rip van winkle

The Revolution Is Not Over

I have been reading the sermon MLK wrote just prior to his death this morning (see below).

We all remember the picture that circulated around the internet when Barack Obama was running for office the first time.  It is a picture of Obama and King and indicates that Obama is about to make it to the Promised Land.

Those of us who are living through the second of Obama’s terms know that there could be nothing further from the truth.  We are in no Promised Land.  Barack Obama is in no Promised Land.  The Promised Land is not about to be here.

Racism, brutal and filled with self-pity, is still alive in our land.  The forces of intolerance are seeking to hold back the clock and to turn around the freedoms and rights that have been gained over the last fifty years.

The wealthy are planning to inherit the earth without paying taxes on it.  Their gold and paper money is deposited all around planet so they can keep it to themselves.  Europe just voted them a paycheck.

Of course, there are those who disagree with them.  There are wealthy individuals with conscience and charity.  Yet, it is not at all clear that those who are on the side of ending injustice and promoting the common good will prevail in our time or the time to come.

The killings at Sandy Hook have awakened the Dark Side in the gun culture.  The sportsmen are not awake.  It is the Aryan Brotherhood who are killing off those who would manage our prisons, enforce our laws or dare challenge their conspiracy.  With the prosecutors scared and running there can be no justice within the courts.  Even our Justices are checking off the conventional wisdom box before rendering judgement about the Constitution.

My friends, this is not over.

Obama is not in charge.  Darkness is making a run for the Finish Line. Lincoln died.

Martin is dead.  John is dead.  Robert is dead.  John Lennon is dead.

The children of Sandy Hook are dead.  Their teachers are dead.

Our trees are dying. Meanwhile, off shore accounts are burgeoning.   The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are retching onward.  The pollution and scraps of war the United States is so carefully attempting to eradicate before leaving Afghanistan and Iraq are not about to be cleaned.   The neocon nations are in a stalemate of corruption and  bloodshed in the wake of terrorism’s war.   Our allies are telling us to go home and not take their playthings with us.

Our economy has nearly collapsed and we do not know if we will be able to pay the bill.

Should we wake up?

Should we stop blindly following Barack Obama or anyone who else who makes promises we know they cannot keep?

Should we take responsibility for ourselves and get out of bed and find out what is happening?

Should we notice that our schools are looking like giant parking lots in the cities and broken down factories in the countrysides…that Walmart has run all the small businesses out of our towns and laid off workers but cannot keep their shelves stocked?

Should we wake up and drink our milk that is filled with growth hormones or eat our vegetables sprayed with poisons?

zzzzzzzzzzzzz

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Gee whiz,  I have been dreaming again this morning. Seemed more like a nightmare….

Maybe I should go back to sleep for another twenty years.

zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

-30-

 mlknationalcathedral

Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution

I need not pause to say how very delighted I am to be here this morning, to have the opportunity of standing in this very great and significant pulpit. And I do want to express my deep personal appreciation to Dean Sayre and all of the cathedral clergy for extending the invitation.

It is always a rich and rewarding experience to take a brief break from our day-to-day demands and the struggle for freedom and human dignity and discuss the issues involved in that struggle with concerned friends of goodwill all over our nation. And certainly it is always a deep and meaningful experience to be in a worship service. And so for many reasons, I’m happy to be here today.

I would like to use as a subject from which to preach this morning: “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” The text for the morning is found in the book of Revelation. There are two passages there that I would like to quote, in the sixteenth chapter of that book: “Behold I make all things new; former things are passed away.”

I am sure that most of you have read that arresting little story from the pen of Washington Irving entitled “Rip Van Winkle.” The one thing that we usually remember about the story is that Rip Van Winkle slept twenty years. But there is another point in that little story that is almost completely overlooked. It was the sign in the end, from which Rip went up in the mountain for his long sleep.

When Rip Van Winkle went up into the mountain, the sign had a picture of King George the Third of England. When he came down twenty years later the sign had a picture of George Washington, the first president of the United States. When Rip Van Winkle looked up at the picture of George Washington—and looking at the picture he was amazed—he was completely lost. He knew not who he was.

And this reveals to us that the most striking thing about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not merely that Rip slept twenty years, but that he slept through a revolution. While he was peacefully snoring up in the mountain a revolution was taking place that at points would change the course of history—and Rip knew nothing about it. He was asleep. Yes, he slept through a revolution. And one of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.

