Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 and he died on April 4, 1968. He was 39 years old. Shortly after his death, a movement began to declare a national holiday in his honor. It took nearly two decades, but in 1983, Congress passed legislation to create a federal holiday honoring King on the Monday in January closest to King’s birthday.
Every January, I dedicate my sermon on the Sunday of the Martin Luther King holiday weekend to King’s writings and the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Long ago I decided that the best use of the pulpit on this day is not to speak about King, but hear from the man himself. In past years, I have read from his early speeches during the Montgomery Bus boycott, and his iconic “I Have a Dream Speech” from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I’ve read portions from King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail and portions of his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech; from the last Sunday sermon of his life, that he preached at Washington National Cathedral, and his great, “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” sermon that he gave on the night before he died. “I’ve been to the mountaintop and I’ve looked over,” he said, “and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I know that as a people we will there. We will get to the Promised Land.”
Today I read to you from the last book King wrote before he died: Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? It was a difficult book for King, written in a difficult time.
The year was 1966: King was no stranger to trials and tribulations, but this was perhaps the lowest point in his public life. He was being criticized from all sides and hounded by frivolous investigations by the FBI. His popularity had plummeted among blacks and whites; and in particular a rising generation of young blacks had lost faith in non-violent resistance. He had experienced several humiliating public failures; he was struggling against his own demons of exhaustion and despair.
You can feel the weight on his shoulders as you read.
He begins with a blunt assessment of the state of affairs for black men and women, contrasting the euphoria he and others felt as they gathered around President Johnson only one year before as the president signed the Voting Rights Act into law with the biting disappointment many now felt.
“On 6 August 1965, the president’s room at the Capitol could scarcely hold the multitude of white and Negro leaders crowding it. ‘Today is a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that’s ever been won on any battlefield,’ President Johnson declared. “Today we strike away the last major shackle of fierce and ancient bonds.’
“But just one year later,” King continued, “some of the people present at the signing ceremony were leading marches in Chicago amid a rain of rocks and bottles, among burning automobiles, to the thunder of jeering thousands, some waving Nazi flags.
“One year later, the white backlash had become an emotional electoral issue, in California, Maryland, and elsewhere. In several southern states, men long regarded as political clowns had become governors, their magic achieved with a witches brew of bigotry, prejudice, half truths, and whole lies.
“During the past year, white and Negro civil rights workers have been murdered . . . The swift and easy acquittals that followed for the accused had shocked much of the nation but sent a wave of unabashed triumph through southern segregationist circles. Many of us wept at the funeral services for the dead and for democracy.
“During the past year, in several northern and western cities, most tragically in Watts, young Negroes exploded in violence. In an irrational burst of rage, they had sought to say something, but the flames had blackened both themselves and their oppressors.”
It was a confusing time, and many had given up hope–hope in themselves, hope in one another, hope in the possibility of finding a way forward without violence.
From that place of hard truth, King tried his best to put the challenges of the moment into a wider historical perspective, to build bridges with his adversaries, call the country to task, and put forward, once again, the transformative potential of non-violent resistance in an even more challenging context.
“With Selma and the Voting Rights Act, one phase of development in the civil rights revolution had come to an end,” he wrote. “A new phase opened, but few observers realized it or were prepared for its implications. For the vast majority of white Americans, the first phase had been a struggle to treat the Negro with a degree of decency, not of equality. White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation, or all forms of discrimination.
“When Negroes looked for the second phase, the realization of equality, they found that many of their white allies had quietly disappeared. The Negroes of American had taken the president, the press and the pulpit at their word when they spoke in broad terms of freedom and justice . . . but the expectations of the Negro crashed into the strone walls of white resistance and the result was havoc. The Negroes felt cheated while many whites felt that the Negro had gained so much it was virtually impudent and greedy to ask for more so soon.”
Reading King now, we feel the reverberations of time in the ongoing struggle for justice and true equality. He called white Americans to task for our superficial commitments: “The great majority of white Americans are uneasy with injustice but unwilling yet to pay a significant price to eradicate it.”
But King also addressed to the rising bitterness, anger, calls for violent resistance among rising African American leaders, for which he had great sympathy: “I should have known,” he wrote,“that in an atmosphere where false promises are daily realities, where deferred dreams are nightly facts, where acts of unpunished violence toward Negroes are a way of life, nonviolence would eventually be seriously questioned.” But he rejected violence as a strategy and a way of life. “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, getting closer to the very thing it seeks to destroy. Through violence you may murder the liar but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish truth. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence in a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
And so King remained true to the foundational principles upon which he based his lifelong commitment to help us create a better day for all people:
“Like life, racial understanding is not something we can find but something we must create . . . a productive and happy life is not something you find; it is something you make. And so the ability of Negroes and whites to work together, to understand each other will not be found ready made; it must be created by the fact of contact.
“Our most fruitful course is to stand firm, move forward nonviolently, accept disappointments and cling to hope. Our determined refusal not to be stopped will eventually open the door to fulfillment. By recognizing the necessity of suffering in a righteous cause, we may achieve our humanity’s full stature. To guard ourselves from bitterness, we need the vision to see in this generation’s ordeals the opportunity to transfigure both ourselves and American society. “
This year we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination. Between now and April 4, the day of his death, all manner of events are being planned here, in the nation’s capital, culminating in a mass gathering on the Capitol steps on April 4.
I encourage you to spend some in this season reading or listening to King’s words. Go to the monument erected in his honor and ponder the words etched in stone. Search your libraries or the Internet to read or listen to his convicting, powerful speeches and sermons. Read them aloud at your dinner tables. You will be a better people for it–more hopeful, more grounded in the things that make our lives worth living.
Let me leave you with words from a sermon King preached with the same title as his last book, Where Do We Go From Here?
“I have decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to humankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. For I have seen too much hate. I’ve seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens’ Councils in the South to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love, for God is love. Love will have the last word.”