One of the sermons I’ve always wanted to do, but knew I never could do as a lay person, is a Martin Luther King Day service–that’s reserved for the senior ministers. A few years ago I did an MLK service the week later and last year I was an integral part of the MLK service, but this year I got to actually do a Martin Luther King service ON Martin Luther King’s birthday. This was pretty special for me and worked pretty hard on it.
How we remember things is funny. As filmmaker Akira Kurosawa showed in his film Rashomon, many witnesses to an event can be seen in drastically different ways. Kurosawa’s intent was to show how ego affects memory: each of the main characters remember events in a way that show them in the best light. Simultaneously, not every account adds up to the entire truth of the incident, even when all put together. Collective memory can be the same way. How a nation commemorates their heroes, and which heroes they commemorate, can speak volumes about that country’s values. Also what we learn history in school is not the complete historical events, and as the saying goes, it is an account written by the victors. Today we are celebrating the birth and life of a man whose accomplishments are oft reveled in history, but not always remembered correctly. We remember a man who dared to dream instead of the man who dared to stand up and fight. He fought by peaceful means, but he fought nonetheless against the very thing we celebrate: an account of history that is only partly told and has not been fully realized. Like any hero’s story, it has pitfalls but he seemingly achieves his goal in the end; however like any national myth, the truth of how and what happened is often glossed over for the sake of pride. The life of Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. is absolutely an inspirational one for any nation, especially for an oppressed population, and one worthy of recognition. But with that recognition, we must be cognizant of when that story is stripped of its true meaning and replaced with a view that fits a specific narrative.
As such, this is not a regular Martin Luther King Jr. sermon. Most other services will talk about the man who peacefully organized campaigns to fight segregation and gain minorities full citizenship within their own country. A man who worked hard to bring black and white people closer together and won. A man whose activities have elevated him to into the annals of history and the eyes of many Americans. We won’t do that here. We will not delegitimize his efforts or achievements, but we will put them into a clearer context. We’ll not deify the man, but show the highs and lows of this extraordinary life. And we will not keep him and his relevance in the past, but show what he has to teach all of us 49 years after his death.
For example take his most oft used quote: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” It has been a guiding theme in the fight for racial justice through the doctrine of non-violence enveloping the second half of the 20th Century. However if we step back and look at the history of race relations, institutionalized racism, and both racial and social justice, how far have we actually come towards that dream? While we have made strides on racial relations, the work in institutionalized racism and racial justice are still woefully inadequate. Why is this? Because while many leaders have tried to take these words to heart, they take them out of context. King’s vision of racial equality has to be matched with a keen analysis of power dynamics. He never meant “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood” as if nothing happened; he hoped future generations would be able to finally live together without the curse of white supremacy hanging over this nation’s head. In fact, earlier in the “I Have a Dream” speech, he says these words:
“ And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
Putting his “dream” in proper context, he himself says we have barely begun to achieve this goal. Working on individual prejudices and diversity are important, but if we have not addressed the racism inherent in the structure of America and done little to dismantle it, these whirlwinds of revolt will remain under the surface of any modern day discussion on race.
This is common if we only look at one aspect of his life: the “I Have a Dream” speech. But throughout his life he has said and done more than that. We heard various quotes and writings spelling out his position on war and self-defense, and tried to put his famous quotes in proper context. Still many myths about the man. That is common, for our society likes to mythologize our heroes; we almost thrive on it as a necessity. But doing so leaves out other items and other people. For instance, we must remember that the civil rights movement wasn’t just King and his marches alone.
He was the most charismatic and effective leaders but certainly not the only one. Dig past the narratives, you will find a group dubbed “The Big Six,” all presidents or chairs of civil rights organizations that were prominent organizers for the March on Washington. This includes James Farmer of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), John Lewis of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and now Congressman for Georgia, Roy Wilkins executive director of the NAACP, Whitney Young of the Urban League, and A. Phillip Randolph a socialist labor activist who helped organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters a labor union at one of the largest employers of African Americans at the time. Phillip Randolph is important to mention for two reasons. 1) The connection between labor organizing and civil rights organizing are very intertwined and often have parallels throughout their histories. A very specific example is the Highlander Research and Education Center. Highlander was a social justice leadership training school and cultural center, and helped provide training and education for the labor groups in Appalachia and the Southern US, and then trained against civil rights and desegregation in the ’50s. They helped train, among others, Rosa Parks, members of the SNCC, Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, and King himself in nonviolent methods of resistance and protest strategies. When the black struggle was recognized as a worker’s struggle as well, both groups were able to work towards the common goal of civil rights as raising tides lifts all boats. The second reason I mention Randolph is because he is often written out of the history in his involvement. Because he was a socialist, he was pushed into the background rather than give credence to the enemies calling Civil Rights activism a socialist plot. James Farmer in his autobiography listed Dorothy Height as a member of the Six instead.
