“Here comes the dreamer. Come now, let us kill him . . . and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”
The idea of establishing a federal holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. surfaced shortly after his assassination in 1968, but as you know, it was resisted mightily for years. The first time time it came up for a floor vote in House of Representatives was a decade later, and it failed, the main arguments against it being the expense of giving federal workers a day off, and that to honor King would go against long-standing tradition only to honor with a holiday those who had served in public office. Behind those sanitized reasons was an ugly smear campaign, spearheaded by Senator Jesse Helms, among others, branding King as a communist conspirator and unworthy for public recognition. Efforts then turned toward galvanizing the general public. In 1981, six million signatures were collected for a petition to pass the law, the largest petition in favor of an issue in US history. President Reagan initially opposed the holiday and only signed the law into legislation in 1983 when it passed in Congress with veto proof majorities.
I was living in Arizona in early 1980s, a state whose elected leadership, including the governor, vowed to fight to the end any official celebration of King’s life and legacy. I was stunned by the vitriol and ferocity of resistance. But I confess, at age 23, I didn’t know very much about the Civil Rights struggles that dominated the years of my childhood and about which I learned nothing at all until I was in college. Nor did I have a sufficient framework to understand the continued racial tensions and disparities of our society. In Arizona, nearly all of that tension and all the disparities were between the dominant Anglo and Native American and Hispanic populations of that land.
I eventually returned to the East Coast where I was raised to attend seminary and subsequently ordained. It was then that I made an intentional commitment to spend the month of January leading up to this weekend reading King’s writings and the historical context that led up to and followed the Civil Rights era that defined his life and ministry. As a parish priest, I began the practice each Martin Luther King weekend of reading excerpts from his writings or other works that shed light on his spiritual stature and transformational leadership.
My book this year was a memoir, written by the southern historian Timothy Tyson, entitled Blood Done Sign My Name, which tells the story of the killing of Henry Marrow, a black man, by a three white men in Oxford, North Carolina in the spring of 1970. The three men felt justified in murdering Marrow outside the town’s general store because he had allegedly “said something” to a white woman behind the counter. Marrow was beaten and killed in broad daylight as he lay on his back, begging for his life.
Tyson was ten years old at the time, the son of a white minister in Oxford, and through a child’s eyes he watched as his town erupted in violence, laying bare generations of racial tension that, frankly, shocked the white population. “We’ve always had good relations here,” they would say to anyone who would listen, having successfully suppressed from public record and collective white memory the worst incidents of their racist past, successfully cloaked with the veneer of white paternalism. But the generation of African American men who fought in Vietnam would have none of it. King wasn’t their hero, either. Non-violence resistance meant nothing to them.
Years later when, as a historian, Tyson reflected on what happened in his hometown, he wrote this:
So while this is the story of a small boy in a small town one hot Southern summer, it is also the story of a nation torn apart by racial, political, social, and cultural clashes so deep that they echo in our lives to this day. The cheerful and cherished lies we tell ourselves about those years—that the black freedom movement was largely a nonviolent call on America’s conscience, which America answered, to cite the most glaring fiction—do little to repair the breach. There are many things we never learned about the civil rights struggle, and many other things we have tried hard to forget. The United States could find work for a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission like the one that has tried to mend the scars of apartheid in South Africa; any psychiatrist can tell you that genuine healing requires a candid confrontation with our past. In any case, if there is to be reconciliation, first there must be truth. The truth will set us free, so the Bible says, and my own experience bears witness. . . My search for the meaning of the troubles in Oxford launched me toward a life of learning, across lines of color and caste, out of my little boy’s vision of my family’s well-lighted place in the world and into the shadows where histories and memories and hopes abide.
In the last few years, it seems part of our nation, with great reluctance and resistance, is slowly coming to grips with the racial violence that historically follows any significant change that threatens white supremacy.