There can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in the world today. In a sense it is a triple revolution: that is, a technological revolution, with the impact of automation and cybernation; then there is a revolution in weaponry, with the emergence of atomic and nuclear weapons of warfare; then there is a human rights revolution, with the freedom explosion that is taking place all over the world. Yes, we do live in a period where changes are taking place. And there is still the voice crying through the vista of time saying, “Behold, I make all things new; former things are passed away.”

Now whenever anything new comes into history it brings with it new challenges and new opportunities. And I would like to deal with the challenges that we face today as a result of this triple revolution that is taking place in the world today.

First, we are challenged to develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution. The world in which we live is geographically one. The challenge that we face today is to make it one in terms of brotherhood.

Now it is true that the geographical oneness of this age has come into being to a large extent through modern man’s scientific ingenuity. Modern man through his scientific genius has been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. And our jet planes have compressed into minutes distances that once took weeks and even months. All of this tells us that our world is a neighborhood.

Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.

John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms: “No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” And he goes on toward the end to say, “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” We must see this, believe this, and live by it if we are to remain awake through a great revolution.

Secondly, we are challenged to eradicate the last vestiges of racial injustice from our nation. I must say this morning that racial injustice is still the black man’s burden and the white man’s shame.

It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle—the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly—to get rid of the disease of racism.

Something positive must be done. Everyone must share in the guilt as individuals and as institutions. The government must certainly share the guilt; individuals must share the guilt; even the church must share the guilt.

We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing “In Christ there is no East or West,” we stand in the most segregated hour of America.

The hour has come for everybody, for all institutions of the public sector and the private sector to work to get rid of racism. And now if we are to do it we must honestly admit certain things and get rid of certain myths that have constantly been disseminated all over our nation.

One is the myth of time. It is the notion that only time can solve the problem of racial injustice. And there are those who often sincerely say to the Negro and his allies in the white community, “Why don’t you slow up? Stop pushing things so fast. Only time can solve the problem. And if you will just be nice and patient and continue to pray, in a hundred or two hundred years the problem will work itself out.”

There is an answer to that myth. It is that time is neutral. It can be used wither constructively or destructively. And I am sorry to say this morning that I am absolutely convinced that the forces of ill will in our nation, the extreme rightists of our nation—the people on the wrong side—have used time much more effectively than the forces of goodwill. And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, “Wait on time.”

Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.

Now there is another myth that still gets around: it is a kind of over reliance on the bootstrap philosophy. There are those who still feel that if the Negro is to rise out of poverty, if the Negro is to rise out of the slum conditions, if he is to rise out of discrimination and segregation, he must do it all by himself. And so they say the Negro must lift himself by his own bootstraps.

They never stop to realize that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. The people who say this never stop to realize that the nation made the black man’s color a stigma. But beyond this they never stop to realize the debt that they owe a people who were kept in slavery two hundred and forty-four years.

In 1863 the Negro was told that he was free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation being signed by Abraham Lincoln. But he was not given any land to make that freedom meaningful. It was something like keeping a person in prison for a number of years and suddenly discovering that that person is not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. And you just go up to him and say, “Now you are free,” but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money to get some clothes to put on his back or to get on his feet again in life.

Every court of jurisprudence would rise up against this, and yet this is the very thing that our nation did to the black man. It simply said, “You’re free,” and it left him there penniless, illiterate, not knowing what to do. And the irony of it all is that at the same time the nation failed to do anything for the black man, though an act of Congress was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest. Which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor.

But not only did it give the land, it built land-grant colleges to teach them how to farm. Not only that, it provided county agents to further their expertise in farming; not only that, as the years unfolded it provided low interest rates so that they could mechanize their farms. And to this day thousands of these very persons are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies every years not to farm. And these are so often the very people who tell Negroes that they must lift themselves by their own bootstraps. It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.

We must come to see that the roots of racism are very deep in our country, and there must be something positive and massive in order to get rid of all the effects of racism and the tragedies of racial injustice.

There is another thing closely related to racism that I would like to mention as another challenge. We are challenged to rid our nation and the world of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, poverty spreads its nagging, prehensile tentacles into hamlets and villages all over our world. Two-thirds of the people of the world go to bed hungry tonight. They are ill-housed; they are ill-nourished; they are shabbily clad. I’ve seen it in Latin America; I’ve seen it in Africa; I’ve seen this poverty in Asia.