That is not to say Height wasn’t important in her own right—a member of the National Council of Negro Women, the organizer of “Wednesdays in Mississippi” and an important council to Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson, she was a major help to the cause. What is interesting is Farmer says her involvement in the Six was ignored by the press because of sexism, but there is equal evidence that Randolph is pushed back for his socialist beliefs. This is a part of the struggles among Civil Rights leaders on how to project themselves to the public and make sure the narrative they tell gets through. This is why a lot of names get lost in the crush of history of the Civil Rights movement. People like Septima Clark, James Bevel, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hammer, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Jo Ann Robinson, and Bayard Rustin don’t get their just due even though they were important to the movement as a whole. This was not a one man operation; it was a broad coalition that brought people across the nation and even across racial and religious lines to help bring about change.
Still once the 1963 March on Washington was done, the celebrating of King’s life ends, as if nothing happened between the 1963 march on Washington and his 1968 assassination. The 1964 Civil rights Act was passed, as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and all is right with America, yes? No. There was much more to be done and a lot still on the table to deal with. It’s not that nothing was done about it, it’s that once these major goals were achieved, the directions to go next were as numerous and diverse as they were hazy. During this time, there were events that diminished King’s influence in the short term. King was sidelined by Hoover’s FBI taking advantage of King’s own flaws on one side and then the burgeoning Black Power movement on the other. As we heard from his own words earlier, while personally nonviolent, he believed in self-defense; however, he didn’t see effectiveness coalition building or progressive movement in militancy. Simultaneously he was not on the complete opposite side of Black power. By his own admission, Dr. King said he “tried to stand between two opposing forces within the Black community, saying “that we need emulate neither the ‘do nothingism’ of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.” However being caught within those two positions did not help him. As time went on, the black power movement seemed to be the more promising route to take and it grew in influence.
Also at this time King was slowly moving towards issues of poverty, which is a natural progression. Anyone who deals with issues of racism find that the causes and effects of racism are upheld by the causes of capitalism, and that the fighting for national or global economic equality can dismantle a host of other isms. However this is a trickier element to tackle, especially if that fight it doesn’t fit into your original narrative. For proof, look no further than the 1966 March in Cicero.
In 1951, the last time a single black family moved into Cicero, IL—a 100% white Chicago suburb—4,000 people attacked and burned down the apartment building where they were housed. By 1966, 15,000 blacks worked in Cicero, none of whom lived there. King and the SCLC sought to prove that the same organizing methods and tactics can be used against unfair practices all over the country. The SCLC partnered with the American Friends Service Committee and the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO) to form the Chicago Freedom Movement the largest civil rights campaign in the northern states. They sought to tackle housing discrimination and were planning marches into the white suburbs. However when a young activist with King’s ranks, Jesse Jackson, publicly announced, “I am going to Cicero,” everyone was caught off guard and all bets were off. Fear of further violence led the national activist leaders (including King) and Chicago politicians to reach an agreement on a 10-point plan to deal with open housing laws, and called off the march. However Chicago activists were looking forward to marching on Cicero, and decided to still march on Cicero.
Here is where the growing Black Power movements helped fan the flames. Because of increasing tough rhetoric by younger, more militant activists, white people felt no qualms about being violent with protesters, even if a nonviolent protest. At the same time, many Black protesters felt no need to be nonviolent if they were being attacked. On September 4, Robert Lucas of CORE led 250 marchers into Cicero; they were met by 2,700 national guardsmen and 700 cops trying to hold back the mob of white residents. White residents hurled bottles and bricks at the protesters, protesters hurled the debris back. No one was killed, but the movement itself was wounded. King said himself that even through marches in the South he had never “encountered mobs as hostile and hate filled as those in Chicago.” Failing to replicate in the north what he achieved in the South, King fell into a depression as a huge loss hurt his reputation and distanced him from his allies.
