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Holy Martin: The Overlooked Canonization of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • Scott W. Hoffman

Martin Luther King, Jr., gazes serenely, almost expressionless, in a somber suit and tie before a backdrop of prison bars. Around his neck hangs a booking number, “7089.” Around his head is a brilliant golden halo. The picture is not a mug shot but an icon in the Byzantine tradition. It is, as its Greek inscription says, “Holy Martin.” St. Martin Luther King.

This icon is a popular piece of merchandise for a mail-order Company in Vermont. Each January, just before King's birthday they receive a flood of Orders. This phenomenon is an enigma, the fountainhead for a flood of questions. How can a black Baptist minister become the subject of a popular icon? What in American society and culture fostered its creation? Who invokes this great civil rights leader as a saint? But the most basic question is, how can Martin Luther King be considered a saint in the first place? Was it simply because he was slain for the cause of civil rights? Others died for the cause, and there are no icons of them.

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1. Miller, Keith D., The Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Sources (New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1992), 1011 .

2. Miller indicates that King deliberately adopted these personae upon first rising to prominence in the mid-1950's. Richard Lischer qualifies that interpretation: “At first unconsciously and then consciously, King adopted and combined a variety of religious personae in his self-presentation to America.” Lischer, Richard, “The Word that Moves: The Preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Theology Today 46 (April 1989): 181 . Aldon Morris both supports and expands on Miller's basic rhetorical understanding of King's appeal. He applies Max Weber's sociological definition of the often nebulous notion of charisma to Dr. King: “King had precisely the type of personality that Weber conceptualized as charismatic: He was viewed as extraordinary by large numbers of people; he was competent at his tasks; many people identified with his visions of a ‘beloved Community’ devoid of racism; and King had the talent to articulate this view forcefully through powerful oratory.” Morris, Aldon, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizingfor Change (New York: Free Press, 1984), 279 . It should be noted, however, that, in Morris's view, it is not only King's language and use of biblical personae but also his remarkable actions that made him charismatic. Yet Miller, with his focus on King's rhetoric, only tangentially addresses this element of King's appeal.

3. King, Martin Luther Jr., Stride toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958), 171 .

4. As Americans experienced King's preaching, actions, and teaching, “the culture's own memory image of Martin Luther King became itself a cultural fact, a symbol, a representative of a particular authentic possibility.” Tracy, David, Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), 216 .

5. “Southern Ministers Show Real Courage,” Indianapolis Recorder, February 2,1957,10.

6. Here “popular level” is defined as those millions of people not personally involved in the civil rights movement, including many political and religious elites.

7. Miller, Voice of Deliverance, 175. Despite this essentially correct assessment, Miller only occasionally mentions the popular reception of King's personae among both blacks and whites. King's popular reception is not the focus of his work, and this quotation is a rare moment when he explicitly discusses it. Populär reception, however, is of major significance in any discussion of King and should be given further attention.

8. Nathan Irvin Huggins, for example, describes King's charisma as an exchange between King and his audiences. When King spoke, he gave voice to the values, myths, hopes, and fears of those who heard him and of the popular mind at large. Furthermore, Huggins emphasizes, this was not a completely mindless exchange. King did not simply plant these things in his audiences. His charisma had to touch “something genuine” within them or it could not exist. Nathan Irvin Huggins, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: Charisma and Leadership,” Journal of American History 74, no. 2 (September 1987): 479.

9. As Aldon Morris notes, many accepted King's message in the light of faith and came to believe that “protest was right and even divine, and [that] Martin Luther King was the moral figure and prophet divinely inspired to the movement. The fact that the masses associated King with Jesus, Moses, and other biblical leaders strengthened King's charismatic appeal.” Morris, Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, 60.

10. Miller makes tantalizing references to King as a martyr, although he does not examine that persona deeply. Furthermore, I have found no scholars who discuss the formal canonization of King by certain American denominations.

11. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,”; see also Malinda Snow, “Martin Luther King's ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ as Pauline Epistle,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 71 (August 1985): 318-34. In discussing “Letter,” Miller builds upon Snow's work.

12. Miller, Voice of Deliverance, 163.

13. Reese Cleghorn, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: Apostle of Crisis,” Saturday Evening Post, July 15, 1963, 15-19.

14. Asante, Molefi, The Afrocentric Idea (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987), 89 ; see also Raboteau, Albert J., “African Americans, Exodus, and the American Israel,” in Religion and American Culture: A Reader, ed. Hackett, David G.. (New York: Routledge, 1994), 7388 .

15. Quoted in Garrow, David J., “Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Spirit of Leadership,” Journal of American History 74, no. 2 (September 1987): 439 ; King, Martin Luther Jr., The Martin Luther King Jr. Companion: Quotations from the Speeches, Essays, and Books of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), 182 .

16. Miller, Voice of Deliverance, 170-72. Although Miller himself quotes Jackson, perhaps he overlooks this symbolic importance of King's actions because of his emphasis on King's language.

17. Ibid., 172; Dean Gordon B. Hancock, “A Leader Whose Time Has Come,” Indianapolis Recorder, March 30, 1957, 10; “Man of the Year: Never Again Where He Was,” Time, January 3, 1964, 13.

18. Miller, , Voice of Deliverance, 20, 172-73; Oates, Stephen B., Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York, New American Library, 1982), 280 ; Downing, Frederick L., “Martin Luther King, Jr., as Public Theologian,” Theology Today 44 (April 1987), 27 ; Miller, Voice of Deliverance, 173-74.

19. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound, 80; “Negro Minister Is Found Guilty, Fined $500 in Alabama Boycott,” New York Times, March 23, 1957, 26; Donald Hugh Smith, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: Rhetorician of Revolt” (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1964), 254-55.

