(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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The specter of death seemed to follow Martin Luther King, Jr. throughout his relatively short life. At the age of twelve, he was asked to watch his younger brother for an afternoon. But his brother slid down a bannister when Martin was not watching and crashed into King’s grandmother – who suffered a heart attack and died. Young King was shaken by her death. Blaming himself, he fell into a deep depression. Two days later, in an attempt to kill himself, he jumped out of a second floor window. He was badly bruised but otherwise unhurt.
Seventeen years later, in 1958 while signing copies of his book Stride Toward Freedom, he was approached by a white woman who asked if he was THE Martin Luther King. He said he was. She replied, “I’ve been looking for you for years” and then stabbed him in his chest with a pointed letter opener. It almost penetrated his heart.
Ten years after that, on April 4th, 1968, Dr. King was in Memphis, Tennessee to lead a protest march by striking sanitation workers. He had been feeling the weight of his many years as an activist and the constant opposition he faced. For several months he’d had insomnia and migraine headaches. Many of his colleagues later said they believed King suffered from depression.
In a sermon delivered the night before the protest march – and his assassination – he seemed to have a premonition. “Like anybody,” he said, “I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now… 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.”
Using a Biblical analogy meaningful to African-Americans since the days of slavery, King was likening himself to the Bible’s Moses – and his black followers to ancient Jews who had been slaves in Egypt. When ancient Jews worshipped a golden calf, the Bible story says God punished them, including Moses, by ordering that all those alive at that moment would never enter the Promised Land of Israel. Only their descendants, after all of them had died, would do that. Forty years later, when Moses believed he would soon die, the story says he ventured to the border of Israel and climbed a mountain so he could look into, and at least get a glimpse of, the Promised Land.
Many people said Dr. King that evening sensed his death was near, but he was encouraging his followers to trust that they and all oppressed people will eventually reach the Promised Land.
The next day, the sanitation worker protest march added to King’s dismay. The march ended with a riot, despite King’s pleas for non-violence. Returning to a second floor room at the Lorraine motel, he was somber and he made plans for a soul-food dinner. He asked one of his advisors to have the hymn, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” sung that evening at a church service. King washed his face and at 5 PM stepped out on the motel balcony. The sun was setting. A rifle shot rang out. King was hit by a bullet and pushed back against the wall – his arms outstretched. His spinal cord was severed and he died almost instantly. Dr. King was 39 years old.
Five days later, in Atlanta, Georgia and later at his alma mater Morehouse College, funeral services were held. At the service in the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he ministered, Coretta Scott King had him eulogize himself. She had a recording of King’s last sermon at the church played. In that sermon, Dr. King requested that at his funeral no mention be made of his accomplishments, awards, or honors. “Let it instead be said about me, that he tried to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, be right on the war question, and love and serve humanity.”
Later that day, at Morehouse College, King’s final hymn request was honored. HIs favorite singer, Mahalia Jackson, sang “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
Dr. King’s simple wooden casket was then loaded onto a crude farm wagon drawn by two mules – used to symbolize his work for the Poor People’s Campaign. The three and 1/2 mile funeral procession was attended by over 100,000 people. Leaders from around the world were there. President Johnson sent Vice-President Hubert Humphrey in his place. The procession passed the Georgia capital where then Governor Lester Maddox had earlier refused to have flags lowered to half-staff despite the day being an official national day of mourning. Maddox had many times called King an enemy of the people. The governor stationed 64 helmeted troopers on the capital steps to prevent a riot that of course never happened.
King was buried in a cemetery mostly reserved for African-Americans. His body was moved in 1977 to a plot just between the King Center and Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Six years after his assassination, Martin Luther King’s mother was herself shot and killed while playing the organ at Ebenezer Baptist church. The assailant was a mentally ill man who hated Christians.
While Dr. King obviously believed his accomplishments were to have solely heeded Jesus’ teaching to serve the least of humanity, he nevertheless did much more. To name just a few of what King accomplished in just ten short years of activism, he led the successful Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, which ended segregation in that city and in the rest of the South. He delivered one of the most inspiring speeches ever on Civil Rights – the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy of non-violence and equal rights. He formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that still promotes Civil Rights and the philosophy of non-violence. His work was crucial in passing the national Civil Rights Act of 1964 which banned employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin. He equally helped pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965 protecting the right to vote by all citizens. He strongly advocated for the Immigration and Nationality Services Act also of 1965 which allowed expanded immigration from non-European nations, and he was instrumental in passing the Fair Housing Act of 1968 which banned all forms of housing discrimination. He also founded the Poor People’s Campaign, an organization still at work to end greed and economic inequality.
