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On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

In last week’s episode of blackishthe character played by Laurence Fishburne tells his grandson about the other parts of the “I Have A Dream” speech that no one ever talks about.  In this week’s issue of the New YorkerRachel Aviv documents how the prosecutor of the Angola 3 opposed the Black Panthers to the non-violence of Martin Luther King, Jr.  In American public discourse, King is the respectable Black man to Malcolm X’s violent scary Black man.  Accepting King becomes a marker of diversity and inclusion that allows individual white people to absolve themselves of racism without confronting and changing the racist structures of their worlds.  Parts of King’s speeches get used to conjure images of diversity and to lend support to colorblind public policy.  But much of King’s speeches point to his call for justice, freedom and equality.

Fifty years after the “I Have a Dream” speech, in 2013, the Supreme Court eviscerated one of the key legislations to come out of the Civil Rights Movement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Unfortunately, this decision was not reached because there was no longer any evidence of discrimination in access to the vote.  The economic inequalities King addresses in his “I Have a Dream” speech similarly remain today. Thus, King’s concern with the follies of political gradualism in this speech seem all the more pressing.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

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. Nineteen sixty-three 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. And 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.

Five years later in April 1968, the night before he was assassinated, King speaks to a group of striking sanitation workers.  But in speaking to them, he calls beyond them to those who are passing by, like those who passed by and did not help the man on the side of the road in the story of the Good Samaritan.  King, ever the Baptist preacher, explains that in the text Jesus is being confronted by those trying to call him out on a theological technicality.  In King’s words:

Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn’t stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But he got down with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his brother.

King continues with a call beyond the striking sanitation workers to all those others who are convinced that the bank of justice is not bankrupt:

And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

That’s the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.

Indeed, this week especially, that’s the question.

Striking Memphis sanitation workers with the sign “I Am a Man,” in 1968. ©1968 Ernest Withers

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