Dr. King’s Choice…and Ours

January 15, 2022 | National

CDF Community, 

From 2008 to 2018, I served as pastor of Saint John’s Church, a multi-racial congregation in St. Louis. Centering the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s public vision, we called ourselves “beloved disciples building Beloved Community.” This hope-filled picture of a transformed nation animated our work togetherin faith for justice. 

Every now and then, as we tried to live equitably and peaceably in a diverse, voluntary community, we experienced tough moments when faith gave way to doubt about whether this future was possible. For many committed to justice in America, Martin Luther King Weekend in 2022 (and what Beloved Disciples called ‘Beloved Community Sunday’), brings with it similar doubts… 

At these moments we can become dejected or depressed. Indeed scholars, like Lewis Baldwin and Michael Eric Dyson, write of the ‘melancholy’ of King. This was especially present amidst the suspicion of the government, challenges from younger leaders, and confusion over movement strategy before his ultimate transition from Elder to Ancestor.

MLK’s Choice and Ours

These moments also offer us choices. In At Canaan’s Edge, part three of Taylor Branch’s trailblazing trilogy, he chronicles American democracy during the last three years of Dr. King’s life. The final section, dedicated to Passion, delineates “King’s Choice” about the future of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and what would become his final campaign.  

Branch describes King’s August 1967 convention address to the SCLC in Atlanta which promised strategic clarity and didn’t deliver, followed by a September retreat to make up for the lack of direction. Gathered in Virginia, his inner circle, including one young lawyer named Marian Wright, Joan Baez, and the Reverends Jesse Jackson, Hosea Williams and Andrew Young, debated next steps for the movement. While the future direction was far from settled for some, King “received Marian Wright’s proposal like an answered prayer.” Our founder, now Marian Wright Edelman of course, urged a mass mobilization to organize the “invisible poor” which came to be known as the Poor People’s Campaign.      

While we carry forth this work for economic justice, stability and mobility at CDF, the great value I find in this episode is for every American committed to justice today. It’s about the process of discernment in the face of difficult political and social winds. While the path seems bleak for our priorities, like voting rights and child well-being, due to impediments to functioning democracy, we still have choices.

Finding clarity in community and commitment 

King found clarity for his choice in places we should look at this inflection point. First, he found clarity in a community of diverse perspectives. The coming days should find us in conversation with values-aligned partners with fresh ideas about policy and political strategy for a progressive future, committing to ongoing relationship away from the cameras. 

His discernment was guided by a youthful voice with an ambitious idea. I am now six years older than King was when he passed and when Mrs. Edelman made this proposal. It is incumbent upon me to remember that the moral authority to define the future belongs to those who will live in it the longest, especially children and youth. It’s time for us to orient our ears to the wisdom of lived experience and away from the traditional definitions of expertise. 

Finally, King became sure about the next step because of a bias toward bold action. A singular task restored his focus and aligned his energy for the final months of his life. When philosophical or theological defenses for the campaign ahead failed to persuade his colleagues, he returned to one refrain, “Go to Washington!” While logistical plans were still in development, he was committed to move in a manner that built power for the movement. He pursued this call until he took his final breath. 

Our call is to ‘flip the script’

King’s path had been chosen, clear and (I believe) correct for that moment in time. But on January 14, 1968, in conversation with legendary, St. Louis-born activist, Ira Sandperl, the seeds of alternative strategy for the anti-poverty campaign were planted. Branch records an encounter from King’s visit to an Oakland, California jail where Sandperl was incarcerated for anti-Vietnam demonstrations.   

“’Don’t go to Washington,’ he advised with customary fervor, warning of centralized corruption there, urging demonstrations instead where poor people lived.”

Sandperl suggested going to and focusing on people at the margins versus working to mobilize them toward people at the center. With a dysfunctional U.S. Senate at the stalled center of our efforts to provide a life-changing child tax credit expansion, to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and advance the Freedom to Vote Act, we will do well this King Day to flip the script and build power at the margins. 

Leaning into the principles which led MLK’s discernment at a difficult intersection, I believe we will benefit in 2022 from:

  • the diverse perspectives of our neighbors through listening campaigns to re-plant our public policy agendas and political strategies in the lived experiences of Black and brown mothers and students of color; 
  • the audacity of young voices, like those in our CDF Freedom Schools, who know what joy and freedom feel like more than they know Senate protocol; and 
  • bias for bold action through community organizing with faith communities and leaders, like those on a hunger strike for voting rights to bring “soul force” to the current campaign.

This is where you will find the Children’s Defense Fund living Dr. King’s legacy in our moment in 2022. In community. Building power. We have made our choice and hope you will join us. 

For our children,

Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson
President & CEO
Children Defense Fund & CDF Action Council