20. “The Law and De Lawd,” Time, November 15, 1965, 38; Halberstam cited in Miller, Voice of Deliverance, 174.

21. “The Uses of Martyrdom,” Saturday Review, April 20, 1968, 28; “Martyrdom Comes to America's Moral Leader,” Christian Century, April 17, 1968, 475.

22. “Statements in the Capital,” New York Times, April 5, 1968, 24; Abernathy quoted in Miller, Voice of Deliverance, 183; “Comment by Pope Paul,” New York Times, April 8, 1968, 34; “Governor Speaks at Services Here,” New York Times Press, 1970), 847 (italicsmine).

23. “Transcripts of Prayer, Tribute and Eulogy,” New York Times, April 10, 1968, 32, 33.

24. “An Hour of Need,” Time, April 12, 1968, 20; “Eulogy for the King,” Indianapolis Recorder, April 20, 1968, 9.

25. “Dr. King Lived a Good Life” and “King Called ‘Moses,’” Indianapolis Recorder, May 8, 1968.

26. Cited in Miller, Voice of Deliverance, 184; New York Times Index (New York: New York Times Press, 1970), 847 (italics mine).

27. See Miller, Voice of Deliverance, 184.

28. See, for example, the titles of David Garrow's 1986 Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Taylor Branch's 1988 Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63, and James A. Colaiaco's Martin Luther King, Jr: Apostle of Militant Nonviolence of 1988.

29. “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” in Early Christian Fathers, ed. Cyril Richardson (New York: Macmillan, 1970), 156.

30. Miller, Voice of Deliverance, 173.

31. Naveh, Eyal J., Crown of Thorns: Political Martyrdom in America from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: New York University Press, 1990), 1, 1-2, 183 (italics mine).

32. “People of the Week,” U.S. News & World Report, April 5, 1965, 18; Loudon Wainwright, “Martyr of the Sit-Ins,” Time, November 7, 1960, 123; “Dr. King Is Jailed,” New York Times, July 11, 1962, 26; “Waiting for Miracles,” Time, August 3, 1962, 12-13.

33. “The Martyrdom of Martin Luther King,” Ebony, May 1968,181; “Memphis in Holy Week,” Christian Century, May 8, 1968, 619; “Martyrdom,” English Journal 78 (November 1968): 1148.

34. Wright, Lawrence, In the New World: Growing Up with America from the Sixties to the Eighties (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), 134 ; Richard Holler, “Abraham, Martin, and John,” on Abraham, Martin, and John, Collectibles Records.

35. See “King's Canonization Is Urged,” New York Times, April 9, 1968, 37; “Updating Sainthood,” Christian Century, April 2, 1969, 606.

36. “Fiesta Held Here by Puerto Ricans: King and Kennedy Honored at Randalls Island Fete,’ New York Times, June 24, 1968, 29.

37. “A School Holiday in Westchester,” New York Times, January 11, 1969, 34; Roundup, Christian Century, April 2, 1969, 459.

38. “King Memorial Window in Jersey Church Damaged,” New York Times, October 13, 1968, 36; “King's Alma Mater Seeks Funds for Memorial Chapel,” Indianapolis Recorder, April 13, 1968, sec. 2, 14; “Memphis Motel Becomes Shrine,” New York Times, April 5, 1969, 34. (While circumstances did not exactly resemble those of the Last Supper, there were only two at the table, for example, no doubt that event entered the minds of those who saw the display.)

39. Ronald Smothers, “Bigotry's Persistence,” New York Times, January 19, 1988, sec. B, 3; U2, “(Pride) In the Name of Love,” on Raule and Hum, Island Records 7 91003-4, audiocassette.

40. Charles Johnson, “Fictionalizing King,”

41. Luther an Book of Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1978), 10, 37; Kevin Donovan, S.J., “The Sanctoral,” in The Study of Liturgy, ed. Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, Edward Yarnold, S.J., and Paul Bradshaw (London: SPCK, 1992), 484.

42. Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David, According to the Use of the Episcopal Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 22; Donovan, “The Sanctoral,” 483. Significantly, the Anglican hesitance toward King as martyr recently has been dispelled by the erection of a statue of King as one of the ten great twentieth-century martyrs at London's Westminster Abbey, a mother church for Anglicanism. Britain's Guardian Weekly reported that the selection of King was unquestioned. See Madeleine Bunting, “Modern Martyrs Find their Westminster Niche,” Guardian Weekly, July 19, 1998, 8.

43. “Preface,” in Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal (Chicago: G.I.A. Publications, 1987), iii; Robert Manuel, “Keep the Dream Alive,” in ibid., 295.

44. I personally witnessed the liturgies at St. John's and St. James. The information on the Archdiocese of Santa Fe was relayed to me by Robert Lentz, creator of the King icon.

45. Rogin, Michael, “The King's Two Bodies,” Massachusetts Review 20 (Autumn 1979): 553-73; Finkelman, Paul, “Manufacturing Martyrdom: The Antislavery Response to John Brown's Raid,” in His Soul Goes Marching On: Responses to John Brozvn and the Harpers Terry Raid, ed. Finkelman, Paul (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1995), 4166 ; Wolf, Hazel Catherine, On Treedom's Altar (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1952); Klapp, Orrin E., Heroes, Villains, and Tools: The Changing American Character (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962).

46. Hines, Carl Wendeil, “Now that he is safely dead,” in Drum Major for a Dream, ed. Zepp, Ira G. and Palmer, Melvin D. (Thomson, Conn.: Writers Workshop, 1977), 4 .

47. Interview with Robert Lentz, November 16,1997.

48. It should be noted that this is remarkably similar to the ancient Christian understanding that even the most grievous sinner is reconciled to God if he or she dies in witness to the Kingdom.

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Religion and American Culture
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