Martin Luther King, Then and Now
February, 10, 2017
To the Congregation,
Thank you for your expressions of appreciation and interest in my message, which I shared on Martin Luther King’s birth anniversary, January 15. For those who have asked, I have provided a rough copy of the text of my talk. There are parts, you will see, that were on that day (1) expressed in a different order; (2) expressed in different words; or (3) not expressed at all.
Martin Luther King, Then and Now
Thank you for allowing me to speak today in observance and honor of the birth anniversary of a truly great man. This greatness is measured not only by the phenomenal and phenomenally powerful effect on the nation and the world of his deeds and words, but by the debt of gratitude owed him by the American people – all of them – for those deeds and words. I, personally, owe much.
Before that, however, let me seize this opportrunity, while I have you all here, to thank you. My bout with esophageal cancer last year was successful. I prevailed. Or, I should say, we prevailed. I could not have done it alone, and I felt all of your generous thoughts and prayers. Of course, I owe special thanks to Maria. To whom, fyi, I am not married, but still just courtin’ and sparkin’. She was a constant throughout the ordeal. She is also, what brought me here to Epworth, where I stand before you this morning.
The night before he died, Dr.King gave a poignant and prescient speech in Memphis. He closed with the following:
“well I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. 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 has allowed me to go 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.
These words, of course must be taken in context. Dr. King had, in fact, recently returned from a trip to Israel where he had, literally, physically climbed to a mountaintop and observed the historical Promised Land. But when he addressed the crowd that night, he was speaking doubly, metaphorically transferring his personal awe to the struggle of the people he led. He was leaving us all a message of hope. He was, perhaps, showing us a way.
The Rev. Dr. King made some other biblical references in that speech, being, as he was, a Baptist minister. What struck me hardest was his interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is here, I believe, that Dr. King established his effectiveness in 20th-Century America. It is here, I believe, in which our future together as a people lies. It is here that we find hope.
In the speech, Dr. King related how, in responded to the smart-alec from the crowd challenging him philosophically and theologically.
Jesus immediately pulled that question from midair 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; and they didn’t stop to help him. Finally, a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But he got down with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying this was the good man, this was the great man because he had the capacity to project the “I” into “thou” and to be concerned about his brother.
This is “empathy,” defined by Webster not just as the “ability to share in another’s emotions or feelings,” but also as “the projection of one’s personality onto the personality of another to understand him better.” Martin Luther King, Jr. certainly had the capacity for empathy, but, more importantly, he had the power to evoke it from others. It is that that made his message take hold and last over the years since his death.
I was a thirteen-year-old eighth-grader at the time of Dr. King’s tragic assassination, a curious, occasionally serious youth forming worldviews and opinions with a passion. His death represented to me then the potentially tragic end of a movement, the significance of which I was beginning to truly recognize.
My parents had been civil rights pioneers of a sort. In 1957 they turned down offers from a hastily convened neighborhood committee to buy the lot on which they planned to build the house where I grew up in El Cerrito. That stand provided me with an education, academic and more, that I could not have achieved elsewhere. Our church, South Berkeley Community, was chartered in 1945 with a specific intention of being the first integrated church in California. As a result, I grew up with a real awareness of the movement. I grew up, to a degree, in the movement. What South Berkeley self-consciously sought to be – racially integrated – attracted a lot of attention from the civil rights community. Fannie Lou Hamer, the famed veteran and victim of civil rights marches in Mississippi, and speaker at the 1964 Democratic Party convention, addressed our church one Sunday.
I remember a coffee table book my parents had called the Day We Marched, a photojournalistic account of the 1963 March on Washington. I read that thing over and over. There were other books in the house that captured the movement and captured my imagination. I still have a vivid memory of a photograph of a man having his trousers torn from him by a police dog at the end of a leash during a march in Alabama. Or was it Mississippi? So by eighth grade, I had a good idea of the Nobel Prize winning preacher’s historical significance, even before he was martyred.
