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The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came to prominence in divisive and challenging times, and he was speaking directly to those times. There are certainly parallels between that era and our own, and I find his teaching to be as resonant as it ever was. That teaching is often misunderstood, however.

The phrase "passive resistance" is misleading (though King did sometimes use it himself). There was nothing passive in King’s work or teaching. "Nonviolence," as well, seems to define that approach by what it isn’t. In the latter part of his work, King spoke more often of "soul force," a translation of Gandhi’s term, "satyagraha," and it is clear to see from history that the movement was built on just that — movement, not passivity, not standing still and waiting on others to deal with problems.

While his teaching is tremendously salient, though, the "heroification" of King can certainly be destructive. It is deep in our cultural narrative to want heroes to fix things for us, when in fact, it is always movements that affect large-scale change. Movements consist of a lot of people doing a little bit each. That’s what King taught, but many of us have a hard time hearing him through our cultural filters.

It is easy to applaud King, but forget that he constantly called us to get involved, actively and directly. Ironically, painting him as a hero can have the perverse effect of relieving us of responsibility — if heroes fix things, and I’m not a hero, then it’s not my job to work on the problem.  That’s the opposite of what King taught, though. We are all responsible for challenging what is wrong, as well as for practicing what is better, to paraphrase Richard Rohr.

 There is no question that there is tremendous inequity to be addressed in our time, but there are also huge numbers of people showing up to do the work to address it. It is notable that hundreds of people showed up for the women’s march in Black Mountain recently. In a town of fewer than 9,000, that’s quite a percentage. Some minimized the first women’s march as a flash in the pan, but we now find that more women are running for office in the United States than ever before in the nation’s history. These things are directly related.


King’s own nonviolence theory held that injustice has to revealed before it can be healed. We have seen a great deal of revelation lately, and that is a painful part of the process. Sadly, the healing part takes longer, but I continue to believe that the long arc of history bends toward justice — if we bend it.

Sadly, there is meanness and acrimony on all sides of our political discourse these days. It discourages me most when it comes from people on "my side" of an issue. But King, in the end, was thinking beyond sides. If we are on the side of justice, then we are not really against anyone at all, though we may work for opposing goals. We are working to create the beloved community, which has room for everyone.

King’s work and teaching, rooted in his faith, were so radical precisely because he argued against returning hatred for hatred, and violence for violence. That’s our highest calling and our greatest challenge.

David LaMotte, a singer-songwriter who lives in Black Mountain, is also the author of a handbook for activists, "Worldchanging 101: Challenging the Myth of Powerlessness" and two children’ books, "S.S. Bathtub" and "White Flour," the latter based on a real-life creative response to hate.

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