Following are my opening and closing blessing from the learning experience at the 2020 MLK Day of Service planned by Inspiritus.
Every year in January, when the nation commemorates the legacy of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his words from some of his most popular speeches and writings can be found in quotes shared across social media.
In his 1963 Letter from the Birmingham Jail, King wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
In his most popular speech, from the 1963 March on Washington, King, in describing his dream, said: “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. I have a dream today.”
At commencement at Oberlin College in 1965, King encouraged: “The time is always right to do what is right.”
In 1967, in“Where Do We Go From Here,” King said, “I have decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems.”
And, in his final speech the night before he was assassinated, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, King spoke the prophetic words, “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 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.”
Frequently, quotes like these are shared as sound bites and memes. Perhaps you have seen some of them on social media today or heard them this weekend. They even surround the Martin Luther King Monument in Washington, DC. I was there last week and there were people from all over the world of varying ages and races walking the path and reading his words.
Beautiful words, indeed; but, without the context of the full sermon or speech from which they come, as Dr. King’s children have noted, his words are often watered down.
In a tweet last week, on King’s 91st birthday, Dr. Bernice King said, “Many wish Happy Birthday to a man they would have hated then. The authentic, comprehensive King makes power uneasy and privilege unhinged.”
In 2018, Martin Luther King, III said:
“I think individuals certainly perceive his work, but I really believe that even the masses of people have yet to really understand Martin Luther King, Jr. and his real mission. Mainstream media promotes the vision of a dreamer. Dreams do come true, but sometimes they don’t. He is actually watered down. The revolutionary that he really was is not yet appreciated by the total population. We have a lot of work to do.”
In many ways, I feel like the memory of Dr. King has been crafted into a false narrative, molded into a comfortable place that suits white fragility, shaped into a lukewarm toe dip in the shallow waters of justice without stepping knee deep into the muck of mud still weighing Black people down in this country.
This hand-holding, candle-lighting, song-singing, reshaping of history stands to miss that the same non-violent, freedom-calling dreamer, also understood civil disobedience, tension, and disruption as intentional methods of goal achievement. It misses that every single day King and those who stood with him were willing to put not just their reputations on the lines but their bodies in the face of harm to stand for someone else. It misses that the beloved man we celebrate today was viewed unfavorably by most of America on the day he was murdered. Misses that our present day martyr was seen as a radical resistor.
The same King who talked about an inescapable network of mutuality in his 1963 Letter from the Birmingham jail, wrote in the same letter: “My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”
In the “I Have A Dream” speech, in addition to describing children judged by the content of their character, King also said: “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. 1963 is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges..”
In his Commencement Address to Oberlin College, in addition to saying the time is right to do what is right, King also said, “we are challenged to work passionately and unrelentingly to get rid of racial injustice in all its dimensions. Anyone who feels that our nation can survive half segregated and half integrated is sleeping through a revolution. The challenge before us today is to develop a coalition of conscience and get rid of this problem that has been one of the nagging and agonizing ills of our nation over the years. Racial injustice is still the Negro’s burden and America’s shame.”
In “Where Do We Go From Here,” in addition to talking about sticking with love, King also said, “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic.”
And, in his final speech the night before he was assassinated, “I’ve been to the Mountaintop”, in addition to talking about the promised land, King proclaimed: “We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bottles, we don’t need any Molotov cocktails, we just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, “God sent us by here, to say to you that you’re not treating his children right. And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God’s children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.”
At the time of his death, King had a 75% disapproval rating according to a 1968 Harris poll. His courageous stand for justice struck a cord of disapproval for those he made uncomfortable. In a 2019 poll, his approval rating was at 90%. Have people become comfortable with his call for justice? Or, have they just ignored the pieces with which they are uncomfortable?
To continue unfolding the true mission of Dr. King, we must understand:
…is this King.
…is this King.
…is this King.
All, a part of achieving the dream.
In the Struggle Together,
Rev. Tiffany C. Chaney