Yet the takeaway of this event was something King said earlier in Chicago that summer. At a march, a reporter asked if King thought Chicago was an open or closed society. He said it was a closed society, but said that his groups will make it an open one and felt “they have to do it in this way in order to bring the evil out into the open so that this community will be forced to deal with it.” Through his actions, he meant to shine light on the evils of institutionalized racism and hold it up for all to see. He took to heart the words of Unitarian transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau that “all men recognize the right of revolution: that is the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.” But he also took to heart these words of Thoreau: “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth—certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.” Though continuing to be nonviolent in his protests, King chose to be confrontational in his demands for justice—if anything please remember this the next time you hear someone say that Martin Luther King would never block traffic to protest.
But what seemed to marginalize King the most was his stance on the Vietnam war. He wanted to speak out on the escalation of America’s involvement in the war in southeast Asia as he himself was antiwar. In Vietnam, as usual, minorities and the poor of all colors were the ones sent off to fight in a country they didn’t know for a country that wasn’t helping them. This was crystalized for Dr. King with the decimation of the Poverty Program—a program set up out of President Johnson’s Great Society as a way to combat poverty within America. Dr. King saw it as a real promise of hope for black and white poor population alike. But with the growing commitment to Vietnam by the same Johnson administration, the Poverty Program suffered a bureaucratic death by a thousand cuts. Dr. King saw this as proof that no program to alleviate poverty or racism would be properly funded as long as resources were being used to fund and fight a war. As King put it, he “saw war as an enemy of the poor and began to attack it as such.” The problem is that was he was criticized and warned by many friends and allies to stick with racial issues and not bring up the war in Vietnam. Using antiwar rhetoric opens up the movement to potential failure and ruin because of the public criticism against it. Remember at this time in the mid-60s, the Vietnam war wasn’t wholly unpopular as it would become a couple of years later.
However, Dr. King was still a man of great virtue. This was a man who held up a slave owner, Thomas Jefferson, as a great radical for equality. He challenged a nation to rise to the best of its words and its promise. How could he hold a nation to rise to the best within them and not hold himself to his own best nature, especially on such a salient issue such as the war and its part in creating economic despair and maintaining white supremacist power structures? So in April of 1967, he gave a speech called “Beyond Vietnam.” In it he gave his most public criticism against America’s involvement and escalation of war in Vietnam. He laid out his arguments against the war and was able to connect the war in Vietnam with the struggle for economic justice for the poor in his usual eloquence:
“What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building?”
It is in this speech where he said that a nation that spends more year after year on military expenses that it does for programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. Yet still he told America to rise to the best within itself:
“America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from re-ordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood. This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism.”
“Beyond Vietnam” was as equally stunning a proclamation as “I have a Dream” speech, but the content saw him pushed to the sidelines. People thought it best to focus on one core issue—racism and racial justice—not multiple ones, but King saw the two inexorably linked. “Beyond Vietnam” was the start of numerous speeches against the war on behalf of the poor. The criticism against him for this speech and other anti-Vietnam war speeches that followed drove others in the movement to distance themselves from King. King still held great influence within the black community, but it was never as great as it was on the Washington Mall. While eventually time would prove King right on these matters, it didn’t matter to the public at that time. Luckily it didn’t matter much to King either. He said that the focus had to shift from only racial injustice to deal with overall economic justice, a shift from reform to revolution. In his words, “we have moved from the era of civil rights to an era of human rights.” Venturing down this triple path of anti-racial activism, anti-war activism, and economic justice would lead him to the Poor People’s Campaign, as well as his assassination.
In the summer of 1967, Robert Kennedy asked King to help “make hunger and poverty visible” to Americans who were caught up watching Vietnam play out. Plans began with the SCLC to focus on a campaign of civil disobedience in Washington DC focused on jobs and income. As pointed out by Gerald McKnight in his book The Last Crusade: Martin Luther King Jr, the FBI, and the Poor People’s Campaign, King wanted protests and events to be “nonviolent, but militant, and as dramatic, as dislocative, as disruptive, as attention-getting as the riots without destroying property.” All through the winter of 67-68, there was a push to educate the country about the plight of the poor, show why this campaign was necessary, and build strength, members, and momentum to culminate with a huge march on Washington DC to take place in May 1968 and lobby for economic justice. Despite arguments on how to achieve this ambitious goal, they pushed forward with the plan, until February when the Memphis Garbage Worker Strike happened.