I remember some years ago Mrs. King and I journeyed to that great country known as India. And I never will forget the experience. It was a marvelous experience to meet and talk with the great leaders of India, to meet and talk with and to speak to thousands and thousands of people all over that vast country. These experiences will remain dear to me as long as the cords of memory shall lengthen.

But I say to you this morning, my friends, there were those depressing moments. How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes evidences of millions of people going to bed hungry at night? How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes God’s children sleeping on the sidewalks at night? In Bombay more than a million people sleep on the sidewalks every night. In Calcutta more than six hundred thousand sleep on the sidewalks every night. They have no beds to sleep in; they have no houses to go in. How can one avoid being depressed when he discovers that out of India’s population of more than five hundred million people, some four hundred and eighty million make an annual income of less than ninety dollars a year. And most of them have never seen a doctor or a dentist.

As I noticed these things, something within me cried out, “Can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned?” And an answer came: “Oh no!” Because the destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation. And I started thinking of the fact that we spend in America millions of dollars a day to store surplus food, and I said to myself, “I know where we can store that food free of charge—in the wrinkled stomachs of millions of God’s children all over the world who go to bed hungry at night.” And maybe we spend far too much of our national budget establishing military bases around the world rather than bases of genuine concern and understanding.

Not only do we see poverty abroad, I would remind you that in our own nation there are about forty million people who are poverty-stricken. I have seen them here and there. I have seen them in the ghettos of the North; I have seen them in the rural areas of the South; I have seen them in Appalachia. I have just been in the process of touring many areas of our country and I must confess that in some situations I have literally found myself crying.

I was in Marks, Mississippi, the other day, which is in Whitman County, the poorest county in the United States. I tell you, I saw hundreds of little black boys and black girls walking the streets with no shoes to wear. I saw their mothers and fathers trying to carry on a little Head Start program, but they had no money. The federal government hadn’t funded them, but they were trying to carry on. They raised a little money here and there; trying to get a little food to feed the children; trying to teach them a little something.

And I saw mothers and fathers who said to me not only were they unemployed, they didn’t get any kind of income—no old-age pension, no welfare check, no anything. I said, “How do you live?” And they say, “Well, we go around, go around to the neighbors and ask them for a little something. When the berry season comes, we pick berries. When the rabbit season comes, we hunt and catch a few rabbits. And that’s about it.”

And I was in Newark and Harlem just this week. And I walked into the homes of welfare mothers. I saw them in conditions—no, not with wall-to-wall carpet, but wall-to-wall rats and roaches. I stood in an apartment and this welfare mother said to me, “The landlord will not repair this place. I’ve been here two years and he hasn’t made a single repair.” She pointed out the walls with all the ceiling falling through. She showed me the holes where the rats came in. She said night after night we have to stay awake to keep the rats and roaches from getting to the children. I said, “How much do you pay for this apartment?” She said, “a hundred and twenty-five dollars.” I looked, and I thought, and said to myself, “It isn’t worth sixty dollars.” Poor people are forced to pay more for less. Living in conditions day in and day out where the whole area is constantly drained without being replenished. It becomes a kind of domestic colony. And the tragedy is, so often these forty million people are invisible because America is so affluent, so rich. Because our expressways carry us from the ghetto, we don’t see the poor.

Jesus told a parable one day, and he reminded us that a man went to hell because he didn’t see the poor. His name was Dives. He was a rich man. And there was a man by the name of Lazarus who was a poor man, but not only was he poor, he was sick. Sores were all over his body, and he was so weak that he could hardly move. But he managed to get to the gate of Dives every day, wanting just to have the crumbs that would fall from his table. And Dives did nothing about it. And the parable ends saying, “Dives went to hell, and there were a fixed gulf now between Lazarus and Dives.”

There is nothing in that parable that said Dives went to hell because he was rich. Jesus never made a universal indictment against all wealth. It is true that one day a rich young ruler came to him, and he advised him to sell all, but in that instance Jesus was prescribing individual surgery and not setting forth a universal diagnosis. And if you will look at that parable with all of its symbolism, you will remember that a conversation took place between heaven and hell, and on the other end of that long-distance call between heaven and hell was Abraham in heaven talking to Dives in hell.

