Martin Luther King: in memoriam

This was an address delivered by Fr. Charles Mock at Brent School to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day:

Today we’re celebrating the life of a man, Martin Luther King Jr,  who had a very profound influence on me.  I, of course, never met him personally,  but his figure really dominated a very formative period in my life – my college years – and so you’ll excuse me this morning if what follows comes across as a bit personal.

Most of you no doubt know who MLK is: for those who don’t, he was a Southern Baptist minister, originally from Atlanta, Georgia, born on this day, 15 January, 1929, who emerged in the late fifties and early sixties as probably the most prominent figure in the American Civil Rights movement.  He was assassinated in 1964 and is commemorated as a martyr, one who died for his faith.

I can remember very clearly the day Martin Luther King Jr. “entered” my life.  It was late afternoon, Wednesday, August 28, 1963, and I was alone in the living room of my family’s newly- built cottage on the hill behind my grandmother’s house in West Falmouth on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I was 17 years old, just graduated from High School, and getting ready to leave for a year of study in England before college.  I have lots of memories  of that summer – learning to drive in the 57 Chevy my father had bought as our summer car;  listening to PP&M singing Blowing in the Wind, which had just been released; fishing for flounder in Buzzard’s Bay … but none of these memories holds a candle to what I experienced that particular Wednesday afternoon.

My parents and brothers were I don’t know where, they’d gone into town to shop or something, but I’d stayed behind, to watch T.V.  and lounge around the house – after all, what better way to spend a late and lazy summer afternoon on Cape Cod? Besides, I knew that all three channels (yes, there were only three channels to choose from in those far away days!) all three were broadcasting from Washington – it was the day of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a massive rally organized by a group of prominent civil rights leaders, and since even back then I was sort of a political junkie, and because some of my favorite singers where scheduled to sing, (Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, if I remember correctly) I really wanted to see it.  So I just settled back to watch and listen and get intimately involved with a big bowl of chocolate ice-cream, which we had a whole bunch of in the fridge.

Well, I don’t know what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t what actually happened; you see, I got to hear, live, Martin Luther King deliver his historic “I have a dream” speech.  Now, any of you here who has not read or heard this speech, I suggest that as soon as you can, you get on Youtube and listen to it: it’s considered one of the most important and powerful speeches of the twentieth century – and I think, really, you have to listen to it to understand why.  Anyway.   To this day I find it hard to communicate just what a profound impact that speech had on me – it really, quite literally, changed my life – in fact, I’d say it marked the beginning of my life as a committed Christian. It was the most powerful thing I’d ever heard, and incredibly moving.   I can’t even quote from it here for you this morning because every time I read it, I start to tear up – just like I did that afternoon.  I’ll never forget it:  me sitting all alone in a cottage in the middle of the forest in front of a back-and-white TV set bawling my eyes out.

When the rest of the family got back, I tried to tell them what I was so excited about, but it was useless, they thought I’d gone a bit crazy all alone up there by myself– in those days, you see,  you didn’t get instant replays on the TV, you had to wait until they developed the film so it wasn’t till later that they got to listen to it, and even then, it wasn’t quite the same as hearing it live.  I guess that all I can say is that it moved me because I heard God speaking to me directly in that speech – and so, it turns out, did thousands of people throughout the country – it moved countless people, young and old, to stand up and be counted, to get involved, to risk their lives even,  in the cause of justice and equality;  the response was overwhelming.  Martin Luther King, you see, was a real prophet – not the kind that tells the future – though we’ll see in a while there was a bit of that in him too – but the kind that speaks for God, that delivers God’s message to God’s people.  And I can attest to that:  that’s what I experienced

That was the beginning of turbulent times in the United States – and to fully appreciate who and what Martin Luther King was, you have to have a sense of what those years were like, so forgive me if I ramble and reminisce a bit here.  By the time I returned to start my Freshman year at Harvard in the fall of 64, the country was quite literally in the throes of a revolution, and like all revolutions I guess, it began on a very positive, hopeful note, then later got pretty rough and rocky.  There had been a lot of violence that year – Kennedy’s assassination, the Birmingham bombings, the KKK murders in Mississippi – but there had also been some big steps forward, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that effectively ended racial segregation in the United States, at least on paper.  It seemed, at that point that the battle for civil rights had effectively been won,   but in fact,  the struggle was far from over, and things were going to get a lot worse before they got better.

You see,  race wasn’t the only issue that divided the nation, it started with race, but other factors soon entered the picture.

First, there  was a what you might call a cultural revolution that began for me anyway in about 1966:  I remember coming back for my Junior Year that fall and finding  most of my friends sporting beards, wearing weird clothes and smoking funny cigarettes!  The Hippy had arrived.  I actually wasn’t a hippy but I was enough of a slob to pass for one, so I fit right in!  At first it was a very gentle “revolution” – a lot of humor, good will, you know, flower power and all that – but gradually it got ugly, and what had begun as pacifistic, almost Franciscan movement developed into something much more strident and confrontational – a clash between generations;  sex, drugs and rock and roll etc … the first skirmishes, in fact,  of a cultural war that is still going on today.

