Thursday, April 3, 2008

40th Anniversary of Dr. King's Assassination

Friday marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. We all know what Dr. King has meant for and contributed to this country. He was one of our greatest leaders and visionaries, no less accomplished than Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Edison, Rockefeller or any other. We know his special connection with Notre Dame - when he was greated in Chicago by angry white protest, he was also greeted by Fr. Hesburgh, who stood with him a brother-in-arms. Yet despite his accomplishments, I admire Dr. King most because he was not perfect. He knew he was not perfect. At times he was depressed and disappointed. At times he failed. But he kept his trust in the power and love of God to the end. Like so many before he was a martyr for the true message of the Gospel and his legacy will never be forgotten. The following is an excerpt from his final speech, given on April 3, 1968 at the Mason Temple church in Memphis in support of the striking sanitation workers:

Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we've got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point, in Memphis. We've got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.

Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus; and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters in life. At points, he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew, and through this, throw him off base. Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn't stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, because he had the capacity to project the "I" into the "thou," and to be concerned about his brother. Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn't stop. At times we say they were busy going to church meetings--an ecclesiastical gathering--and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn't be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that "One who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony." And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem, or down to Jericho, rather to organize a "Jericho Road Improvement Association." That's a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the casual root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effort.

But I'm going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It's possible that these men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, "I can see why Jesus used this as a setting for his parable." It's a winding, meandering road. It's really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1200 miles, or rather 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you're about 2200 feet below sea level. That's a dangerous road. In the day of Jesus it came to be known as the "Bloody Pass." And you know, it's possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it's possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?".

That's the question before you tonight. Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?" The question is not, "If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?" "If I do no stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?" That's the question.

Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Feb. 15, 1929 - Apr. 4, 1968


Anonymous said...

I personally think that whatever we've got today was not necessarily what Dr King envisioned when he said "I have a dream." Race is still an issue, but taken to the opposite extreme, I think. I do realize there is still racism in the world, so I don't mean to sound naive about anything.

Dr. King wanted race to no longer be an issue, but it still is, since now all the legislation is devoted to making sure African Americans are included, sometimes at the detriment of perfectly qualified people of other races.

Perhaps I am editorializing but I think it would be nice to not see race as anything other than something unique to the person, like hair or eye color. I'd like to think Dr. King saw it the same way. Or perhaps I am slightly disillusioned by race relations since Asians (I'm asian) aren't given nearly as many opportunities or special exceptions as Hispanics, African Americans, or Native Americans.

Brandon said...

I don't mean to say that we have achieved anything close to a society that Dr. King would approve. We have miles to go before we sleep. It has been speculated that it may have been better that Dr. King was taken when he was rather than live out his life. He would have had too many battles to fight the way that the country has gone.

Rather I take inspiration from the man, because was human, he was a sinner, but he had courage and he believed in what he was doing and he achieved remarkable success given the odds against him and his supporters.

Tom said...
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Tom said...

It's worth reading his "Letter from A Birmingham Jail," too. His knowledge of the Western literary canon is incredibly impressive. Also, in the letter, he makes a particular criticism of the "moderate members of faith communities" who have stood by while injustices are occurring. In a small way, it reminds me of the Monologues (but doesn't everything these days...).

While he is worthy of much, much praise and admiration, I feel our culture makes the false hyperbolic assumption that this man is an American saint (my dorm's study lounge used to have a 'Greek' icon of him). He was an adulturer, and I have heard from a political theorist that his understanding of race relations in the North was incorrect, leading to difficulties in the northern civil rights movement.

At the same time, he is rightly remembered as a great (likely, the greatest) American civil rights leader. I am interested to know what future historians conclude about this great and monumental figure in American history.

[Brandon, isn't the poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" (the line 'miles to go before we sleep') an allusion to suicide? I've heard that before; though I wouldn't be surprised if it isn't true.]

Brandon said...

I'm not going to touch the topic of poetry criticism. Suffice it to say that anything can be an allusion to anything if you argue it the right way.

I made that reference without thinking of the poem, it was just what came to my mind. However, after reading the poem I can see the point. But I think the premise is more broad: that while we may stop in the dark woods and be captivated by them, we have promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep. We may find ourselves between a rock and a hard place and want to take the easy way out, but we have commitments to fulfill (whether it is to our nation, our Church, what have you) and we must carry on despite our inclinations to give up. So with certain goggles sure I can see suicide, but I would attribute that to the whole poem and take that last line to mean that suicide isn't the right choice.

Anonymous said...

It is true that one ought not speak ill of the dead. Scholars, or would be ones, ought look behind the veil, however. It is a mighty thin pancake that does not have two sides. We ought not pass over the dark side of this man.

Anonymous said...

What is meant by that is a federal judge has withheld from the public view for some 50 years a vast amount of material-a great deal of it derogatory but true. Scholars then, need to beware as truth about this man is not well served by hiding truth.