name of that Black Messiah from Nazareth.

Because they had invoked the name of the Black Messiah, Jesus, and stood against the status quo they were unjustly arrested. Their legal protest for free health care got them placed in jail and brought before the corrupt and misinformed rulers. These corrupt rulers did everything in their power to get them to concede and change their talking points. Recognizing that these men had definitely been with the Black Messiah, the rulers made all matter of threats, but, eventually, yielded because the people’s praises were of such a rebellious vibe, it disrupted their desired intentions. These were not just praises of euphoric emotions, these songs of protest appeared to have activated strategies for change. The scripture denotes that the rulers “finding no way to punish them, because of the people, for all were praising.” The songs of protest were such a disruption of resistance that all plans were averted.

Prophetic Urges from Orlando: Part 1

Over the next 8 weeks or so, we will have a few of my friends, classmates and fellow pastors write on their feelings of the church, their thoughts, hopes and theology after Orlando.  Some you may agree with while other you may be the voice of dissent. Nonetheless, it will hopefully spark honest dialogue for change:

I am Brian Foulks. I am a heterosexual male and married with children. I am black male that grew up in the Black Baptist church but now part of the ELCA. Yes, the ELCA that is 96% white. Yes, the ELCA that ordains folks for the LGBTQIA community. Yes, I am pro-black but I am not anti-white. Yes, I read James Baldwin and James Cone. Yes, I love Hip Hop. I have three master’s degrees but still get looked at strange in many Lutheran circles. Yes, I grew up in a two-parent home where my parents have been married for 43 years. Yes, I grew up in Lexington, SC. Yes, I have friends and classmates who are Muslims and I care deeply about them.

Why did you say all of that? Because in the midst of all those labels and categories, I am lost for words. My honest critique of the church and the concern  for human life, after the terrorism in Orlando, has left me numb once again. It is that same numbness that I felt after the Mother Emmanuel terrorist attack: It was that feeling of what do we do now. Where will all of our “believe in Jesus” and “trust the Lord” rhetoric get us now? When the senseless slaughter of human life becomes synonymous with a loving God, then it may be time for us to create a new god. Some may declare that creating a new god teeters on the verge of heresy but so does condoning of the murder of LGBTQIA lives and the owning of a AR-15.

Honestly, I don’t understand everything there is to know about the LGBTQIA culture. Somethings I may not understand or can reason but, I do have friends in that community of beautiful people. Yes, the brothers and sisters in the LGBTQIA community have taught me how to love in the midst of the terrible face of evil. I have been made better by interaction and fellowship with this community.

As I wrestled through the murders of Mother Emmanuel, the love of a crucified Christ looked more like a crucified Christ finding no reason to love. Then to imagine 50 or more, brothers and sisters, mowed down by an AR-15 becomes a place where love is non-existent but the crucified Christ stands in the midst of the bloody dead bodies. The Crucified Christ standing, heart torn asunder because 50 lives have been stolen by sin. The Crucified Christ, always present. We mourn the lives of the brothers and sisters stolen too soon. There is no celebration for me. There is anger. There is unease. There is fear for my children. There are places where faith has appeared to relinquish its mode of life. The Crucified Christ is present…but sometimes I ponder on Langston Hughes’ Goodbye Christ:

Listen, Christ,

You did alright in your day, I reckon-

But that day’s gone now.

They ghosted you up a swell story, too,

Called it Bible-

But it’s dead now,

The popes and the preachers’ve

Made too much money from it.

They’ve sold you to too many

 

Kings, generals, robbers, and killers-

Even to the Tzar and the Cossacks,

Even to Rockefeller’s Church,

Even to THE SATURDAY EVENING POST.

You ain’t no good no more.

They’ve pawned you

Till you’ve done wore out.

 

Goodbye,

Christ Jesus Lord God Jehova,

Beat it on away from here now.

Make way for a new guy with no religion at all-

A real guy named

Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME-

I said, ME!

 

Go ahead on now,

You’re getting in the way of things, Lord.

And please take Saint Gandhi with you when you go,

And Saint Pope Pius,

And Saint Aimee McPherson,

And big black Saint Becton

Of the Consecrated Dime.

And step on the gas, Christ!

Move!

 

Don’t be so slow about movin?

The world is mine from now on-

And nobody’s gonna sell ME

To a king, or a general,

Or a millionaire.

