Broadcast Sunday, April 8th 2018 at 4pm:
Martin Luther King Jr. comes to seem larger in his absence these last 50 years, himself a cosmos, in Walt Whitman speak, containing multitudes—and not contradictions so much as multiples. He was a midnight-oil Ph.D. intellectual, ever self-consciously the descendant of slaves. He was at first a reluctant leader, drafted to mobilize an alliance of plain black and poor people, who made him their captain of a sanctified social revolution. He became a sure strategist of Napoleonic ambition, in non-violence and personal non-anger. At the same time he became a saint by the Christian standard that he’d taken up the cross of Jesus Christ on a path to assassination, knowing he would only save his life by losing it.
The civic heroism of Martin Luther King Jr. marks a peak in any story of 20th Century America. The basics are familiar: At his death by assassination 50 years ago – he was then just 39 – Dr. King had been the incandescent voice in a 15-year civil rights movement that wrote race out of our law. He is remembered for it on the holiday calendar, in monuments and street names and avenues in hundreds of cities and towns across the land, on postage stamps around the world. This hour we’re listening for what’s not on the MLK stamps, or in the civics books: the religious conviction, the radicalism about wealth and power, the short lifetime crammed with reading, writing, philosophizing.