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Remembering Martin Luther King: moving beyond “chocolate saint”

By Leslie Brown ’10 M.Div.

To remember Martin Luther King Jr. as a “chocolate saint” is to do a disservice to his role as prophetic leader and the fierce totality of his anti-poverty message.  But pure imitation of King and his powerful message falls short of the larger task of building on his voice and commitment with individual integrity and authenticity of self.  And to have authentic dialogue there must be acknowledgement of the common humanity among all parties.  These were some of the themes that resonated during two panel presentations at the Middle Passage Conversations conference at Yale University on April 4, 40 years to the day after King’s assassination.

Kathleen Neal Cleaver, a senior lecturer at Yale in African American Studies, opened discussion at the second of the two panels with an admonition against viewing King as a “chocolate saint” that would decouple him from the fierce totality of his prophetic message against poverty and violence.  She said the death of King and other civil rights leaders in the 1960s were significant blows to economic justice, human rights, world peace and efforts to fight poverty.

Katie Cannon, professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia described King as a light in a sea of darkness whose death drew a deep demarcation in her personal and cultural identity.   “On April 4, 1968 the Negro in me died and I became Black,” said Cannon, noting that it was only the care provided by the elders in her university community that prevented her from going into deep despair after King was shot.

Princeton University’s Cornel West, a professor of religion, described King as a person whose life was an embodied sermon and witness of love and democracy in practice.  But in commemorating King, said West, admirers should avoid imitation and, instead, build on King’s voice and commitment with individual integrity and authenticity of self.

Earlier, at the first of the two panels, Marcia Riggs, professor of ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary spoke about moral ethics as “encounter” and emphasized that “the nature of the encounter is as important as the parties.”  Anthropologist Kamari Clarke of Yale described a need for “a dialectic discussion,” and Peter Paris, an ethicist at Princeton Theological Seminary, suggested that there is “no public conversation in a sustained way” in America in part due to a failure to acknowledge a common humanity among all parties.

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