The Feast of Martin Luther King, Jr., Civil Rights Leader, 1968
The Collect: Almighty God, by the hand of Moses your servant you led your people out of slavery, and made them free at last; Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet Martin Luther King, may resist oppression in the name of your love, and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Looking upon his people “seared in the flames of withering injustice”, God told Moses that he had observed their affliction and sorrows, had heard their cries, and that he intended “to bring them up out of [Egypt] unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey” (KJV, Ex. 3:8).
Thousands of years later, God looked upon another people who, though having been technically emancipated from American chattel slavery — one of the most pronounced moral evils in the modern era — fully 100 years previously, were still “sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination,” living “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity” in this American promised land. Through the words of some of the most powerful biblical prophets (Moses, Isaiah, the Psalmist, Amos), and through His Holy Spirit, God whispered to a modern prophet, inspiring Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. to demand, on behalf of not just “his people” but also all Americans, payment upon the great American “promissory note” signed with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which guaranteed “the riches of freedom and the security of justice” to all Americans.
God had led Israel out of Egypt “like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron” (NRSV, Ps. 77:20). America urgently needed another prophet like Moses in the twentieth century to lead it “from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice,” a Moses who would “lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood”; in short, “to make justice a reality for all of God’s children” (“I Have a Dream”). But why did Dr. King think God would lead him to demand civil rights? Was this arrogance? Communism? Why did “his people” think themselves “entitled” to rights as a simple function of their humanity regardless of their skin color, rights already long self-evidently claimed by whites in America but viciously denied to many others at the same time? Does God approve of such an insistence on these inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, each of which was surely gravely transgressed by America’s racist society and segregationist, discriminatory policies?
There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights: “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only”. We cannot be satisfied and we will not be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. (“I Have a Dream”.)
King’s divine mission, history has shown, was to be an instrument in the Lord’s hands to overcome this oppression so that “His righteousness” could be “openly shown in the sight of the nations” and the world could eventually say, “The LORD has made known his victory” (NRSV, Ps. 98:3). In sharing his prophetic “dream” of the end of racism and segregation, King’s voice at the Lincoln Memorial resounded as “the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (KJV, Isa. 40:3).
“I Have a Dream Speech,” August 28, 1963, Washington, D.C.
Though King’s message promised further “marches” for civil rights, he urged those interested in the righteous cause of eliminating racism and discrimination to be “masters” of a “nonviolent movement.” To face dogs and firehoses and unjust imprisonment resolutely but without returning the violence (ibid.), following Christ’s injunction that “unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other” (KJV Luke 6:29), and rejecting the temptation to seek an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
Despite this message of peaceful insistence on inalienable human rights that were immorally being denied blacks and others by American society — tragically including especially those throughout society who considered themselves the most religious, the most dedicated to Jesus Christ and in touch with His Will, from the “mighty mountains of New York,” the “heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania,” the “snow-capped Rockies of Colorado,” the Shadows of the Everlasting Hills in Utah, and “the curvaceous peaks of California” (“I Have a Dream”) — the inherent morality of King’s message was met with assassination. This, too, was foreseen by the ancients: had not Samuel the Lamanite prophesied that “if a prophet come among you and declareth unto you the word of the Lord, which testifieth of your sins and iniquities, ye are angry with him, and cast him out and seek all manner of ways to destroy him; yea, you will say that he is a false prophet, and that he is a sinner, and of the devil, because he testifieth that your deeds are evil” (He. 13:26)? But in 1968, a self-righteous American society continued to insist that “If our days had been in the days of our fathers of old, we would not have slain the prophets; we would not have stoned them, and cast them out” (He. 13:25), even after Dr. King was murdered the very day following his Memphis speech recounting his visionary visit “to the mountaintop.”
In 2014 society continues to seek those who come among us and say “Walk after the pride of your own hearts; yea, walk after the pride of your eyes” so that we can “say that he is a prophet” and receive such a preacher “because he speaketh flattering words unto [us], and he saith that all is well” (He. 13:27). We must ask ourselves Samuel the Lamanite’s probing question: “how long will [we] choose darkness rather than light” (He. 13:29)?
Let us internalize Dr. King’s prophetic vision and learn to resist the recalcitrant moral relativism of past generations that was used to justify racism in American society by insisting it was God’s will and positing segregation, anti-miscegenation, and discrimination as a means to enforce racist ideology. Let us rather embrace that objective morality, accessible by all through human reason as illuminated by the Light of Christ (though regrettably ignored for many generations) and existing outside of and above temporally and geographically determined norms and opinions, which has always required the rejection of the subjugation, oppression, and mistreatment of others. We will not only “pray for them which despitefully use [us]” (KJV, Luke 6:28), but we will endeavor never to spitefully use others.
 King revealed this prophetic dream in his Speech:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed — we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
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!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I will go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.
Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be — and force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God’s children here [the sanitation workers in Memphis] suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That’s the issue. And we’ve got to say to the nation: We know how it’s coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.
We aren’t going to let any mace stop us. We are masters in our nonviolent movement in disarming police forces; they don’t know what to do. I’ve seen them so often. I remember in Birmingham, Alabama, when we were in that majestic struggle there, we would move out of the 16th Street Baptist Church day after day; by the hundreds we would move out. And Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth, and they did come; but we just went before the dogs singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.”
Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water. That couldn’t stop us.
And we just went on before the dogs and we would look at them; and we’d go on before the water hoses and we would look at it, and we’d just go on singing “Over my head I see freedom in the air.” And then we would be thrown in the paddy wagons, and sometimes we were stacked in there like sardines in a can. And they would throw us in, and old Bull would say, “Take ‘em off,” and they did; and we would just go in the paddy wagon singing, “We Shall Overcome.” And every now and then we’d get in jail, and we’d see the jailers looking through the windows being moved by our prayers, and being moved by our words and our songs. And there was a power there which Bull Connor couldn’t adjust to; and so we ended up transforming Bull into a steer, and we won our struggle in Birmingham. Now we’ve got to go on in Memphis just like that. I call upon you to be with us when we go out Monday. . . .
Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus, and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base.
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.
Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. At times we say they were busy going to a church meeting, an ecclesiastical gathering, and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that “One who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony.” And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem — or down to Jericho, rather, to organize a “Jericho Road Improvement Association.” That’s a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effect.
But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that those men were afraid. . . . it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. 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.
Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you.