On 4 April 1968, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. A crowd of 300,000 attended his funeral. As a Baptist minister, his Christian beliefs and charismatic leadership fuelled the civil rights campaign against segregation and discrimination.
Brian Ward, Professor in American Studies at Northumbria University and author of Martin Luther King in Newcastle upon Tyne, reflects on Martin Luther King’s historic 1967 visit to Newcastle University – the only British University to award him an honorary degree – where he made a spell-binding impromptu speech:
There is an inspirational quality to Martin Luther King’s work for social justice which is clearly part of his international legacy. He had a direct influence on the Catholic civil rights movement in Northern Ireland and inspired the formation of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination in Britain. In 1967 when he came to Newcastle, he identified three great interlocking evils in the world – racism, poverty and war. That analysis is still applicable today. We think of him in relation to the rights of African Americans, but his work was broader than that – he was concerned about racism, bigotry, prejudice and discrimination in all forms. Moreover, while his own faith gave him confidence that, as he often repeated, “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice”, he was always urging people of goodwill to join him in an effort to hasten that process.
The Revd Graham Sparkes, President of Luther King House, a centre for theological study in Manchester:
At Martin Luther King’s funeral service, a recording was played of his last sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church during which he asked that at his funeral no mention should be made of the awards and the honours he had received, but that it be said he tried to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, be right on the war question, and love and serve humanity. Martin Luther King’s fearless commitment to justice and righteousness in faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, expressed in both his words and actions, continues to shine in our world.
The fact that our place of learning is named after Martin Luther King Jr is a constant reminder to us that our faith is about spiritual and political transformation. The two go together. We want all who study at LKH to be inspired by Martin Luther King’s example, and to discover for our own time and place what it means to be witnesses to a message of justice and liberation. Those gospel principles shape our teaching programmes and our life together as a community. Our new Centre for Theology and Justice seeks to equip people to think through the justice implications of our faith, including addressing the kind of racism and discrimination faced by Martin Luther King that is still present in our own society today.
Dr Andrew Davies, Reader in the Public Understanding of Religion University of Birmingham; Director, Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion
Martin Luther King showed us that religion can truly be a force for good in the world, a source of hope and comfort for those in need and the strength to enable them to stand up for their freedom and humanity in the face of incredible hatred and oppression. The fact that we still have so far to go in ridding our world of racism and segregation is testimony to the courage of those like King who first stood alone to confront such evil, but the greatest tribute to his life and work is that millions upon millions the world over are now emboldened to believe that their lives matter.
Rev Dr Chigor Chike, Chair, Anglican Minority Ethnic Network
When urging black people in Montgomery, Alabama to disobey the laws required them to stand up in buses or sit at the back, Martin Luther said: “We don’t only have a right to be free, we have a duty to be free. So when you sit down on the buses, you sit down in front or you sit down by white people, you are sitting down because you have a duty to sit down, not merely because you have a right to sit down.”
These words have enabled generations of black people and black organisations and other people fighting for equality, to frame their work not merely as a demand for their own benefit, but instead as their duty-bound action for a better order – an order that is in the best interest of everyone. Martin Luther King firmly believed and said so constantly that his country as a whole – white, black and others – lose out when any group within it is oppressed.
In the Anglican Minority Ethnic Network, which I am chairman, we have followed this approach. We see our fight for inclusion as a duty to God and the Church of England and not merely about our individual rights. And our message is that the whole church loses out when Minority Ethnic people are not included in the church’s leadership.