This astounding man, whose name is inextricably woven in the fabric of history with the cause of civil rights, would have been celebrating his seventy eighth birthday if he were alive today. He was born at noon at the home of his parents on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta. He was an exceptional and intellectually gifted child who entered Morehouse College at the tender age of fifteen where he received a B.A. in sociology. He ultimately earned his Ph.D. in theology from Boston University in 1955 and was subsequently awarded twenty honorary doctorates from colleges and universities in the United States and several foreign countries. In 1964, at age thirty-five, he became the youngest man, the second American, and the third black man to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
He was one of those rare people whose grand intellect was equaled by his passionate spirituality. He was ordained into the ministry at age nineteen and this dimension of his life is where he found his true identity. His faith in Christ and ministerial calling eclipsed all his education, notoriety and accolades. Faith gave him the strength to accomplish the unthinkable in the face of extreme and unrelenting adversity. He said, "I still believe that standing up for the truth of God is the greatest thing in the world. This is the end of life. The end of life is not to be happy. The end of life is not to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. The end of life is to do the will of God, come what may."
I have been reading Reverend King's speeches and sermons lately. I am struck by the similarity of issues we are facing today and those he addressed. What would he say to America today if he were here? He posed a similar question in 1956 when he penned an imaginary letter from the Apostle Paul to America.
Dr. King speaking as Paul said, "You have made tremendous strides in the area of scientific and technological development. But America, as I look from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress." His observational query still rings true fifty years later.
He is remembered primarily for his work on civil rights and poverty, but he was also an unflinching opponent of the Vietnam War. His sermons give us strong indications of what he would say about the current debacle in Iraq and our failing domestic policies.
In a speech given on April 4, 1967 he indicted our national policies when he said, "...I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today- - my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent." He went on, "Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war."
The same speech clearly indicates what Reverend King might say to President Bush and the Congress regarding escalating this war. He said, "Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now...I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop must be ours." Amen.
He spoke to people of faith in the same vein when he said, "Meanwhile we in the churches and synagogues have a continuing task while we urge our government to disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment. We must continue to raise our voices if our nation persists in its perverse ways in Vietnam. We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative means of protest possible." He was arrested thirty times for protesting injustice. Would Dr. King commend the American churches today for their stand on this war?
Our new Congress should consider his words when he said, "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death...There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war." In the imagined epistle of Paul he wrote, "Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes...You can work within the framework of democracy to bring about a better distribution of wealth. You can use your powerful economic resources to wipe poverty from the face of the earth." Neither this aching need nor this challenging truth has changed.
Dr. King denounced the war and called for withdrawing American troops as he prophesied, "If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight."
The mighty winds of Katrina blew away the thin veil covering abject poverty in New Orleans. Suddenly poverty became a focal point in America for a few weeks. The most materialistic nation in history felt one of its few collective twinges of conscience on this issue since the days of this Baptist preacher. Hurricane damaged coastal communities and urban ghettos all across America have waited in vain for federal funding priorities to shift and manifest on their behalf. We keep spending billions to occupy and rebuild Iraq after we spent billions destroying it. Meanwhile, storm ravaged Mississippi and New Orleans goes wanting.
Dr. King was exasperated when the newly enacted poverty program was de-funded to cover the growing cost of the war in Vietnam. He said, "...I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such."
How can it be that our nation is once again operating with the same calloused values and policies this prophet warned us about so long ago? I can only dream where we as a nation might be if he had not been cut down in Memphis. He certainly would have continued his virile advocacy for justice and the Kingdom of Heaven. One person receiving divine visions and dreams through a holy conscience can impart essential inspiration to nations. Inspired nations can be powerful forces for good instead of evil.
A holiday smattered with memorial speeches and essays will honor his life with deserved lip service yet not much life service is evident in the concerns of we the people. We have become a nation debilitated by failed attempted conquests and paralyzed with self-concern and apathy. We are much like the surly addict who reels from fix to fix as he loses the respect of his family and friends. Can America break free from her destructive addictions? Will we ever turn from the futility and debauchery of our insatiable greed while neglecting the poor?
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed, preached and pleaded for freedom for all humanity. A struggling addict found freedom in 1968 and began to sing a new song. I am haunted by the thoughts of what might have been as the voice of Dion echoes in my mind...
"Has anybody here seen my old friend Martin?
Can you tell me where he's gone
He freed a lot of people but it seems the good they die young.
I just looked 'round and he's gone"