He was my hero. By 1968, he had many more detractors than usual: those opposed to nonviolence as a means of protest; those opposed to integration as a means to racial equality; those opposed to him making a public stand against the war in Vietrnam. I remained loyal to Dr. King, and the civil rights movement. I supported Bobby Kennedy over Eugene McCarthy because of Kennedy’s commitment to civil rights. I supported nonviolent protest to the end of a happily racially integrated society, as I was taught, both by my church and Dr. King. The church connection was important.
By 1968, the civil rights movement here in the states had settled fairly firmly upon the church. In the history of the struggle of Africans and their descendants in America, the church, particularly on the South, slavery country, was a place of sanctuary, generally respected by the oppressor. It was, accordingly, a safe place in which to meet and conspire. The preacher became an historically prominent member of the community. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, the movement for black equality was greatly advanced by such scholars as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, and Booker T. Washington. A. Philip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was a big mover in the first half of the century. He threatened FDR with a march on Washington if the federal government was not integrated prior to the country’s entry into WWII. By executive order, that happened. From that grew the heroic Tuskegee Airmen.
By mid-century, however, events resulted in the focus shifting back to the church. Dr. King was born Michael King, Jr., named after his father, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. His maternal grandfather had founded the church, so, as you can see, Dr. King came by his vocation honestly. On a trip to Germany in 1934, the senior King, in honor of the poster of the theses, renamed himself and his son. After a precocious spin through Atlanta’s segregated public school system, a 15-year-old Martin started Morehouse University, graduating with a degree in sociology at 19. After his theological studies at Pennsylvania’a Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University, the new Dr. King took a pastorship, against his father’s wishes at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in faraway Montgomery, Alabama. This twist of fate, this decision, landed him in the leadership of the successful Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-1956.
At Crozer, Dr. King had become fascinated with the non-violent protests that had been led and advocated by Mohandes Gandhi in British-colonized India. He brought these techniques to Montgomery, but, more importantly, he brought with it a sense of urgency: a notion that the time had arrived for significant change. In his first speech to the newly-formed Montgomery Improvement Association, he stated:
“[w]e have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown an amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.”
From there, Dr. King embarked on a journey that took him to the formation and leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the work that followed. The lunch-counter sit-ins; the march from Selma to Montgomery (with the Pettis Memorial Bridge incident); the Birmingham demonstrations, resulting in his arrest and subsequent composition of the Letter from the Birmingham Jail. And, after unsuccessfully attempting to elicit JFK’s support for the movement, The March on Washington and the famous I Have a Dream speech.
Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize. He did win the support of LBJ. The ensuing passages of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave us federal legal protections that we are, unfortunately, forced to call upon today, some 50 years hence.
When Dr. King died, he was 39 years old. I was 13. He, and his movement had shaped me. The events I just described began when I was born. I grew up with the movement, and it shaped me indelibly. At 62, having been educated, having raised a family, and having forged a career in America, I still believe in nonviolence. I still believe that we can all live together in peace and harmony.
Throughout my undergrad and law school matriculation, and several times during my life in DC in the 80s, in certain specific circumstances the rhetorical question would arise “what would Martin Luther King have done? How would Martin Luther King have reacted?” It is a question I have often pondered.
Much has happened since 1968, legally, politically, and socially. A “Rip Van Winkled” Martin Luther King, I imagine would be surprised – pleasantly and otherwise.
Van Winkle Awakes
Dr. King would be pleased to see how much of what he fought for has come to be. First, wonder of wonders, we are completing the second term of a black president. In fact, black people have, in the almost 50 years since Dr. King’s death, achieved positions of importance in practically every aspect of American professional and political life. He would be happy to see Lester Holt as NBC’s evening news anchor and all around golden boy. It would please Dr. King that the traditionally white sports of golf and tennis had, since his death, been stunned and awed by Tiger and Serena. And while we’re on sports – my Dad struggled to explain to me, when I was a kid, why there were no black quarterbacks in the NFL. This was, he explained, due to the general belief that black athletes were unable to occupy a “thinking man’s” position such as quarterback. Even were he not a fan, Dr. King would be gratified to see the black quarterbacks fairly dominating the league.