To understand the importance of this strike, you need to understand how it started. Sanitation work is a tough and dirty job. It’s 10-12 shifts in all types of weather and can be dangerous. This was true for a white sanitation worker, but if you were black, you had the added problems of racial discrimination, wage gaps, and one very dangerous rule. Black sanitation workers were forbidden from sleeping or taking shelter inside the cab of the garbage trucks, but also couldn’t leave the trucks unattended. In case of rest stops, workers like Echol Cole and Robert Walker had to make due beside the truck, or in cases of harsh weather, in the back cabs of the truck. And on February 1, 1968, the back cab is exactly where Cole and Roberts lay down to rest between tough shifts when the compacter accidentally turned on. Almost two weeks later, 1,300 black sanitation workers walked off the line in protest demanding safer working conditions and better pay for black employees. Battles between strikers, police, strike busters and scab workers were frequent throughout February and March. The words “I Am A Man” were worn on sandwich boards by striking workers and marched in the streets. “I Am A Man” back then has the exact same meaning as our “Black Lives Matter” banner out front: it says “I am a human being and I do not deserve to die like this!”
This is what brought King to Memphis near the end of March 1968. He saw the whole situation and said the strike was a major part of the Poor People’s campaign. It wasn’t to detract from one to the other or a way to gain the spotlight for his own purpose; the reasons of the strike and demands of the workers were exactly what King was now fighting for, and he wanted to help any way he could. He was there for mass meetings and street actions, including one that turned violent with a teen killed by police. His “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on April 3, while containing some soaring rhetoric and personal anecdotes, also gave people marching orders: don’t by Coca-Cola products or Wonder Bread; divest money from Tri-State bank and put into local savings; build up your own economic base and put pressure on others where it hurts. Right up to the very end, he was pushing for economic and racial justice, and giving them the means to do it. And the next morning he was killed. A week later, both sides came to an agreement on the strike.
So how do we celebrate the totality of his life? It would be too easy to uplift what King said in the ’50s bus riding boycotts, marches, the “Dream” speech as all that the good Reverend did and was. When his birthday first became a holiday, I joked that in a decade or so Martin Luther King Day will be another day off to go to the latest white-tag sale. To some extent that has come true. Is this holiday about a day off to remember one or two memorable points of his life, or are we to make something more of it? My hope is that we see many of the things that Dr. King struggled with in our own struggles today. This year even more so, because as we celebrate his legacy this weekend, next weekend we will inaugurate a president who represents everything he fought against. With it we will usher in an era of greed, fear, white supremacy, hubris, and a brazened feeling of entitlement and righteousness. What can we take away from his achievements to help us navigate this new landscape?
Thankfully people are taking notice. Rev. William Barber II says we are coming into what he calls a “Third Reconstruction”—considering the Civil Rights Era to be the second era. This new period uses what he calls “fusion politics”—coalition building across racial, ethnic, religious, and class lines to work for economic and social justice, and not against their interests: the same kind of organizing that King did during the Civil Rights era and tried on a larger scale with the Poor People’s Campaign. Barber says the establishment is scared of this kind of fusion because creating links across various indentities prevents attacks on any specific group while the coalition focuses on the actions that affect all members. Rather than focusing on one moment in time, we take the longview of achievement to build a foundation we can all stand on.
While we may have Dr. King’s legacy of non-violence to look back on, we also have a visionary look at intersectionality in practice. Dr. King did not do what he did alone, and neither can we. Like Dr. King we have to build partnerships with each other locally and across identities to do what is right for all parties. We need to back up street activism with legal advocacy, ensuring our civil rights remain in tact. And we need to stay focused on long term strategies that help all rather than short term goals that help only the few. We must understand that when we work for civil rights, we work for human rights, and vice versa; that is true for every modern struggle against discrimination in the second half of last centurey and the beginning of this one.
One of the many reasons we have not achieved the dream of Dr. King is that we may have been focusing on the wrong dream, or at least the wrong interpretation of that dream. Racial harmony doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but in an environment of economic stability and equitable justice for all. After next week, the work gets much harder. But if Dr. King has taught us anything is that we must call out injustice wherever we see it and in whatever form it appears. We must fight for the rights of everyone and not slide back to where only the few have most. We must organize and stick together on the issues we care about most, and disrupt the system when necessary. Thoreau wrote that the State “can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it. The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual.” The only way to ensure this progress and stop regression is to rise to what is in the best of us, all of us, rather than succumb to complacency or worse. This is the Martin Luther King dream we need to work towards.
“Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political and economic change. … What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”–Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.