On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was brutally murdered. Let's not sanitize our language and say, "assassinated." The man who today we revere for his commitment to non-violence was violently killed. I could write another blog about the events surrounding his murder, but I will leave that for you to read in a book called, "An Act of State", written by William F. Pepper. This is the book Coretta Scott King recommended as, "important...to everyone who seeks the truth about Dr. King's assassination." It is a book of the investigation of his murder and the civil trial which found local, state, and US government agencies were involved in a conspiracy to murder a man awarded a Nobel Prize for peace. But that is not what this writing is focused on.
The 49th anniversary of Dr. King's murder in Memphis is a time we can take another look at his life and his words. Of course, we have the MLK holiday in January, but for me that holiday has been co-opted by powers that would like for us to remember he was born, but would also like for us to forget what he stood for while he lived and how he died. So, let's remember.
Nearly everyone is familiar with "I Have a Dream." But that familiarity is rooted in superficiality. The people who are quick to recite MLK's dream of his children being judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin seem to have forgotten the other part of that very speech where he talked about the debt America owes to his citizens of African descent. If Dr. King's most famous words are not clearly understood, what, then, do we know about other things MLK said? How are they applicable to us today? By asking and answering these questions we can push ourselves and one another past the superficial and become true lovers of justice, become immersed in the accurate knowledge of this man and his words, an immersion that is essential to continuing his work.
After reading several works written by Martin Luther King, his comments seemed to fall into several categories. I'm not sure if they fell into those categories, or if I see those categories that I believe we need the words of MLK today.
Martin Luther King: On Ally-ship
"Young Negros had traditionally imitated whites in dress, conduct, and thought in a rigid, middle-class pattern… Now the ceased imitating and began initiating. Leadership passed into the hands of Negros, and their white allies began learning from them." (“The Trumpet of Conscience”)
"I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klan, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice." (“Letter from Birmingham Jail”)
“And I do not want to give you the impression that it’s going to be easy. There can be no great social victory without individual pain.” (“Freedom Rally in Cobo Hall” (speech) delivered in Detroit, Michigan June 23, 1963)
Martin Luther King: On Black Unity
"There are Negroes who will never fight for freedom. There are Negroes who will seek profit for themselves alone from the struggle. There are even some Negroes who will cooperate with the oppressors….No one can pretend that because a people may be oppressed, every individual member is virtuous and worthy. The real issue is whether in the great mass the dominant characteristics are decency, honor, and courage." (“Why We Can’t Wait”)
"The enemies of racial progress…would delight in believing that there is chaos up front in the civil-rights ranks. The hard truth is that the unity of the movement is a remarkable feature of major importance. The fact that different organizations place various degrees of emphasis on certain tactical approaches is not indicative of disunity. Unity has never meant uniformity. (“Why We Can’t Wait”)
"For any middle class Negro to forget the masses is an act not only of neglect but of shameful ingratitude. It is time for the Negro haves to join hands with the Negro have-nots and, with compassion, journey into that other country of hurt and denial." (“Where Do We Go From Here?”)
"The tendency to ignore the Negro’s contribution to American life and strip him of his personhood is as old as the earliest history books and as contemporary as the morning’s newspaper. To offset this cultural homicide, the Negro must rise up with an affirmation of his own Olympian manhood. Any movement for the Negro’s freedom that overlooks this necessity is only waiting to be buried. As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free. Psychological freedom, a firm sense of self-esteem, is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery. …And with a spirit straining toward self-esteem, the Negro must boldly throw off the manacles of self-abnegation and say to himself and to the world, “I am somebody. I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honor. I have a rich and noble history, however painful and exploited that history has been. Yes, I was a slave through my foreparents, and now I’m not ashamed of that. I’m ashamed of the people who were so sinful to make me a slave.” Yes, we must stand up and say, “I’m black, but I’m black and beautiful.” This self-affirmation is the black man’s need, made compelling by the white man’s crimes against him." (“Where Do We Go From Here?”)
Martin Luther King: On Churches
"So often the contemporary Church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often is is an arch defender of the status quo." (“Letter from a Birmingham Jail”)
"If the Church does not participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause men everywhere to say that is has atrophied its will. (“Strength to Love”)
"During the last two world wars, national churches even functioned as the ready lackey of the state, sprinkling hole water upon the battleships and joining the mighty armies in singing “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” A weary world, pleading desperately for peace, has often found the Church morally sanctioning war." (“Strength to Love”)
"Unfortunately, most of the major denominations still practice segregation in local churches, hospitals, schools, and other church institutions. It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning, the same hour when many are standing to sing: “In Christ There Is No East Nor West.”"
“…so often preachers aren’t concerned about anything but themselves. And I’m always happy to see a relevant ministry. It’s all right to talk about long white robes over yonder, in all of its symbolism, but ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey, but God has commanded us to be concerned with the slums down here and His children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee.” (“I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” (speech), delivered April 3, 1968. Memphis, Tennessee.)
Martin Luther King: On Politics
"There is a convenient temptation to attribute the current turmoil and bitterness throughout the world to the presence of a Communist conspiracy to undermine Europe and America, but the potential explosiveness of our world situation is much more attributable to disillusionment with promises of Christianity and technology." (“Where Do We Go From Here”)
Martin Luther King: On History
"Since before the Civil War, the alliance of Southern racism and Northern reaction has been the major roadblock to all social advancement… This explains why the United States is still far behind European nations in all forms of social legislation." (“Where Do We Go From Here?”)
"Racism is no mere American phenomenon. Its vicious grasp knows no geographical boundaries." (“Where Do We Go From Here?”)
"Nothing today more clearly indicates the residue of racism still lodging in society than the responses of white America to integrated housing. Here the tides of prejudice, fear, and irrationality rise to flood proportions." (“Where Do We Go From Here?”)
“…the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These triple evils are interrelated. ...A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will “thingify” them and make them things. And therefore, they will exploit them and poor people generally economically. 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 things are tied together.”
"Other immigrant groups came to America with language and economic hardships, but not with the stigma of color. Above all, no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil and no other group has had its family structure deliberately torn apart." (“Where Do We Go From Here?”)
Martin Luther King: On Poverty
"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. …when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?” You begin to ask the question, “Who owes the iron ore?” You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?” (“Where Do We Go From Here?”)
Martin Luther King: On Police Brutality
“There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is subjected to police brutality. (“I Have a Dream” (speech), delivered in Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963)
Martin Luther King: On Peace
“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.” (“Beyond Vietnam” (speech) delivered, New York, NY, April 4, 1976)
Martin Luther King: On Compassion
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” (“Beyond Vietnam” (speech) delivered in New York, NY April 4, 1967)
Even a brief reflection on these words tells us that we have work to do to understand totality of the man who we know as Martin Luther King. We also have work to do in our quest to live in the kind of society that he advocated for. Because if we truly believe in what MLK stood for, then it is the society that we, too, should be advocating for.
Following this initial blog post will be subsequent blogs where we discuss the implication of Dr. King's words on the topics presented. I hope you will share and join in the conversation.
Let's begin to imagine a better world!