Now Abraham was a very rich man. If you go back to the Old Testament, you see that he was the richest man of his day, so it was not a rich man in hell talking with a poor man in heaven; it was a little millionaire in hell talking with a multimillionaire in heaven. Dives didn’t go to hell because he was rich; Dives didn’t realize that his wealth was his opportunity. It was his opportunity to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus. Dives went to hell because he was passed by Lazarus every day and he never really saw him. He went to hell because he allowed his brother to become invisible. Dives went to hell because he maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum. Indeed, Dives went to hell because he sought to be a conscientious objector in the war against poverty.

And this can happen to America, the richest nation in the world—and nothing’s wrong with that—this is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.

In a few weeks some of us are coming to Washington to see if the will is still alive or if it is alive in this nation. We are coming to Washington in a Poor People’s Campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. We are going to bring those who have known long years of hurt and neglect. We are going to bring those who have come to feel that life is a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs. We are going to bring children and adults and old people, people who have never seen a doctor or a dentist in their lives.

We are not coming to engage in any histrionic gesture. We are not coming to tear up Washington. We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty. We read one day, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.

We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that it signed years ago. And we are coming to engage in dramatic nonviolent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible.

Why do we do it this way? We do it this way because it is our experience that the nation doesn’t move around questions of genuine equality for the poor and for black people until it is confronted massively, dramatically in terms of direct action.

Great documents are here to tell us something should be done. We met here some years ago in the White House conference on civil rights. And we came out with the same recommendations that we will be demanding in our campaign here, but nothing has been done. The President’s commission on technology, automation and economic progress recommended these things some time ago. Nothing has been done. Even the urban coalition of mayors of most of the cities of our country and the leading businessmen have said these things should be done. Nothing has been done. The Kerner Commission came out with its report just a few days ago and then made specific recommendations. Nothing has been done.

And I submit that nothing will be done until people of goodwill put their bodies and their souls in motion. And it will be the kind of soul force brought into being as a result of this confrontation that I believe will make the difference.

Yes, it will be a Poor People’s Campaign. This is the question facing America. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. America has not met its obligations and its responsibilities to the poor.

One day we will have to stand before the God of history and we will talk in terms of things we’ve done. Yes, we will be able to say we built gargantuan bridges to span the seas, we built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies. Yes, we made our submarines to penetrate oceanic depths. We brought into being many other things with our scientific and technological power.

It seems that I can hear the God of history saying, “That was not enough! But I was hungry, and ye fed me not. I was naked, and ye clothed me not. I was devoid of a decent sanitary house to live in, and ye provided no shelter for me. And consequently, you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness. If ye do it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye do it unto me.” That’s the question facing America today.

I want to say one other challenge that we face is simply that we must find an alternative to war and bloodshed. Anyone who feels, and there are still a lot of people who feel that way, that war can solve the social problems facing mankind is sleeping through a great revolution. President Kennedy said on one occasion, “Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.” The world must hear this. I pray God that America will hear this before it is too late, because today we’re fighting a war.

I am convinced that it is one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world. Our involvement in the war in Vietnam has torn up the Geneva Accord. It has strengthened the military-industrial complex; it has strengthened the forces of reaction in our nation. It has put us against the self-determination of a vast majority of the Vietnamese people, and put us in the position of protecting a corrupt regime that is stacked against the poor.

It has played havoc with our domestic destinies. This day we are spending five hundred thousand dollars to kill every Vietcong soldier. Every time we kill one we spend about five hundred thousand dollars while we spend only fifty-three dollars a year for every person characterized as poverty-stricken in the so-called poverty program, which is not even a good skirmish against poverty.

Not only that, it has put us in a position of appearing to the world as an arrogant nation. And here we are ten thousand miles away from home fighting for the so-called freedom of the Vietnamese people when we have not even put our own house in order. And we force young black men and young white men to fight and kill in brutal solidarity. Yet when they come back home that can’t hardly live on the same block together.

The judgment of God is upon us today. And we could go right down the line and see that something must be done—and something must be done quickly. We have alienated ourselves from other nations so we end up morally and politically isolated in the world. There is not a single major ally of the United States of America that would dare send a troop to Vietnam, and so the only friends that we have now are a few client-nations like Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, and a few others.

This is where we are. “Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind,” and the best way to start is to put an end to war in Vietnam, because if it continues, we will inevitably come to the point of confronting China which could lead the whole world to nuclear annihilation.

It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.

This is why I felt the need of raising my voice against that war and working wherever I can to arouse the conscience of our nation on it. I remember so well when I first took a stand against the war in Vietnam. The critics took me on and they had their say in the most negative and sometimes most vicious way.

