(RNS) — The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is known as a civil rights activist, a minister and a world leader who gained the Nobel Peace Prize.
In a recent book, longtime King scholar Lewis V. Baldwin adds other titles to the man whose birthday is marked with a federal holiday on Monday (Jan. 16), including: ethicist, theologian and philosopher.
In a thick volume, “The Arc of Truth: The Thinking of Martin Luther King Jr.,” Baldwin continues his study of King. After previously concentrating on King’s cultural roots and his prayer life, the emeritus professor of religious studies at Vanderbilt University focuses on what the leader had to say about truth.
“We’re living in an age of lies and conspiracy theories and alternative truths, disinformation,” he told Religion News Service in an interview. “I wanted to write a book that would speak to that and since I am a King scholar, I thought King would be a great case study for getting at these kinds of challenges because King had a lot to say about the power of truth, of truth telling and of truth sharing.”
Baldwin, 73, spoke to RNS about how King defined truth, how his legacy has been distorted and how 20th-century civil rights activists compare to 21st-century protesters.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Since your book is titled “The Arc of Truth,” perhaps we should start with how you think the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. defined truth.
Dr. King defined truth in some of his speeches as the legitimate extension of facts. He saw the relationship between facts, truth and reality. At other points, he speaks of truth as coming to terms with reality. He used that kind of terminology especially when he spoke in terms of objective truth, objective truth being those truths that are universally accepted and those truths that are verifiable.
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You say that King “who sought, spoke, and acted on truth” in the 20th century has become “the target of so much untruth” in this current century. What are some of the examples of this that concern you most?
The man and his legacy are being distorted. His legacy is being hijacked, misinterpreted. For an example, on the extreme right of the political spectrum, there are those who argue that Dr. King was opposed to affirmative action, and they make that argument without any proof at all. There are also those on the right who make the argument that Dr. King, if he were alive, would be opposed to critical race theory. Some have argued that he would be a Republican if he were alive. So all of these claims are made without any foundation whatsoever. Because the people who make the claims obviously have not read Dr. King. They don’t understand his message. So in a sense Dr. King has become a victim of this post-truth age because right-wing extremists have made him a convenient and useful symbol in an orchestrated and coordinated effort to promote their own conservative social, cultural and political agenda for this nation.
Are there concerns that you have about people on the left and how they have depicted King in these days?
Not really. I think King, for the most part, has been depicted in a proper way. The only problem I have with the left is that there has not been enough of a pushback on what is happening on the right, in terms of their distortion of Dr. King’s message, his ideals.