After the Civil War and the official abolishment of slavery, we now openly acknowledge that Slavery By Another Name kept millions of African Americans in actual bondage through imprisonment on false charges and involuntary servitude from which there was no recourse for release, a practice with full collusion with elected officials that continued until World War II.
After countless legal and social struggles to abolish the Jim Crow laws and segregationist policies of the 20th centuries, we now recognize a New Jim Crow era came into being through the purportedly color-blind policies of mass incarceration that, to an alarming degree, disproportionately keeps African Americans disenfranchised and imprisoned.
And with Ta-Nahisi Coates’ haunting reprisal of the Reconstruction-era black politicians lament We Were Eight Years In Power, there is little doubt that after the Obama presidency, we now live in the racial undertow that helped fuel the election of President Trump.
If Dr. King had survived to celebrate his 90th birthday among us this year, he would not be a moderate voice for gradual social change. He never was. But he would have carried the mantle of love, love that he believed until his last breath was our only hope. “Hatred is not overcome by hatred,” he said more than once. “Only love can do that.”
Among the many commemorations of King’s life across the city this weekend, later today Washington National Cathedral will present The Other America, a service in which excerpts of a speech Dr. King gave at Stanford University in 1967 will be read and amplified by musical and dance performances.
This is King at his most somber and unflinching: “There are literally two Americas,” he said.
“One America is beautiful. . . This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies; and culture and education for their minds; and freedom and human dignity for their spirits. In this America, millions of people experience every day the opportunity of having life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in all of their dimensions. And in this America millions of young people grow up in the sunlight of opportunity.
But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the ebulliency of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America millions of work-starved men and women walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist. In this America millions of people find themselves living in slums. In this America people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.
In a sense, the greatest tragedy of this other America is what it does to little children. Little children in this other America are forced to grow up with clouds of inferiority forming every day in their little mental skies. As we look at this other America, we see it as an arena of blasted hopes and shattered dreams. Many people of various backgrounds live in this other America. Some are Mexican Americans, some are Puerto Ricans, some are Indians, some happen to be from other groups. Millions of them are Appalachian whites. But probably the largest group in this other America in proportion to its size in the Population is the American Negro.”
Up until the very end, King’s eyes were wide open to the problems and struggles of our land, yet he refused to give up hope. He was no Pollyanna, but he drew deeply, from the most profound reservoirs of spiritual strength in order to persevere in love. “I’ve decided to stick with love,” he said. “Hate is too great a burden to bear.” These are the same reservoirs we must draw from daily if we are to continue on the long road toward justice.
Today I tend his humble tribute with the words he often used to end his speeches. May you and I take them to heart, dare to live them ourselves, giving thanks this day that such a man lived among us:
Now let me say finally that we have difficulties ahead but I haven’t despaired. Somehow I maintain hope in spite of hope. And I’ve talked about the difficulties and how hard the problems will be as we tackle them. But I want to close by saying this afternoon, that I still have faith in the future. And I still believe that these problems can be solved. And so I will not join anyone who will say that we still can’t develop a coalition of conscience.
And so I refuse to despair. I think we’re gonna achieve our freedom because however much America strays away from the ideals of justice, the goal of America is freedom.
And I say that if the inexpressible cruelties of slavery couldn’t stop us, the opposition that we now face, including the so-called white backlash, will surely fail. We’re gonna win our freedom because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the Almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands.
And so I can still sing “We Shall Overcome.” We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward Justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right, “No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right, “Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne — Yet that scaffold sways the future.” With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.
With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discourse of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to speed up the day when all of God’s children, black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and live together as brothers and sisters, all over this great nation. That will be a great day, that will be a great tomorrow. In the words of the Scripture, to speak symbolically, that will be the day when the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy.
I can’t think of place I’d rather be today than here in this church, the first African American church of this diocese, founded by a proud people, whose legacy is entrusted to us. I give thanks for the opportunity to remember King in your company, to hear his words, and recommit ourselves to persevere in faith, hope, and love toward that glorious day.