Today and tomorrow, when we remember and honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the only national holiday for someone who was not President, I suggest we reflect on his legacy and perhaps hear what that means for people of color. Many commentators say that King’s legacy has too often been framed by whites, like me, and their perspective of him as an advocate non-violence. It often seems forgotten that, like Jesus who he tried to follow, King was a radical. He proposed a wholesale end to systems in our economy, government, media and culture that exploit people of color and the poor.
But how Dr. King is seen and remembered is itself segregated. Many people of color see Dr. King’s legacy as one not yet realized. King himself said that the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights were not statements of fact, but were tragically statements of intent. As women, blacks, hispanics, Jews, Muslims, the other-abled, the poor, and LGBTQ persons can all testify, America’s founding principle of liberty and justice for all – are not yet reality two-hundred and forty-four years later.
Since that is so, just what is the legacy of Dr. King? Is it that he achieved many great things, but not the ultimate prize for which he gave his life? And if that is the case, what profound teachings did he leave humanity that will finally get black people and many others to the Promised Land of peace and justice?
While Dr. King’s nonviolent activism is most remembered, it seems his belief that greed is the real reason behind racism and oppression, is a bigger legacy. In the last few years of his life, he focused more and more on economic inequality and the Poor People’s Campaign to solve all oppression. For him, that was in keeping with the teachings of Jesus – that hate comes from exploiting another person for one’s own advantage. Ta Nehisi Coates essentially agreed with this view in his book ‘Between the World and Me’ – that this congregation read two years ago. Slavery and racism, Coates said, were and are rooted in greed and using black bodies for economic gain.
But Dr. King, from his spiritual perspective, saw a broader problem. Humanity’s negative inclination to exploit others is universal. King was always an advocate for black people, but he also advocated for everybody who faces discrimination and injustice. Indeed, his very last protest march was not for racial justice, but in behalf of striking white, black, and brown garbage workers. And his plea for what should be said of him at his funeral perfectly illustrates his thinking about his life purpose – to do as Jesus called everyone to do – feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and heal the wounded.
That follows his theology. God loves all people, but her heart is broken at the sight of those who hurt. If we are to be human gods and goddesses, which I believe is our life purpose, then it is our duty to show love to everybody and most especially to people who suffer. That’s what Jesus taught. It’s what King believed and did. It frames, for me, the reason for what is currently on our front sign, “Black Lives Matter.” Black lives are not more deserving of love than any other life – but clearly many of their lives ARE threatened. They hurt, and compassionate people respond.
To fully understand whatever King’s legacy might be, I believe it is to understand his views transcended racism and segregation. As he said, “God is not interested merely in the freedom of black men, and brown men, and yellow men; God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race.”
This fits with another quote from Dr. King that offers further insight into his theology and his thinking, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’” That perfectly states his Christian beliefs, his understanding of life purpose, and his activism. For Dr. King, God calls us to share her love by serving others. For me and any of you who are not religiously inclined, it’s not a supernatural god who calls us to serve, but rather our relationship as fellow humans that does so. Every person shares the same 99.9% of DNA – as proven by the human genome project. Since that is so, empathy impels us to feel and understand one another’s pain, and then seek to alleviate it, because we are all profoundly related.
As a white man, I am unable to know or fully understand the pain of African-Americans. I have no experience of what it is like to live, breathe, and work knowing many judge me by the color of my skin. But in the realm of empathy, I know what it is like to be judged for something I cannot control – my sexuality. I’ve felt multiple instances of bullying and marginalization for being perceived as less than an assertive, straight, athletic, male. I’ve also seen the pain of my daughters when they’ve been marginalized for being female: boys who abused them, or teachers who demeaned them by steering them away from the sciences and toward more supposedly feminine studies. I’ve also sadly seen how some people reacted to my mom and her dementia when I used to take her out in public. Her odd behavior had one restaurant manager ask us to leave.
Once again, Dr. King understood all of this marginalization and much worse. He once wrote, “The more I observed the tragedies of history and man’s shameful inclination to choose the low road, the more I came to see the depths and strength of sin.”
The troubling fact of life is the cruelty people can so often show to others. But the high road, the one so often less taken, is the path of empathy, compassion, love, and reconciliation.
For whatever it is worth, I believe Martin Luther King, Jr. is a prophet for the ages – someone who walked in the moral footsteps of Jesus and Gandhi. Perhaps not surprisingly, all three were people of color, all three were radical advocates for justice and human equality, all three were murdered and martyred for their beliefs.
I conclude with Dr. King’s words – ones that encapsulate for me his life, his death, and his legacy:
“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality. I believe that unarmed truth, and unconditional love, will have the final word.”