From the New York Times, "The Last Wish of Martin Luther King," by Taylor Branch, on 6 April 2008 -- FORTY years ago on March 31, at the National Cathedral, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered what would be his last Sunday sermon, on his way back to Memphis. That same night in 1968, President Johnson shocked the world by announcing that he would not seek re-election.
I was a senior in college. My mother was visiting four nights later when all conversation suddenly hushed in a busy restaurant. A waiter whispered that Dr. King had been shot.
Civil rights, Vietnam, Dr. King, Memphis — these are historic landmarks. Even so, this year is a watershed. Because Dr. King lived only 39 years, from now on, he will be gone longer than he lived among us. Two generations have come of age since Memphis.
This does not mean that our understanding is accurate or complete. A certain amount of gloss and mythology is inevitable for great figures, whether they be George Washington chopping down a cherry tree, Honest Abe splitting a rail or Dr. King preaching a dream of equal citizenship in 1963. Far beyond that, however, we have encased Dr. King and his era in pervasive myth, false to our heritage and dangerous to our future. We have distorted our entire political culture to avoid the lessons of Martin Luther King’s era.
He warned us himself. When he came to the pulpit that Sunday 40 years ago, Dr. King adapted one of his standard sermons, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” From the allegory of Rip Van Winkle, he told of a man who fell asleep before 1776 and awoke 20 years later in a world filled with strange customs and clothes, a whole new vocabulary, and a mystifying preoccupation with the commoner George Washington rather than King George III.
Dr. King pleaded for his audience not to sleep through the world’s continuing cries for freedom. When the ancient Hebrews achieved miraculous liberation from Egypt, many yearned to go back. Pharaoh’s familiar lash seemed better than the covenant delivered by Moses, and so the Hebrews wandered in the wilderness. It took 40 years to recover their bearings. Dr. King has been gone 40 years now, but we still sleep under Pharaoh. It is time to wake up.
Dr. King had been in Memphis marching in support of sanitation workers. Two of them, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, had been crushed in a mechanical malfunction; city rules forbade black employees to seek shelter from rain anywhere but in the back of their compressor trucks, with the garbage. But looting had broken out from Dr. King’s march, for the first time.
When he showed up in Washington that Sunday morning, he was scarcely the toast of the United States. Headlines in Memphis called him, “Chicken à la King,” with accusations that he had run from his own fight. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat called Dr. King “one of the most menacing men in America today,” and published a wild-eyed minstrel cartoon of him aiming a huge pistol from a cloud of gun smoke, with the caption, “I’m Not Firing It — I’m Only Pulling the Trigger.”
So Dr. King stood in the pulpit a marked man, scorned and rebuked, beset with inner conflicts. Yet as always, he lifted hope from the bottom of his soul. He urged the congregation to be alive and awake to great revolutions in progress. “I say to you that our goal is freedom,” he cried, “and I believe we’re going to get there because — however much she strays from it — the goal of America is freedom!”
We face daunting precedent in history. Our nation has slept for decades under the spell of myths grounded in race. I grew up being taught that the Civil War was about federalism, not slavery. My textbooks even used a religious term, the “redeemers,” to describe politicians who restored white supremacy with Ku Klux Klan terrorism late in the 19th century. Modern Hollywood was founded on the emotional power of that myth as portrayed in “The Birth of a Nation.” Progressive forces advocated racial hierarchy with a bogus science of eugenics.
More than once, the dominant culture has turned history upside down to make itself feel comfortable. And when a civil rights movement rose from the fringe of maids and sharecroppers, making it no longer respectable to defend racial segregation, wounded voices adapted again to curse government as the agent of general calamity. We have painted Dr. King’s era as a time of aimless, unbridled license, with hippies running amok.
The watchword of political discourse has degenerated from “movement” to “spin.” In Dr. King’s era, the word “movement” grew from a personal inspiration into leaps of faith, then from shared discovery and sacrifice into upward struggle, spawning kindred movements until great hosts from Selma to the Berlin Wall literally could feel the movement of history.
Now we have “spin” instead, suggesting that there is no real direction at stake from political debate, nor any consequence except for the players in a game. Such language embraces cynicism by reducing politics to entertainment.
Democratic balance has slept for 40 years, and we face a world like Rip Van Winkle run backward. We wake up blinking at Tiger Woods, Condoleezza Rice and Barack Obama, while our government demands arbitrary rule by secrecy, conquest and dungeons. King George III seems reborn.
Please resist any partisan connotation. Our problem is far too big for that. Indeed, I think the most pressing challenge for admirers of Dr. King is to recognize our own complicity in the stifling myths about civil rights history. Battered, long-suffering allies of Dr. King discarded him as a tired moderate long before the reactionary campaign to make the word “liberal” a kiss of death for candidates across the country. Similarly, forces called radical and militant turned against liberal governments for taking so long to respond to racial injustice, then for the Vietnam War. Only a convergence of the political left and right could cause such lasting erosion for the promise of free government itself.
Many of Dr. King’s closest comrades rejected his commitment to nonviolence. The civil rights movement created waves of history so long as it remained nonviolent, then stopped. Arguably, the most powerful tool for democratic reform was the first to become passé. It vanished among intellectuals, on campuses and in the streets. To this day, almost no one asks why.
We must reclaim the full range of blessings from his movement. For Dr. King, race was in most things, but defined nothing alone. His appeal was rooted in the larger context of nonviolence. His stated purpose was always to redeem the soul of America. He put one foot in the Constitution and the other in scripture. “We will win our freedom,” he said many times, “because the heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.” To see Dr. King and his colleagues as anything less than modern founders of democracy — even as racial healers and reconcilers — is to diminish them under the spell of myth.
