40 Years Ago Today

(h/t teacherken for reminding us of the anniversary)

1968 was a terrible year in America, bookended by the Tet Offensive on one end and the ascension of the Nixon era on the other. Tomorrow will mark the 40th anniversary of one of the saddest events of that year of waste and horror — the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the ensuing uprisings in cities throughout this country in response. 

Often overlooked is the event that preceded: King’s last speech 40 years ago this evening. What is remembered, and repeated about that speech is its eerily prescient conclusion:

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!

What is almost never shared are Dr. King’s prescriptions for what an American “prosmised land” might look like. Marking forty years since the speech raises the question of whether America has spent these forty years still wandering in the wilderness. Some excerpts from King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech of April 3rd, 1968:

Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.

And are we not seeing our nation’s life blood bleeding away in Iraq?

And also in the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period to see what is unfolding. And I’m happy that He’s allowed me to be in Memphis.

Was not our official answer to “their long years of hurt and neglect” simply “they hate us for our freedoms?”

The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that. That’s always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers are on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn’t get around to that.

And when presidential candidates like Barack Obama gently try to steer interviewers like Chris Matthews back to topics such as the economy, commentators like Joe Scarborough summarize this as ducking (!!) the issue (of Jeremiah Wright).

Now about injunctions: We have an injunction and we’re going into court tomorrow morning to fight this illegal, unconstitutional injunction. All we say to America is, “Be true to what you said on paper.” If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.

Nowadays they’d just give them a miles-away “free speech zone,” no doubt.

…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 about 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. This is what we have to do.

And we don’t have to reduce Christianity to building theme parks with cave kids cavorting with baby dinosaurs. Or limiting ethics to matters pelvic.

And we should most definitely stop reducing the legacy of Dr. King to laws passed in 1964 and 1965, as if the whole movement came to a successful conclusion then and there.

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