April 22, 2019

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Challenges

Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Day and Black History Month 2013

I now present the essence of what I wrote, when our church celebrated the Dr. King holiday in 2012, and I was privileged to speak to the congregation the Unitarian Universalist Church.  

For me, it was helpful to review my history with Dr. King; it was emotional to read my experience and his words as we honored his memory 

It is the1950s in Elkhart, Indiana; Minnie Minoso is my favorite athlete and the colored boys are often opponents in baseball, basketball and football. I had no knowledge of Martin Luther King.

Toward the end of the 50s, Dr. King joins the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, founds the Southern Christian Leadership Council and studies with Mohammad Gandhi. He leads the executive committee at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and his home is bombed. He receives his Ph.D in philosophy and is on the cover of Time Magazine.

In the 60’s, the Negro Elkhart Blue Blazers are my teammates, Gale Sayers my favorite athlete. Keith and Kerry are my friends and teammates; we never speak of race, civil rights, Malcolm X or Martin Luther King. President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act in 1964. 

Dr. King demonstrates and is often arrested. Laws change; lunch counters, schools and buses are desegregated. I sweat during football practice as King delivers “I Have Dream” before a crowd of 250,000. I have no memory of discussing the speech.

King is Time Magazine’s Man of the Year and wins the Nobel Peace Prize. There is a serious attempt on his life; Black Muslims stone him in Harlem, four girls are killed in a church bombing; and Malcolm X is assassinated. 

In 1966, I attend DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana — a nearly all white school. I am introduced to the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and other Black musicians. As riots and protests continue, Dr. King continues his work in Chicago, in the South and ultimately in Memphis. One march King leads in Tennessee turns violent — definitely not his intent.

In 1968 as I lay in intensive care at Robert Long Hospital in Indianapolis, Indiana, I watch television.  News bulletin: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr has been assassinated. Across the country, black people riot. In Indianapolis, Bobby Kennedy talks to a crowd of how we share humanness. No riots, just tears. I am moved. Indianapolis is safe.

1968 is a tough year. There is interest in Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael and the movement of Black Power.

In 1969 I am back at DePauw and take a class on Black History in the United States (perhaps the first ever at DePauw). The teacher is a black man from Indianapolis Crispus Attucks High School. We learn about contributions of black people, well beyond sports and music. I hear about Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglas, Rosa Parks, Langston Hughes and many others but, as I remember, we do not study Dr. King.

At DePauw, I gain further awareness when I am privileged to attend a lunch with Mayor Richard Hatcher, the first black mayor of Gary, and another with Dr. Percy Julian, a black American Research Chemist. Dr. Julian had waited tables at DePauw in the 1930s and now the DePauw Science Building bears his name.

As a new social worker in the 1970s, I visit the King Memorial in Atlanta when it is just a plan with bulldozers moving dirt to make way for construction.

Taking a hiatus from Dr. King until 1986, I remember the contentious process as Congress declared his birthday a national holiday. There are FBI investigations and tawdry stories about him which added to my interest in Dr. King. For me, it is great our country will honor a black man — still I am unaware of the depth of his contributions.

After the National holiday was set, I began to more fully understand and feel the strength of the man and his speech.

In 1963 Dr. King delivers his speech “I Have a Dream.” He eloquently states: “This is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” He notes that white and black have a tied destiny.   (Read entire speech)

 “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal. 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.

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from all corners of our country.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Eventually the words of Dr. King spoke to me deeply. It was as if I could now hear, inside of myself, words that I wanted and want to say and that I stand for. I could not and cannot understand how these words do not speak to everyone.

As I lay in my hospital bed on the last full day of Dr. King’s life, he speaks at church in Memphis; he tells of the privilege of being alive at this time as we grapple with history.
(Read entire speech)

We are interconnected. Similarly we are privileged to be alive on this day.  

King spoke of injustice and financial inequality. When he was involved in the Sanitation Departments dispute with the city of Memphis, he said, “Somewhere I read (Yes the crowd responds) that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right”.

He spoke of the collective financial power of poor people to protest. “If you do not help the sanitation worker what will happen then to you?”

That night in Memphis Dr. King talks of the nearness of death and  that the New York assassination attempt was so close to being fatal.  

He spoke as if knowing he was making the final statement of his life.  As he concluded, with generous Amens, go ahead and applause, Dr. King offered:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to 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’s allowed me to go up 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 are the last formal words that Dr. King ever spoke.

My journey with him continues as I work to fully incorporate his teachings.  

Here are my basics: Work for economic and social freedom for everyone and maybe I too can be free. If we do not help others what are we here for? Language of nonviolence is dramatically different than silence. Learn to better appreciate and understand people both similar and different from yourself.

Challenge yourself to live your life fully, so you may be able to say on your last day: “I have been to the mountain top… of doing right with my life. Mine eyes have seen the glory of knowing that I have tried and struggled well.”

 

Bill

 

  

Comments

  1. Bill…well said again. It is an honor to know you. Thanks for all you do.

    b