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Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Sanitization of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: 40 years later


The day after this address, he was assassinated. April 4, 1968.

It took the Children of Israel 40 years of wandering, tests, and trials, before they were able to enter the promised land. 40 years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's assassination, it seems our nation has been more stubborn and prideful than those who were essentially weeded out during the travail of the Exodus.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was not the civil rights movement. He did not start it, he did not end it, and it seems to me that for him it was only part of a larger struggle for human equality and peace. But he was, dare I say, divinely prepared and present at the right place, at the right time, and took the mantle of the movement upon him. He suffered the weight of that mantle, and through his faith in God and in justice was able to endure that weight. He was given the gift of speech, being the greatest orator America has ever known. The Hebrew word most used for prophet is not the one which means being able to prophecy future events. Only a handful have had that gift. The most common use, and even a quick glossing of the Old Testament will demonstrate this, indicates one who was chosen to forth-tell, not fore-tell, to use Dr. Hendricks’ term. Prophets were to tell the truth about current injustices and unrighteousness in plainness to the wicked, the hard-hearted and the pious hypocrites. This is why nearly every tale of a prophetic leader ends with martyrdom. Be it religious like Isaiah or Paul, or political like Ghandi.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was such a man. However, for the Rev. Doctor, there was no difference between his religious call and his political duty. For him, the Gospel of Jesus Christ was the gospel of social justice and equality. It was not a gospel of the rich or the powerful, but one of the small and simple. It was not a gospel of prosperity or aggression but one where the must important aspect of a moral society was how they treated the weakest among them; the poor, the widowed, the orphan.

Yet, the entropy and amnesia or lack of attention span of the American memory, has revised history to marginalize and sanitize his message. Every school child knows “I have a dream,” but probably can’t tell you what that dream was. It was more than just white and black children living together without violence. But forgotten is everything else Dr. King wrote, and spoke, and stood for. Lost are his dedicated words in favor of Civil Disobedience in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. His use of ideas written over 100 years ago by another imprisoned American, who has since been sanitized, Henry D. Thoreau’s “Essay on Civil Disobedience.” We all know Walden, but how many of us have read his essay, perhaps the most important publication in American political history in the generations after the founding fathers. This is the most revolutionary essay I’ve ever read. Ghandi translated portions of it while he was in exile in S. Africa. Ghandi wrote: “His essay has, therefore, been sanctified by suffering. Moreover, it is written for all time. Its incisive logic is unanswerable.” Dr. King studied it at length as a student. The essay says that any change must occur independent of the established system. Based on Jeffersonian ideas, the heart of the essay can be summed up in the quote that : “Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? “ To Thoreau participation in an unjust government, even with the hope of improving it, was only perpetuating the injustice. One cannot overcome injustice on the terms of the oppressors. There must be civil disobedience.

How many have read Dr. King's speech, “How Long, Not Long,” perhaps his most masterful oration. Or even heard about his lobbying for an Economic Bill of Rights not only for Black Americans, but for all the poor. And it was not only the injustices against the oppressed in America with which we was concerned, or for whom he spoke out. Lost entirely is his definite and outspoken opposition to the War in Vietnam. And more importantly how he was condemned by the right, especially the religious right for being anti-American, a threat to the American "way of life," and a communist.

Or how many have heard or read his final masterpiece “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top,” a portion of which was shown at the top of this post, where he predicts his own assassination, , and cried with all his strength, like an aged Moses, that his people continue to struggle to find the promised land?

Our path to the promised land has been a long and winding one. One full of diversions and regressions. If Dr. King saw today, he would not be content. He would not be proud of our nation. Have we made strides? Yes. But we have done nothing to fundamentally change the systems which create the savage inequalities and injustices he fought to erase. He would note how we learned nothing from Vietnam. Would note our incompetence at relieving the suffering of our African brothers and sisters, or our unwillingness to do anything to stop genocide in Darfur, and Civil war in Somalia. He'd note how we support Communist China, exploit their cheap labor, while they continue to abuse human rights, and the liberty of other sovereign nations. He would wonder why we have taken so long to do anything about Global warming, which will, as it begins to show its effects, will damage the weakest, the poorest, and the most vulnerable first. Perhaps most of all he would rail against the re-emergence of the great profanity and idolatry of our time. In his day it was in the name of Jesus that segregation and Jim Crow operated. That denied interracial marriage, or integrated schools. And that today, in the name of Christ we have started wars, killed and tortured prisoners at secret prisons, treated segments of our population as second or third class citizens, and in the name of Freedom have placed some of our most cherished rights in danger of being erased. That our "Christian" leadership, our compassionate conservative president, would not move for days, either out of unwillingness or even worse out of incompetence, to allow hundreds of American Citizens to drown, dehydrate, or die in New Orleans.

But where do we go from here? The legacy of Dr. King, 40 years after his murder, is the charge he gave us when he was alive. Perhaps best embodied in the conclusion of a speech titled after this very question. "Where do we go from here?"