Dr. King said the movement would liberate not only segregated black people but also the white South. Surely this is true. You never heard of the Sun Belt when the South was segregated. The movement spread prosperity in a region previously unfit even for professional sports teams. My mayor in Atlanta during the civil rights era, Ivan Allen Jr., said that as soon as the civil rights bill was signed in 1964, we built a baseball stadium on land we didn’t own, with money we didn’t have, for a team we hadn’t found, and quickly lured the Milwaukee Braves. Miami organized a football team called the Dolphins.
The movement also de-stigmatized white Southern politics, creating two-party competition. It opened doors for the disabled, and began to lift fear from homosexuals before the modern notion of “gay” was in use. Not for 2,000 years of rabbinic Judaism had there been much thought of female rabbis, but the first ordination took place soon after the movement shed its fresh light on the meaning of equal souls. Now we think nothing of female rabbis and cantors and, yes, female Episcopal priests and bishops, with their colleagues of every background. Parents now take for granted opportunities their children inherit from the Montgomery bus boycott.
It is both right and politic for all people, including millions who are benign or indifferent toward the civil rights movement, or churlish and resentful, to see that they, too, and their heirs, stand with us on the shoulders of Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers and Fannie Lou Hamer.
Dr. King showed most profoundly that in an interdependent world, lasting power grows against the grain of violence, not with it. Both the cold war and South African apartheid ended to the strains of “We Shall Overcome,” defying all preparations for Armageddon. The civil rights movement remains a model for new democracy, sadly neglected in its own birthplace. In Iraq today, we are stuck on the Vietnam model instead. There is no more salient or neglected field of study than the relationship between power and violence.
We recoil from nonviolence at our peril. Dr. King rightly saw it at the heart of democracy. Our nation is a great cathedral of votes — votes not only for Congress and for president, but also votes on Supreme Court decisions and on countless juries. Votes govern the boards of great corporations and tiny charities alike. Visibly and invisibly, everything runs on votes. And every vote is nothing but a piece of nonviolence.
SO what should we do, now that 40 years have passed? How do we restore our political culture from spin to movement, from muddle to purpose? We must take leaps, ask questions, study nonviolence, reclaim our history.
What Dr. King prescribed in his last Sunday sermon begins with the story of Lazarus and Dives, from the 16th chapter of Luke. Told entirely from the mouth of Jesus, it is a story starring Abraham the patriarch of Judaism, set in the afterlife. There’s nothing else like it in the Bible.
Dr. King loved this parable as the text for a fabled 1949 sermon by Vernon Johns, his predecessor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. Lazarus was a lame beggar who once pleaded unnoticed outside the sumptuous gates of a rich man called Dives. They both died, and Dives looked from torment to see Lazarus the beggar secure in the bosom of Abraham. The remainder of the parable is an argument between Abraham and Dives, calling back and forth from heaven to hell.
Dives first asked Abraham to “send Lazarus” with water to cool his burning lips. But Abraham said there was a “great chasm” fixed between them, which could never be crossed. In his sermon, Dr. Johns drew a connection between the chasm and segregation.
But according to Dr. Johns, Dives wasn’t in hell because he was rich. He wasn’t anywhere near as rich as Abraham, one of the wealthiest men in antiquity, who was there in heaven. Nor was Dives in hell because he had failed to send alms to Lazarus. He was there because he never recognized Lazarus as a fellow human being. Even faced with everlasting verdict, he spoke only with Abraham and looked past the beggar, treating him still as a servant in the third person — “send Lazarus.”
Dr. King’s sermons drew more layers of meaning from this parable. He said we must accept the suffering rich man as no ordinary, nasty sinner. When refused water for himself, he worried immediately about his five brothers. Dives asked Abraham again to send Lazarus, this time as a messenger to warn the brothers about their sin. Tell them to be nice to beggars outside the wall. Do something, please, so they don’t wind up here like me.
Dr. King said Dives was a liberal. Despite his own fate, he wanted to help others. Abraham rebuffed this request, too, telling Dives that his brothers already had ample warning in Torah law and the books of the Hebrew prophets. Still Dives persisted, saying no, Abraham, you don’t understand — if the brothers saw someone actually rise from the dead and warn them, then they would understand.
Jesus quotes Abraham saying no. If the brothers do not accept the core teaching of the Torah and the prophets, they won’t believe even a messenger risen from the dead. Dr. King said this parable from Jesus burns up differences between Judaism and Christianity. The lesson beneath any theology is that we must act toward all creation in the spirit of equal souls and equal votes. The alternative is hell, which Dr. King sometimes defined as the pain we inflict on ourselves by refusing God’s grace.
Dr. King then went back to Memphis to stand with the downtrodden workers, with the families of Echol Cole and Robert Walker. You may have seen the placards from the sanitation strike, which read “I Am a Man,” meaning not a piece of garbage to be crushed and ignored. For Dr. King, to answer was a patriotic and prophetic calling. He challenges everyone to find a Lazarus somewhere, from our teeming prisons to the bleeding earth. That quest in common becomes the spark of social movements, and is therefore the engine of hope. (source: The New York Times; Taylor Branch is the author, most recently, of “At Canaan’s Edge,” the third volume in his history of the modern civil rights era. This article was adapted from a speech he gave on Monday at the National Cathedral.)