Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Really understanding the memory of Dr. King

Remembering the actual impact of a person like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is not so easy as it may appear.

An entire generation has been born since his tragic death in 1968. The impressions these younger men and women have of the man and his signficance had to be formed by sources other than personal experience or witness.

At the same time, those who remember the work and life of Dr. King may have the tendency to "sanitize" or "domesticate" his words and his work to make both more palatable to a general audience--something about being a national historic figure with a national holiday and all.

But, I must say, Dr. King wasn't playing around!

I'm proud that we have posted on the splash page of our website the last speech he delivered before being assassinated the following afternoon in Memphis, Tennessee where he had come to help City of Memphis sanitation workers who were on strike for better wages and working conditions. To see how far we've moved away from Dr. King's values and vision just consider the general attitude in the United States today toward organized labor.

I hope you'll go to our site and listen to and/or read his powerful address:

What strikes you most about his last words?



Dean said...

I think most of us have forgotten that when Dr. King was assassinated he was organizing the Poor People's Campaign and assembling "a multiracial army of the poor" that would march on Washington in numbers rivaling the famous Civil Rights March in 1963. It was Dr. King's intention to confront a government that had demonstrated its "hostility to the poor" - appropriating "military funds with alacrity and generosity," while providing "poverty funds with miserliness" (sound familiar?) and compel them to pass a poor people's bill of rights. The fear generated by this campaign in certain circles was palpable. The Reader's Digest even warned of an "insurrection." Many believe that it was this that precipitated Dr. King's assassination. In fact, when you listen to Dr. King's prophetic speech, given the night before his death, you can hear the fear and the threats. Ironically, after his death only about 7,000 people showed up for the march and their voices were quickly and easily dismissed. This March marks the 35th anniversary of the original date of that historic, but ultimately, futile march.

Larry James said...

Appreciate your comments, dean. I believe your calculations as to how much time has passed is a bit off. This April marks the 40th anniversary of the Memphis march and of Dr. King's death. It will be the 45th anniversary of King's march on Washington and of his famous "I Have a Dream" address.

Daniel Gray said...

I like King's reinvention of the question: What happens if I do "etc." and reframing it in the negative. He reminds us to think about what happens when we don't act.

His last words are truly prophetic. It seems that he knew he would die soon, and was not concerned about his life, but only about the vision. He had some incredible courage.

It's amazing to see the progress that has been made towards this vision, but sadly we're far from the Promised Land.

jbs said...

I am a 34 year-old minister in a white suburban church who because of my age and context could easily remain distanced from the powerful ministry of MLK and yet Dr. King is one of the main reasons I am still preaching today. After only three years of working in a church I was ready to give up on congregational ministry and then I visited the King Center in Atlanta. Tears streamed down my face as I listened to the Book of Exodus come to life through the preaching of MLK. I stood in amazement as I listened to all of the biblical images that Dr. King employed to create a new theological imagination for people. King's preaching was a vehicle through which the powerful word of God could take flesh during a crucial time in the history of our country. I left the King Center that day with a renewed hope that God could work through preaching to renew the theological imagination of churches, communities, and indeed the entire world. Today the church stands in need of new voices who can stir in her the imaginative vision of the Kingdom of God. Larry, thanks for being one of those voices.

c hand said...

I didn't know that MLK was stabed and almost killed by a "demented black woman." Is this a well known event?
Also, Is it a sign of dementia to write: "To see how far we've moved away from Dr. King's values and vision just consider the general attitude in the United States..." and then reference labor unions, at a time when an African American is leading the race for President of the USA?

Larry James said...

chand, yes, the event you refer to is "well known" among those who know Dr. King's life.

And, no, chand, it is not a "sign of dementia" to say what I wrote. Your comment is a sign that you don't really understand Dr. King's goals. He was less concerned over race than justice, fairness and equity, as I believe Mr. Obama is as well. It's not about race or color and it wasn't for King. It is and was about JUSTICE.

c hand said...

You wrote that "we've moved AWAY from Dr. King's values and vision"
Do you really believe 2008 America is farther AWAY from MLKs dream than 1963 America? As a country we have moved in the OPPOSITE direction from what MLK talked and dreamed about? Just because people choose not to join a union they are defying MLKs dream? The possibility of having a black President doesn't move us closer to the dream?
Who is it that is really massaging his words for their own purpose?

karen said...


You didn't actually read Larry's last comment, did you? With numbers the of people who are living in poverty and homelessness constantly increasing, of course we are moving away from the dream.

Racial attitudes may have improved -- it's terrific that an African American is a front runner for President. But 'justice for all' has receded.

I'm curious as to how much actual contact you have with people living in homelessness and poverty. I'm not attacking you...just curious. I think the issues are easy to miss unless you see them face to face.

PS Are you trying [fruitlessly] to be funny with the dementia comment, or deliberately rude and provocative?

c hand said...

Yes, I read and reread Larry’s post before commenting. I tried to understand what he was saying I understand that poverty and injustice remain with us. I understand that both of you are against it....as am I. But for anyone to say that 1963 was a better year and closer to the MLK dream than is 2008, betrays a serious disconnect with reality. I understand that you don’t like 2008, but do you remember 1963. Do you know what poor was like in 1963?

Larry James said...

chand, sorry you missed my point. If you read again, I actually had in mind the plight of working poor Americans. No doubt race relations have improved, thanks to the work of Dr. King and the courts. It will be interesting to see if we can elect an African American President, should Mr. Obama win the nomination of his party. But equity and class continue to take a beating in this country and labor as an organized force is all but dead. That was my point. And again, I remind you that Dr. King's concerns were about more than just race and racism.