Normally I wouldn’t write about Martin Luther King Jr. Day, because I have nothing new to add. I have no words that do justice to such a titan in our history, a man of peace, a man of the working people of America. Martin Luther King Jr. is best known for his advocacy of Civil Rights, a reputation well deserved, but he was equally as influential in the anti-war movement and the labor movement of his time. The man’s values were clearly in the camp of helping people. Our world has missed him every day of the last 50 years.
This year I am writing about Martin Luther King Jr. though. This year marks 50 years since he was assassinated in cold blood. King was killed by James Earl Ray, according to official accounts, a subject I’m not all that interested in diving into tonight. King was killed the day after delivering his “Mountaintop” speech to the Memphis sanitation workers who were working against poor wages and unsafe working conditions on the job. In that speech, he said:
“And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats… or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter 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. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
There are so precious few leaders in American life today who could deliver such words of inspiration today. There are probably just as few among us who would even want to try. One would be shocked that 50 years later, we live in a nation that deported a 39 year old father of two in suburban Detroit today
, a man who came here at age 10 as an undocumented immigrant. One would be shocked that 50 years later, we are still debating criminal justice reform, how to handle police shootings, and what to do about mass incarceration. You could argue that we haven’t made much progress since Martin Luther King Jr.’s dying breath in moving forward as a society. We are having a national debate today on whether or not gerrymandering is okay- over 50 years after the Voting Rights Act.
It’s even more important to reflect on Dr. King today because of the man who currently occupies our White House though. Whether Donald Trump called Haiti and African nations “shit holes” or “shit houses” is absolutely irrelevant, as both are dehumanizing and insulting in ways we haven’t heard from a President in decades. In both word and deed, Donald Trump has spent so much of his Presidency thumbing his nose at the very spirit of Dr. King, so it was fitting that he spent today golfing- yes, golfing- on the day to honor his memory. The lack of leadership on the issues of Dr. King’s life is clear, whether it’s in Trump’s push against labor and worker’s rights, his push towards a possible nuclear war in North Korea, or his words of insult towards Haiti and African nations. The Presidency of Donald Trump is just the latest proof that America could really use a dose of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. right now.
We live in a time that is well defined by the vulgar, disparaging words of Donald Trump at this time. We lack a leader of clarity, a leader of real conviction. So, tonight, I’ll close with the words of Senator Robert F. Kennedy on the night of Dr. King’s assassination. Imagine your current President ever delivering anything with this eloquence and profoundness:
“I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight.Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort.
In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black–considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible–you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization–black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.
Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.
For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.
My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.
So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, that’s true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love–a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.
We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we’ve had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.
But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.
Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.
Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”