Politically, Dr. King would be happy to see that such a thing as the Congressional Black Caucus even exists, let alone that it wields influence. Black mayors abound throughout the nation, and are a force in many state legislatures.
There are a few things at which Dr. King might be taken aback. After years of dormancy, a dormancy that would have disturbed him, a protest movements are awakening anew. What awakened a movement like Black Lives Matter, were the wanton and seemingly endless shootings and killings of unarmed black men throughout the country by police officers. He would be dismayed to find that even with many of these incidents caught on video recordings, charges and convictions of the shooters are difficult to come by.
On the political front, I believe it would bother Dr. King that black people still find statewide election exceedingly difficult. Black governors and black senator, of which there were, respectively, none and one in 1968, remain almost unheard of. And he would be horrified that, despite professional, political, and social improvements among us (have you noticed all the apparently interracial families in TV ads?) a rip-roaring unapologetic racist, his mouth dripping with contempt for women, minorities, LBGTQs, and the “political correctnesss” that he derisively dubs notions of equality for all, an insensitive buffoon with little regard for any but self had been elected President of the United States. He has a Republican-majority Congress that might give him carte-blanche to do whatever he pleases.
Congressman John Lewis, who marched with Dr. King and got his head beaten by cops at the Pettis bridge, will not attend the inauguration, and, if I understand him, will not recognize the legitimacy of his presidency. A woman’s march on Washington will take place, but my reading tells me that there are fissures in that front developing along racial lines. Has America become a house divided against itself? Where do we go from here?
I believe Dr. King would have hope, nonetheless. Let me tell you why I presume to speak for him.
Dr. King’s legacy has allowed me to lead the sort of life of which my parents dreamed. I attended an ivy league college, a top notch law school and have held prestigious jobs in a prestigious profession. In accordance with this legacy I have lived much of my life as, what a college buddy described as a “TFO.” When I asked him what that was, his response was “c’mon Man, you’ve been one all your life: ‘the First One.’ This path has allowed me to observe a special type of racism, a kind of privileged racism, but sincere, nonetheless.
So, I was fortunate to be accepted to and attend Yale, where I was involved in the campus world of informal a a capella singing. Now if Yale was
a very white environment, the world of a capella singing was probably the whitest of the institutions within. Except may the Elizabethan Club. More on that later. In fact, the guy that introduced me to the term TFO, Miles Leverett, rest his soul, was, along with me and Lance Alexander, M.D. one of the first black Whiffenpoofs. Before the Whiffs, I was in a similar group called the Spizzwinks, and, a couple of years back I got a call from another Spizzwink alum in anticipation of the group’s upcoming 100th anniversary celebration. He was writing an historical piece and had determined that I was “the Jackie Robinson of the Spizzwinks.” He wanted to know if I had encountered difficulties in the role. I have difficulty with a society that sets up barriers, then lauds the people who have the courage, or luck to breach them. I like being lauded, though, so I told him about my first trip to Florida for Spring break with the group, my freshman year. There was enough material in that 10 days alone. Details to follow.
Having lived this life, however, gives me an interesting perspective on race. I can identify strongly with the President, because, even as though he was President – Leader of the Free World – he suffered from racism. Martin Luther King’s legacy paved the way for him to become President, just as it allowed me to live a life where professionally, and socially, I was frequently the only black person in the room.
Take Washington, D.C. in the 1980s. It was a majority black city, but as a lawyer there, I was frequently the only black person where I was. I recall two conversations. In one, a colleague in my office, Sherry Armstrong, a white attorney a few years younger, asked me about a third colleague, a black attorney a few years older. “Why is Anita Marshall so bitter?.” I offered the idea that having grown up in Washington of the 1950s and 60s, she remembers when the only black people who could go into Garfinkle’s (a local, fancy clothing store) were maids to pick up their ladies’ dresses. In fact, Anita Marshall had once related such to me. I was surprised at how easily Sherry understood and accepted what I said. I hope her relationship with Anita improved.