One day a newsman came to me and said, “Dr. King, don’t you think you’re going to have to stop, now, opposing the war and move more in line with the administration’s policy? As I understand it, it has hurt the budget of your organization, and people who once respected you have lost respect for you. Don’t you feel that you’ve really got to change your position?” I looked at him and I had to say, “Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I’ve not taken a sort of Gallup Poll of the majority opinion.” Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.

On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?

There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right. I believe today that there is a need for all people of goodwill to come with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “We ain’t goin’ study war no more.” This is the challenge facing modern man.

Let me close by saying that we have difficult days ahead in the struggle for justice and peace, but I will not yield to a politic of despair. I’m going to maintain hope as we come to Washington in this campaign. The cards are stacked against us. This time we will really confront a Goliath. God grant that we will be that David of truth set out against the Goliath of injustice, the Goliath of neglect, the Goliath of refusing to deal with the problems, and go on with the determination to make America the truly great America that it is called to be.

I say to you that our goal is freedom, and I believe we are going to get there because however much she strays away from it, the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be as a people, our destiny is tied up in the destiny of America.

Before the Pilgrim fathers landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before Jefferson etched across the pages of history the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here. Before the beautiful words of the “Star Spangled Banner” were written, we were here.

For more than two centuries our forebearers labored here without wages. They made cotton king, and they built the homes of their masters in the midst of the most humiliating and oppressive conditions. And yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to grow and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery couldn’t stop us, the opposition that we now face will surely fail.

We’re going to 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, however dark it is, however deep the angry feelings are, and however violent explosions are, 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—as we were singing earlier today,

Truth forever on the scaffold,

Wrong forever on the throne.

Yet that scaffold sways the future.

And behind the dim unknown stands God,

Within the shadow keeping watch above his own.

With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair the stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

Thank God for John, who centuries ago out on a lonely, obscure island called Patmos caught vision of a new Jerusalem descending out of heaven from God, who heard a voice saying, “Behold, I make all things new; former things are passed away.”

God grant that we will be participants in this newness and this magnificent development. If we will but do it, we will bring about a new day of justice and brotherhood and peace. And that day the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy. God bless you.

Delivered at the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., on 31 March 1968. Congressional Record, 9 April 1968.

mlknationalcathedrallecturn

Go to Table of Contents of MLK Research Institute

 TAYLOR BRANCH

Published: April 6, 2008
FORTY years ago on March 31, at the National Cathedral, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered what would be his last Sunday sermon, on his way back to Memphis. That same night in 1968, President Johnson shocked the world by announcing that he would not seek re-election.

I was a senior in college. My mother was visiting four nights later when all conversation suddenly hushed in a busy restaurant. A waiter whispered that Dr. King had been shot.

Civil rights, Vietnam, Dr. King, Memphis — these are historic landmarks. Even so, this year is a watershed. Because Dr. King lived only 39 years, from now on, he will be gone longer than he lived among us. Two generations have come of age since Memphis.

This does not mean that our understanding is accurate or complete. A certain amount of gloss and mythology is inevitable for great figures, whether they be George Washington chopping down a cherry tree, Honest Abe splitting a rail or Dr. King preaching a dream of equal citizenship in 1963. Far beyond that, however, we have encased Dr. King and his era in pervasive myth, false to our heritage and dangerous to our future. We have distorted our entire political culture to avoid the lessons of Martin Luther King’s era.

He warned us himself. When he came to the pulpit that Sunday 40 years ago, Dr. King adapted one of his standard sermons, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” From the allegory of Rip Van Winkle, he told of a man who fell asleep before 1776 and awoke 20 years later in a world filled with strange customs and clothes, a whole new vocabulary, and a mystifying preoccupation with the commoner George Washington rather than King George III.

Dr. King pleaded for his audience not to sleep through the world’s continuing cries for freedom. When the ancient Hebrews achieved miraculous liberation from Egypt, many yearned to go back. Pharaoh’s familiar lash seemed better than the covenant delivered by Moses, and so the Hebrews wandered in the wilderness. It took 40 years to recover their bearings. Dr. King has been gone 40 years now, but we still sleep under Pharaoh. It is time to wake up.

Dr. King had been in Memphis marching in support of sanitation workers. Two of them, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, had been crushed in a mechanical malfunction; city rules forbade black employees to seek shelter from rain anywhere but in the back of their compressor trucks, with the garbage. But looting had broken out from Dr. King’s march, for the first time.

