The collective national memory concerning Martin Luther King Jr. is often summed up by choice passages from his 1963 “dream” speech, like this one:
“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 is with good intentions that we remember these moments of “dream”, but in doing so we often end up with the false idea that King’s goals have been accomplished. We point to proof of this by certain observations of our present, perhaps most notably in the fact that an African American president will be inaugurated to his second term on the same day we celebrate King.
Professor and author Fredrick C. Harris reminds us of the fight King was waging by the last year of his life: a war against the triple evils of racism, poverty and militarism, reflected in a battle for the rights of low-wage garbage workers in Memphis, a movement against the Vietnam War and, nationally, the hope for a second march on Washington, one that would dramatize the plight of America’s poor.
On the Sunday before his death, King gave a sermon at the Washington National Cathedral called “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.”
In it, King left the nation with a vision of what it would take for real change to come to America:
On March 31st, 1968, using The Book of Revelation's quote "Behold, I make all things new; former things are passed away", King began with a challenge 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.
King then moves to racism. The vision offered in The Dream speech is far from reached. He said:
“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.”
Fredrick Harris observes that we are still not yet there, suggesting that, despite steps forward, “We are not a post-racial society, in which race no longer matters. At best, we are a post-racist society — in which formal legal barriers against African Americans and other minorities have been eliminated, but the legacy of those barriers endures.”
Next King spoke about poverty, outlining a planned day of action that never happened due to his assassination:
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 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.
Finally, King addressed the problem of using violence to solve problems, especially concerning the Vietnam War:
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....
This is where we are. "Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind,"....
It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence....
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.
Tomorrow, on the day we remember The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., you will surely hear quoted some of the most cherished passages from the “I have a dream” speech. Know that this does indeed, in the words of Harris, “Convey the spirit of America’s promise and the hope that one day the nation will live up to its creed”. If we are to get there, we need to remember all that King dreamed for, and the hope he still had on the Sunday before he was shot and killed.
“Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” concluded with these words:
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.