Then I remember, the Crucified Christ is present. He gets down in the mess with us. He stands in the bloody mangled bodies weeping for the broken fellowship. So what can we do as the church: be present.

 

Hyper-Masculinity Default

I came to the conclusion, yesterday, that I am hyper-masculine. There is this constructed sense of male bravado that governs my life. When love is extended to me by my wife or daughter, I tend to pull away with extreme countermeasures –a simple form of affection becomes a sacred place of tension. Where did this thinking come from? I am not sure…

As I read through some of the phenomenal womanist and feminist works, I am challenged by all the hyper-masculinity that is so easily spewed in American culture. America tends to isolate men in a space of invulnerability. One’s manhood is in question when that man starts to appreciate the humanity of another; violence has become a distinction of what manhood entails; money has become one of the primal characteristics of what being a man represents.

I tried to model myself after those false attributes of what a man should resemble. I overlooked the humanity of other people when it jeopardize my manhood; my reflection were always laden with metaphors of violence; I thought money was the answer to all problems. What I found was that the roads of such a journey are tainted with tragedy?

When life hands you a mirror and says take a look, the staggering blow of hypocrisy looms large. No longer can you deny the myth and façade that has become the norm in your life. You must now come to terms with the sexist, homophobic and prejudice person that you are. Being in community with women and the LGTBQ community gave me a sense of reality that had previously been detoured from my life. No longer was my hyper –masculine default viable.

There were questions that were asked that challenged me to be better: Do I always agree with my womanist and feminist sisters; no! Do I always agree with the LGBTQ community; no! Do I always agree with white men; no? But, I learned to grow in community in spite of our differences.

Diversity may be the hardest thing for a society to live with, and perhaps the most dangerous thing for a society to be without. – William Sloane Coffin

Unmasking a Preserved Blackness: Infrastructure for Reconciliation

(White and black church are used as terms of identification not for separation identifiers.)

The need for a dialog about racial reconciliation is long overdue. The Trayvon Martin Trial (I use the Trayvon Martin Trial because he appeared to be the one on trial not George Zimmerman) brought an end to the entire premise of post-racial. The margin between black and white became extended with intensified reluctance from both parties in a search for a common place of peace. Even my own perspective highlights this point as well. Yes, I believe Trayvon was murdered because he was a young black male with a hoodie. There are others who believe Zimmerman was honestly trying to defend himself. But opposing views are highly based upon race. At the end of the day the only person who knows the real truth is George Zimmerman.

What this case has done is bring light to the racial disparity that this country has never really dealt with and probably never will deal with. But to add insult to injury the church has done an even poorer job of the very same thing. We have replaced reconciliation with silence and a theological stance of providence. We have not brought our prejudices to the table with clarity and boldness in order to develop a comprehensive plan of attack in our local context.

Here are my three points to ponder;

1. There must be an honest understanding leveraged by the white church that denotes that racial divide is a direct reflection of their behavior. There would not have been a need for a black church if everyone was treated equal. Black folks wanted and needed a black church to worship without feeling the need to still be in a submissive status to the slave master. (Even today many older black folks raise one figure up when leaving the church.) This was sign to the master that they need to excuse themselves and the finger was their form of asking permission. The maltreatment of black folks in church produces an AME church, National Baptist Convention, Progressive National Convention, COGIC and many more.

” America’s sin of racism has never even been confessed, much less repented for. Repenting for past sins against each other and being reconciled to one other” — Jim Wallis

2. The Black church is really not interested in having that conversation or a meaningful fellowship in white mainline denominations. These organizations have developed a theology and precedent that they are not ready to release in order to make white churches feel comfortable. They have carved out a sacred space that places them in preservation mode. There are traditional practices that have become emblems of progress and change that the black church will never relinquish just to be considered diverse.  To allow the white church to infiltrate that would resemble something remotely close to a Trojan Horse ethos.

3. Most pastors will not engage this topic for the simple fact that it might expose them as being the main culprits of the act. There is not that type of honest introspection being done by most because they live a box with people who look like them. There is an escapism mentality that calls for the problem of racism to be overlooked. It is Derrick Bell who quotes a friend when he says,

“People looking to escape are not worried about solutions.”- Derrick Bell

This is something to start the dialog. There are a lot of things flowing in my mind but I think this gets it going in a right direction.