When he showed up in Washington that Sunday morning, he was scarcely the toast of the United States. Headlines in Memphis called him, “Chicken à la King,” with accusations that he had run from his own fight. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat called Dr. King “one of the most menacing men in America today,” and published a wild-eyed minstrel cartoon of him aiming a huge pistol from a cloud of gun smoke, with the caption, “I’m Not Firing It — I’m Only Pulling the Trigger.”

So Dr. King stood in the pulpit a marked man, scorned and rebuked, beset with inner conflicts. Yet as always, he lifted hope from the bottom of his soul. He urged the congregation to be alive and awake to great revolutions in progress. “I say to you that our goal is freedom,” he cried, “and I believe we’re going to get there because — however much she strays from it — the goal of America is freedom!”

We face daunting precedent in history. Our nation has slept for decades under the spell of myths grounded in race. I grew up being taught that the Civil War was about federalism, not slavery. My textbooks even used a religious term, the “redeemers,” to describe politicians who restored white supremacy with Ku Klux Klan terrorism late in the 19th century. Modern Hollywood was founded on the emotional power of that myth as portrayed in “The Birth of a Nation.” Progressive forces advocated racial hierarchy with a bogus science of eugenics.

More than once, the dominant culture has turned history upside down to make itself feel comfortable. And when a civil rights movement rose from the fringe of maids and sharecroppers, making it no longer respectable to defend racial segregation, wounded voices adapted again to curse government as the agent of general calamity. We have painted Dr. King’s era as a time of aimless, unbridled license, with hippies running amok.

The watchword of political discourse has degenerated from “movement” to “spin.” In Dr. King’s era, the word “movement” grew from a personal inspiration into leaps of faith, then from shared discovery and sacrifice into upward struggle, spawning kindred movements until great hosts from Selma to the Berlin Wall literally could feel the movement of history.

Now we have “spin” instead, suggesting that there is no real direction at stake from political debate, nor any consequence except for the players in a game. Such language embraces cynicism by reducing politics to entertainment.

Democratic balance has slept for 40 years, and we face a world like Rip Van Winkle run backward. We wake up blinking at Tiger Woods, Condoleezza Rice and Barack Obama, while our government demands arbitrary rule by secrecy, conquest and dungeons. King George III seems reborn.

Please resist any partisan connotation. Our problem is far too big for that. Indeed, I think the most pressing challenge for admirers of Dr. King is to recognize our own complicity in the stifling myths about civil rights history. Battered, long-suffering allies of Dr. King discarded him as a tired moderate long before the reactionary campaign to make the word “liberal” a kiss of death for candidates across the country. Similarly, forces called radical and militant turned against liberal governments for taking so long to respond to racial injustice, then for the Vietnam War. Only a convergence of the political left and right could cause such lasting erosion for the promise of free government itself.

Many of Dr. King’s closest comrades rejected his commitment to nonviolence. The civil rights movement created waves of history so long as it remained nonviolent, then stopped. Arguably, the most powerful tool for democratic reform was the first to become passé. It vanished among intellectuals, on campuses and in the streets. To this day, almost no one asks why.

We must reclaim the full range of blessings from his movement. For Dr. King, race was in most things, but defined nothing alone. His appeal was rooted in the larger context of nonviolence. His stated purpose was always to redeem the soul of America. He put one foot in the Constitution and the other in scripture. “We will win our freedom,” he said many times, “because the heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.” To see Dr. King and his colleagues as anything less than modern founders of democracy — even as racial healers and reconcilers — is to diminish them under the spell of myth.

Dr. King said the movement would liberate not only segregated black people but also the white South. Surely this is true. You never heard of the Sun Belt when the South was segregated. The movement spread prosperity in a region previously unfit even for professional sports teams. My mayor in Atlanta during the civil rights era, Ivan Allen Jr., said that as soon as the civil rights bill was signed in 1964, we built a baseball stadium on land we didn’t own, with money we didn’t have, for a team we hadn’t found, and quickly lured the Milwaukee Braves. Miami organized a football team called the Dolphins.

The movement also de-stigmatized white Southern politics, creating two-party competition. It opened doors for the disabled, and began to lift fear from homosexuals before the modern notion of “gay” was in use. Not for 2,000 years of rabbinic Judaism had there been much thought of female rabbis, but the first ordination took place soon after the movement shed its fresh light on the meaning of equal souls. Now we think nothing of female rabbis and cantors and, yes, female Episcopal priests and bishops, with their colleagues of every background. Parents now take for granted opportunities their children inherit from the Montgomery bus boycott.