On another occasion, I was headed to Baltimore with another attorney, a white guy, driving to an Orioles’ game. DC had no baseball team in those days. Trevor wanted to know why black people seemed “bilingual” and if we all were? He related how his secretary sounded very white when talking on the phone in her professional capacity, but when talking to an obvious girlfriend, she spoke black English. This wasn’t as easy to answer. What was important, however, was that it was communication. It was communication because these people reached a point where they were comfortable asking me a question, probably because I was the only black person they knew, or knew well enough.
I have not always been so sure I wanted to be that person. In fact, I was getting rather weary of it all. I once even had a white tell me that if more black people were like me, he wouldn’t be racist. I was really getting sick and tired of it all. Then something happened and it happened here in this sanctuary.
Many of you were here some months back when, from over there, I shared my experiences and adventures gleaned through a lifetime of driving while black. That was one description of many of experiences that Martin Luther King would have wished I had not had to go through. In the aftermath of the service, I was first shocked, then moved by the amount and sincerity of thank-yous from the congregation I received. It went on for weeks afterward. When I mentioned this to Maria she ventured that perhaps it was because the person relating it was someone that they knew and loved. Empathy! Hope!
We humans seemed hard-wired for what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call tribalism. We naturally form allegiances with those we believe are like us. In its most serious forms it often results in war, oppression and genocide. In more innocent forms it gives us allegiance to sports teams,or alma maters, although we all know that can get violent, too. When the various news media report a plane crash, or any disaster, it is quick to identify the number of Americans involved so we’ll know how much to care.
It is this sense that we are up against, and it has a bigger grip on us that we care to imagine. We are not to blame. Consider and institution like slavery. It is the root of the problem. As an institution it was hundreds of years old before it was made illegal. It grew, thrived, and helped build a country that was created on the strongest principals of freedom the world has seen. The only way to solve the cognitive dissonance created by the existence of such a powerful institution was to convince the American people that we black people deserved it. That we were less than human. That we were “others” on which it was okay to deliver such blatant injustice. This campaign has been so freely woven into every fabric of our society, it is difficult to undo.
As an English major, I had to acknowledge and study the genius of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Much of their work, however, is littered with gratuitous racism and racial slurs. Even the lighthearted short stories of Damon Runyon refer to us as “stovelids.” We are nonpersons in their plots. Let us not even talk about the movies and TV. What about everyday conversation? Both my Mom and I have witnessed white people in the course of idle conversation recite “eeny meeny miney mo, catch a nigger by the toe.” In my Mom’s case the woman blushed. In my case, the guy didn’t even notice.
Martin Luther King was up against a lot to convince the world that all this was wrong. Adopting, and adapting the tactics of Gandhi was put to maximum use in his protests. The broadcast of innocent people, marching for rights that America was pretending were available to all, into America’s living rooms night after night during the early sixties evoked empathy.
It is only through such empathy that we are to get where we must go. One of my fellow AA members asked me to speak at a Sunday morning meeting in Montclair. This was back around the time Paula Deen was taking flak for her use of “the N word” as it is so lovingly called, and I opened by wondering what it was about the word that white folks were so in love with it that they couldn’t stop using it, even when it could ruin them professionally. I was thinking about Mel Gibson, too. Later, the person who invited me said I got good reviews but several people were bothered that I had to bring up the whole unpleasantness.
These people, I am sure, did not consider themselves racist. They just did not want to be bothered by issue of race early on a Sunday morning. That is not empathy, not even by proxy. What I wanted them to know is that it is an “issue” every day for some of us. My hope is that I can, through word and deed, initiate the energy of empathy. It is only a start, and it is anything but concrete, but it starts concrete things. In his farewell speech, the President called for empathy even for the hateful frightened people that put Trump in office. Speaking of which: don’t worry.
