April 4, 1968. For those of us who are old enough to remember, that day is indelibly etched in our memories. I was a sophomore in college, at West Chester State, near Philadelphia-- a kid from rural Pennsylvania. We didn’t have the internet, and I didn’t even have a TV at school, so we didn’t have the amount of information available to us that we take for granted today.
But I remember exactly where I was when I heard that Dr. King had been killed. A friend showed up at my part-time job at a community center and told me, and he offered me a ride back to campus. I have vivid memories of being part of an ecumenical community memorial service a few days later. I had been inspired by what I knew about Dr. King, and I remember the despair I felt when he was assassinated.
For a long time, a lot of people have had a tendency to freeze the memory of Martin Luther King in August of 1963, at the time of his “I have a dream speech.” A lot of people have appropriated-- or misappropriated his words to promote their own agendas.
If we are to honor Dr. King’s legacy, we need to recognize how the events of the last few years of his life had impacted him. On Christmas Eve 1967, a few months before he died, he told his congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church that the first time he saw the dream turn into a nightmare was just a few weeks after the March on Washington, in September of 1963, “when four beautiful, unoffending, innocent Negro girls were murdered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama.” He went on, “ I watched that dream turn into a nightmare as I moved through the ghettos of the nation and saw my black brothers and sisters perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity, and saw the nation doing nothing to grapple with the Negroes’ problem of poverty. I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched my black brothers and sisters in the midst of anger and understandable outrage, in the midst of their hurt, in the midst of their disappointment, turn to misguided riots to try to solve that problem. I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched the war in Vietnam escalating, and as I saw so-called military advisers, 16,000 strong, turn into fighting soldiers until today over 500,000 American boys are fighting on Asian soil.”
Dr. King comforted the families of those little girls and preached their funerals, and struggled with the fact that the church was bombed partly because it had been a focal point for Birmingham’s community in the struggle he had led just months before.
Dr. King was going through a rapid transformation from a civil rights leader to a human rights activist. He came to see himself as an advocate for the poor and oppressed wherever they were. He began working to bring together people of all races and parts of the country, anyone who was impacted by poverty and injustice. His focus had broadened to social and economic justice for all and demanding workers’ rights, environmental justice, antiwar activism.
In December 1967, Dr. King announced a Poor People’s March on Washington he was organizing to demand better jobs, better homes, better education--better lives than the ones they were living.
During this time, in the eyes of many, Dr. King was seen as a “communist dupe,” “troublemaker,” ‘traitor,” or “naïve, because he was challenging the status quo and opposing the Vietnam War and speaking out against the triple evils of materialism and systemic poverty, of militarism, and racism. He had become unpopular and discouraged. Even some people close to him were telling him that it was wrong for him to take on economic injustice.
A few months before his death, Dr. King said, “the movement for social change has entered a time of temptation to despair. He had his struggles and was tempted to walk away. But he stayed steadfast in his commitment to work to confront the power structure and injustice.
I have to admit that off and on I struggle with discouragement. It’s hard to stay energized and focused over the years.
Soon after I moved to Detroit, our Detroit Presbytery formed an Anti-Racism Team, and a diverse group of around 20 of us began the hard work of becoming a team and learning and strategizing together to address systemic racism. Some of our members were old enough and engaged enough that they had marched with Dr. King. In one of our early sessions, one of the laments we heard expressed was: “Back in the sixties, we thought we would have made more progress by now!”
That was twenty years ago. Since then, we’ve gone through a time when a lot of people were talking for a while about how we were living in a post-racial society. But it’s obvious that’s not where we are. The work is not done.
This fiftieth anniversary year is bringing people together to re-focus and re-group. This is not a time for us to be satisfied with talk about being kind to one another-- although I’m certainly in favor of kindness.
I agree with the Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, who often has challenging words for white people and said earlier today, “Without confession of the sin of white racism, white supremacy, white privilege, people who call themselves white Christians will never be free.” He said that white Christians must confess the sins of colonialism and racism, “including in the highest levels of power….” “Confession must lead to action….[because] racism is more than individual behavior, and repentance is more than saying ‘you’re sorry.’”
It gives me hope that religious activists from a wide range of faith communities have came together today in our nation’s capital and Memphis and other cities to re-commit themselves to carry on the work of dismantling systemic racism.
It gives me hope that a growing number of people from faith communities, organized labor and other activists are coming together to be part of a new Poor People’s Campaign, beginning on the day after Mother’s Day.
As the Rev. William Barber II, one of the directors of the Poor People’s Campaign, said earlier today: “We cannot be those who merely love the tombs of the prophets. We do not celebrate assassinations and killings of our prophets. We find the place they fell. We reach down in the blood. We pick up the baton, and carry it forward. And we must.”
Dr. Martin Luther King continues to inspire us today. In his last sermon, in Memphis, on the night before he was killed, Dr. King said, “We’ve got to say to the nation: We know how it’s coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.
So let us be caught up with that which is right. Let us be willing to sacrifice for it, and work together for a moral renewal in our nation! Let us pick up the baton and carry it forward!
Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
April 4, 2018