It is both right and politic for all people, including millions who are benign or indifferent toward the civil rights movement, or churlish and resentful, to see that they, too, and their heirs, stand with us on the shoulders of Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers and Fannie Lou Hamer.

Dr. King showed most profoundly that in an interdependent world, lasting power grows against the grain of violence, not with it. Both the cold war and South African apartheid ended to the strains of “We Shall Overcome,” defying all preparations for Armageddon. The civil rights movement remains a model for new democracy, sadly neglected in its own birthplace. In Iraq today, we are stuck on the Vietnam model instead. There is no more salient or neglected field of study than the relationship between power and violence.

We recoil from nonviolence at our peril. Dr. King rightly saw it at the heart of democracy. Our nation is a great cathedral of votes — votes not only for Congress and for president, but also votes on Supreme Court decisions and on countless juries. Votes govern the boards of great corporations and tiny charities alike. Visibly and invisibly, everything runs on votes. And every vote is nothing but a piece of nonviolence.

SO what should we do, now that 40 years have passed? How do we restore our political culture from spin to movement, from muddle to purpose? We must take leaps, ask questions, study nonviolence, reclaim our history.

What Dr. King prescribed in his last Sunday sermon begins with the story of Lazarus and Dives, from the 16th chapter of Luke. Told entirely from the mouth of Jesus, it is a story starring Abraham the patriarch of Judaism, set in the afterlife. There’s nothing else like it in the Bible.

Dr. King loved this parable as the text for a fabled 1949 sermon by Vernon Johns, his predecessor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. Lazarus was a lame beggar who once pleaded unnoticed outside the sumptuous gates of a rich man called Dives. They both died, and Dives looked from torment to see Lazarus the beggar secure in the bosom of Abraham. The remainder of the parable is an argument between Abraham and Dives, calling back and forth from heaven to hell.

Dives first asked Abraham to “send Lazarus” with water to cool his burning lips. But Abraham said there was a “great chasm” fixed between them, which could never be crossed. In his sermon, Dr. Johns drew a connection between the chasm and segregation.

But according to Dr. Johns, Dives wasn’t in hell because he was rich. He wasn’t anywhere near as rich as Abraham, one of the wealthiest men in antiquity, who was there in heaven. Nor was Dives in hell because he had failed to send alms to Lazarus. He was there because he never recognized Lazarus as a fellow human being. Even faced with everlasting verdict, he spoke only with Abraham and looked past the beggar, treating him still as a servant in the third person — “send Lazarus.”

Dr. King’s sermons drew more layers of meaning from this parable. He said we must accept the suffering rich man as no ordinary, nasty sinner. When refused water for himself, he worried immediately about his five brothers. Dives asked Abraham again to send Lazarus, this time as a messenger to warn the brothers about their sin. Tell them to be nice to beggars outside the wall. Do something, please, so they don’t wind up here like me.

Dr. King said Dives was a liberal. Despite his own fate, he wanted to help others. Abraham rebuffed this request, too, telling Dives that his brothers already had ample warning in Torah law and the books of the Hebrew prophets. Still Dives persisted, saying no, Abraham, you don’t understand — if the brothers saw someone actually rise from the dead and warn them, then they would understand.

Jesus quotes Abraham saying no. If the brothers do not accept the core teaching of the Torah and the prophets, they won’t believe even a messenger risen from the dead. Dr. King said this parable from Jesus burns up differences between Judaism and Christianity. The lesson beneath any theology is that we must act toward all creation in the spirit of equal souls and equal votes. The alternative is hell, which Dr. King sometimes defined as the pain we inflict on ourselves by refusing God’s grace.

Dr. King then went back to Memphis to stand with the downtrodden workers, with the families of Echol Cole and Robert Walker. You may have seen the placards from the sanitation strike, which read “I Am a Man,” meaning not a piece of garbage to be crushed and ignored. For Dr. King, to answer was a patriotic and prophetic calling. He challenges everyone to find a Lazarus somewhere, from our teeming prisons to the bleeding earth. That quest in common becomes the spark of social movements, and is therefore the engine of hope.

Taylor Branch is the author, most recently, of “At Canaan’s Edge,” the third volume in his history of the modern civil rights era. This article was adapted from a speech he gave on Monday at the National Cathedral.

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