I was in Washington during the Reagan years. He came storming in, promising to bring elegance, small government, and an improved economy “back” to Washington. These demagogues are always bringing something back, or making something happen again. First thing he did was propose a Constitutional Amendment requiring Christian prayer in school. Second thing he did was get shot. He had 3 attorneys general, put up the star wars initiative. Then he fired all of the air traffic controllers for going on strike. A crack epidemic broke out and a racially disproportionate sentencing scheme followed. A horrible rape and beating took place in Central Park and New York’s criminal justice system, with the support of a loud and indignant citizenry sent five innocent men to prison for it. Apartheid was still alive in South Africa. And we came from there, to here. We will survive Trump, too.
Our President elect is famous for the empathy he lacks. He scorns, to the cheers of his followers, what he contemptuously terms “political correctness.” He speaks of us all in broad strokes, nursing and encouraging stereotypes. We must be the anti-trump, the empathetic.
Empathy is born of love, and we have no choice but to love one-another. When Americans say that the team name “Redskins” hurts, it means it hurts. Do we love them enough to change it, or do we insist on the right to have our fun. When gun violence makes for record numbers of unnecessary deaths among black people in society is it really so absurd want fewer guns. Shall we debate the interpretation of the 2d amendment, and what rights it guarantees. Or shall we, simply because we love our fellow Americans, and can feel the type of sorrow gun violence can visit on a family as though it were our own family, simply forego some of those rights so that others may live.
It took the tragic deaths of nine people in a massacre in a church for South Carolina to take note that the Confederate battle flag was a frightening affront to black people everywhere. We’ve been saying it all along, but no one would listen. It took Donald Trump’s crude comments, to start a social media phenomenon showing how silently pervasive sexual aggression against and assault upon women has been – all along. Although one can read about the harassment of black people driving vehicles, it becomes more real, when I can stand here, in the flesh, as one of you, and tell you how it feels. Will empathy destroy our hard-wired sense of tribalism? Not likely.
What it will do, my people, is expand the tribe. Despite the ugly wounds to our nation exposed in the past year, we are in this together so we must start feeling like it. I have heard the question of what how we are to effectively help the oppressed, unfortunate, and aggrieved, “and still live our lives?”
In his examination of the good Samaritan parable that last night in Memphis, Dr. King mused on why the Levite and the priest passed by. Perhaps it was fear, he speculated: the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was very dangerous. “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” The Samaritan, he said, reversed the question, “if I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” Therein lies the basis of our empathy, and our salvation. Never mind “how can I help and still live my life” and ask what kinds of lives are being lived when I do not help.
So let me close with more of Dr. King’s words, that are so very appropriate as we stand on the precipice of the challenges the coming presidential administration promises. Among all the desparate calls to “bring back” America, a sort of “normalcy.”
The only normalcy we will settle for is the normalcy that recognizes the dignity and worth of all God’s children. The only normalcy we will settle for is the normalcy that allows justice to run down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy of brotherhood, the normalcy of true peace, the normalcy of justice.
It has been almost 50 years since Dr. King’s death, and over 50 years since the passage of the federal civil rights laws his work resulted in, and an unapologetic racist, sexist, xenophobe was just elected President. How long before we get there: to the equality, peace and harmony for which we yearn? Here is where faith and belief come to play, because with those, it won’t seem long.
So I come to you this morning to say however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long because truth crushed to earth shall rise again;
How long? Not long! Because no lie can live forever;
How long? Not long! Because you shall reap what you sow;
How long? Not Long! Because the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice;
How long? Not Long! Because mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
His truth is marching on. Amen.
Jesse Jackson said the Dr. King’s last words were to musician Ben Branch: “Ben,” he said, “make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.” So let us turn to number ___ in the United Methodist Hymnal.