And then, of course, there was Viet Nam. When I’d arrived in Cambridge in 64 there couldn’t have been more than 20,000 US troops in Viet Nam, and most of us couldn’t have located the country on a map;  by the start of my Junior year, there were already over 400,000 troops there and the nation was deeply divided.  Opposition to the war was strong, especially on campus, and it quickly replaced Civil Rights as the principal topic of discussion all the time and everywhere.   Looking back it seems like every other day we were either organizing or demonstrating or flying down to Washington or New York for massive anti-War rallies.  The mood got increasingly violent and ugly, more and more polarized: the country was really being torn apart – in fact, I don’t think American society has yet fully recovered from the effects of those times.

But through it all there was one beacon, one immovable rock, one man who refused to be distracted from the central themes of justice, equality and peace and who would not give in to the calls for violent confrontation:  Martin Luther King.  The younger generation of blacks like Stokely Carmichael and his “black power”, Huey Newton and the Black Panthers,  they were getting impatient with King’s nonviolent approach, and were demanding more forceful action:  they also resented his inclusion of whites in the movement, his concern for the poor of all races,  and so by the time my Senior year rolled around, MLK was not all that popular among many in the black movement, including a lot of my more radical friends at school.  At the same time, his strong stand against the war in Viet Nam alienated a lot of his mainstream white Democratic supporters – and the radical antiwar left, the Weathermen and such like, rejected his pacifism and preached instead violent revolution.  And of course, he was despised by the reactionary  right wing in the country, who were not going to give up anything without a fight.  In short,  there were a lot of powerful people lined up against him, and at the end he didn’t have all that many friends.

But Martin Luther King remained completely committed to his Christian ideals.  Because it really was in Christ’s name that he rejected violence and called rather for sacrifice, even to the point to death, for what he understood to be God’s cause;  It was in Christ’s name that he refused to exclude anyone of any color or religion from the movement: in Christ’s name that he championed the cause of all the poor, black, white or Latino.  At a time when everybody else was retreating to the extremes and preparing for violence, he remained steadfast, refusing to give in to any extremism except the extremism of Christ’s sacrificial love.

And, in the end, he paid the ultimate price.  At about six in the evening on Thursday, 4 April 1968, while standing on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine motel in  Memphis Tennessee, he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet, and declared dead at a nearby hospital about an hour later, at 7:05.

I remember hearing about it in the common room in the basement at Dunster House – Walter Cronkite on the CBS evening news telling us that Martin Luther King was dead.  I’ve looked in my journals and all I have on the date  is the sentence:  “Martin Luther King, man of God, is dead” in about six languages.  Like  everyone, I  was in a daze:  it was a wet, early spring night, I remember; we walked up to Harvard Square where there were a lot of people milling around, but very quiet – people were stunned and nervous,  scared, really– it’s hard to understand now, perhaps, but the threat of violence was very real and in fact riots did break out in about sixty cities, some very destructive, especially the ones in Washington DC and Chicago; but in Boston the black leaders got on the radio and TV and begged people to remember King’s nonviolent creed – and so things were quiet – very quiet.

Life went on, of course: the country continued to fall apart, and there were final exams and graduation to worry about, not to mention the draft. Antiwar demonstrations continued unabated throughout, but for me, as I wrote to myself in my journal, it was over.  I skipped my own graduation, left after my last exam and moved to Spain, arriving there the day Bobby Kennedy was killed.  At the time I had really given up on America and I doubted I would eve return.  It seemed to me and to a lot of us that with the death of MLK, the Christian spark had gone out of the movement, and that the forces of extremism, reaction and violence at both ends of the spectrum, right and left had triumphed.  MLK’s dream, it seemed to me, was dead – at least in America.

That’s what I thought then … but over the years I’ve come to realize that I was wrong.  In fact, Martin Luther King was not defeated – quite the opposite: he won the day.   The Black Panthers, the KKK, the Weathermen – they’re safely dumped in the garbage can of history: Martin Luther King, what he fought for, what he stood for, those things still stand, those things are with us today, and they  always will be with us – and never was that more evident than the night that Barack Obama became the first black president of the US.  I – and I’m sure many of my generation – felt Martin Luther King’s presence there that night on that field in Chicago.  He was there, no doubt about it.

There are a couple of things  I’d like you to remember about all this:  First, just this:  I know the sixties have got a lot of bad press, especially from conservative circles who remember only the extremes of the hippie movement, the sex, drugs and rock and roll etc.  But at the heart of all the turmoil, and what in the end has proved the lasting legacy of that decade,  was a profoundly religious, profoundly Christian movement that did change the country and the world, and in a very positive way.  And that at the center of this movement was a man who stands as a model for all times of faithful obedience to Christ – and that leads to the second thing.

The story of Martin Luther King reminds us yet again, that the only path to victory in the Christian scheme of things is that of nonviolent, sacrificial and loving witness to what is right and what is true – to Christ, in other words.  It was that witness that defeated the Roman Empire, and it was that witness that swept away the barriers of racism in twentieth century America.  That is the Christian way.

Finally, I pray that God send your generation a prophet like Martin Luther King. You need one.  We all  need one. The future we all, but especially you face is full of darkness and peril – and at the same time, full of promise.  And that’s what prophets are for, really, to point the way through the darkness, through the trials and tribulation, to the promise that lies beyond them, or as MLK would have put it, to the promised land.  We need that sort of witness today;  we need someone to point us the way to the Promised Land.

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