"I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about "Where do we go from here?" that we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. (Yes) There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. (Yes) And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. (Yes) But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. (All right) It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, "Who owns the oil?" (Yes) You begin to ask the question, "Who owns the iron ore?" (Yes) You begin to ask the question, "Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that's two-thirds water?" (All right) These are words that must be said. (All right)

Now, don't think you have me in a bind today. I'm not talking about communism. What I'm talking about is far beyond communism. (Yeah) My inspiration didn't come from Karl Marx (Speak); my inspiration didn't come from Engels; my inspiration didn't come from Trotsky; my inspiration didn't come from Lenin. Yes, I read Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital a long time ago (Well), and I saw that maybe Marx didn't follow Hegel enough. (All right) He took his dialectics, but he left out his idealism and his spiritualism. And he went over to a German philosopher by the name of Feuerbach, and took his materialism and made it into a system that he called "dialectical materialism." (Speak) I have to reject that.

What I'm saying to you this morning is communism forgets that life is individual. (Yes) Capitalism forgets that life is social. (Yes, Go ahead) And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis. (Speak) [applause] It is found in a higher synthesis (Come on) that combines the truths of both. (Yes) Now, when I say questioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. (All right) These are the triple evils that are interrelated.

And if you will let me be a preacher just a little bit. (Speak) One day [applause], one night, a juror came to Jesus (Yes sir) and he wanted to know what he could do to be saved. (Yeah) Jesus didn't get bogged down on the kind of isolated approach of what you shouldn't do. Jesus didn't say, "Now Nicodemus, you must stop lying." (Oh yeah) He didn't say, "Nicodemus, now you must not commit adultery." He didn't say, "Now Nicodemus, you must stop cheating if you are doing that." He didn't say, "Nicodemus, you must stop drinking liquor if you are doing that excessively." He said something altogether different, because Jesus realized something basic (Yes): that if a man will lie, he will steal. (Yes) And if a man will steal, he will kill. (Yes) So instead of just getting bogged down on one thing, Jesus looked at him and said, "Nicodemus, you must be born again." [applause]

In other words, "Your whole structure (Yes) must be changed." [applause] A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will "thingify" them and make them things. (Speak) And therefore, they will exploit them and poor people generally economically. (Yes) And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and it will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. (Yes) [applause]

What I'm saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, "America, you must be born again!" [applause] (Oh yes)

And so, I conclude by saying today that we have a task, and let us go out with a divine dissatisfaction. (Yes)

Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. (All right)

Let us be dissatisfied (Yes) until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. (Yes sir)

Let us be dissatisfied (Yes) until those who live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security.

Let us be dissatisfied (Yes) until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history (Yes), and every family will live in a decent, sanitary home.

Let us be dissatisfied (Yes) until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality integrated education.

Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity.

Let us be dissatisfied (All right) until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not on the basis of the color of their skin. (Yeah) Let us be dissatisfied. [applause]

Let us be dissatisfied (Well) until every state capitol (Yes) will be housed by a governor who will do justly, who will love mercy, and who will walk humbly with his God.

Let us be dissatisfied [applause] until from every city hall, justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Yes)

Let us be dissatisfied (Yes) until that day when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together (Yes), and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid.

Let us be dissatisfied (Yes), and men will recognize that out of one blood (Yes) God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. (Speak sir)

Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout, "White Power!" when nobody will shout, "Black Power!" but everybody will talk about God's power and human power. [applause]

And I must confess, my friends (Yes sir), that the road ahead will not always be smooth. (Yes) There will still be rocky places of frustration (Yes) and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. (Yes) And there will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. (Well) Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted. (Yes) We may again, with tear-drenched eyes, have to stand before the bier of some courageous civil rights worker whose life will be snuffed out by the dastardly acts of bloodthirsty mobs. (Well) But difficult and painful as it is (Well), we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. (Well) And as we continue our charted course, we may gain consolation from the words so nobly left by that great black bard, who was also a great freedom fighter of yesterday, James Weldon Johnson (Yes):

Stony the road we trod (Yes),

Bitter the chastening rod

Felt in the days

When hope unborn had died. (Yes)

Yet with a steady beat,

Have not our weary feet

Come to the place

For which our fathers sighed?

We have come over a way

That with tears has been watered. (Well)

We have come treading our paths

Through the blood of the slaughtered.

Out from the gloomy past,

Till now we stand at last (Yes)

Where the bright gleam

Of our bright star is cast.

Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. (Well) It will give us the courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. (Yes) When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair (Well), and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights (Well), let us remember (Yes) that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil (Well), a power that is able to make a way out of no way (Yes) and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. (Speak)

Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Let us realize that William Cullen Bryant is right: "Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again." Let us go out realizing that the Bible is right: "Be not deceived. God is not mocked. (Oh yeah) Whatsoever a man soweth (Yes), that (Yes) shall he also reap." This is our hope for the future, and with this faith we will be able to sing in some not too distant tomorrow, with a cosmic past tense, "We have overcome! (Yes) We have overcome! Deep in my heart, I did believe (Yes) we would overcome." [applause]"

From :"Where Do We Go From Here?" Annual Report Delivered at the 11th Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference 16 August 1967
Atlanta, Georgia

1 comment:

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