By Dale K. Edmondson
- Amos 5:21-24; Isaiah 11:1-9; Matthew 5:43-48 -
Martin! if only you were still here! If we could hear your strong voice in our land, would we now be eating the bitter fruits of war? You warned that “the ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.” You said, “Instead of diminishing evil, it multiples it. . . Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”1
I doubt that you’ll remember me. I met you at a minister’s meeting in Phoenix many years ago. That night you gave an address at a public rally, and that address remains one of the shaping experiences of my life. The oratory alone was transfixing. Never had I heard anything like it! The fire of an Old Testament prophet, the cadence of a Black preacher, the persuasive logic of a philosopher. But I heard more than unforgettable oratory. I heard a call for justice that was as Biblical and it was contemporary and an analysis of society that was as convicting as it should have been obvious. In that address, I saw the Gospel intersecting life, and I saw what faith was about–a way of life! As you may remember, this was not your first visit to Phoenix. You’d been there a year or so before. I knew about it, because the minister I came to work with told me that he had received a phone call from you one night saying you and your wife and children were driving through Arizona but couldn’t find a motel open to you because of your color. You asked if he knew of a place you could stay. Ivan Bell invited you to stay with him at the parsonage.
Why did I resonate so much with your message when I heard it? I think it was because I had had a growing awareness that racism was sin. This awareness first began to take shape when I was a student. I discovered that our school choir could stop only at certain restaurants when we were on tour because the choir included a Negro student (that’s what we called African Americans then). It seemed unfair to me that he didn’t have the same privileges I did.
But it wasn’t until I discovered the Old Testament prophets–Amos and Hosea and Micah and the others–that I became convinced that society was God’s concern, not just the individuals in society. Amos convinced me that God was really speaking when Amos said, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” You believed that God spoke through him. And you believed that God had given Isaiah the vision of a society at peace–a vision you made your own–that of the wolf living with the lamb and the leopard lying down with the kid.
But you moved beyond the Old Testament prophets for your inspiration–to Jesus himself, who put love at the center of inter-personal relationship and who said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” And you drew inspiration, too, from Gandhi and his life-demonstration of non-violence. In his life, Gandhi lived closer to Jesus’ way of life than many who go by Jesus’ name. Of course, your upbringing in the church counted in your development. I’ve visited the home in which you had lived as a boy; it was then in the same block as the Ebenezer Baptist Church where your father had been pastor. You’ll be interested to know, Martin, that not far from where your old house now rests, there’s an institute called the “Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change.” People come there from all over the world to work together for ways in which non-violence can become the way of society.
Non-violence was already the guiding reality in the bus boycott in Montgomery to which you gave leadership. (Those who knew you said you were chosen because you were the new black minister in town and that–as you began–you were still seeking a way to articulate how non-violence was to be expressed in our society within a movement for racial justice.) In your “Letter from Birmingham Jail” you showed us that love–strong, unsentimental love–was inseparable from your resistance to the unjust laws of segregation. You addressed the letter to eight fellow clergy from Alabama who had attacked you in a published newspaper statement. You explained that, “nonviolent direct action” sought “to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” You said, “It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”2 In your letter you responded to the criticism of your willingness to break the law in acts of protest; you spoke of a difference between just and unjust laws and went on to say this: “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly. . ., and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.” 3
And later in Washington, before the Lincoln Memorial you told us of your dream: “I have a dream,” you said, a dream “that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women] are created equal. I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons for former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. . . . I have a dream that my four little children one day will 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 . . .,” you said.”4
Non-violence was away a life, not a tactic. A tactic can be picked up or put down as one deems it strategic; a way of life cannot. You expressed your convictions this way: “When I took up the cross, I recognized its meaning. . . The cross is something that you bear, and ultimately that you die on.”5 Your understanding of justice grew. (Your dream, I think, led you further.) “Injustice anywhere,” you had said earlier, “is a threat to justice everywhere.”6
Now it was the time of the Vietnam War and you had came to believe that there was a connection between racism and war and poverty. Who were the people whose lives were being expended in disproportionate number in the jungles? And what role did racism play in our country’s willingness to decimate an Asian culture? You spoke of what you called “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism,” saying they are incapable of being conquered as long as “machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people.”7 There were some, of course, who said that your movement had lost its center, that you were looking around for new causes. Some left you, and some former co-laborers began to attack you. You had moved out onto even more dangerous ground. In your last book, The Trumpet of Conscience, you began to talk about a massive change in our economic realities.
John Lewis, your former associate pastor, has written some insightful words about the reaction of some to your broadened vision of your ministry. He says, “The traditional Americans in high echelons were willing to give in on some civil rights–‘OK, you can sit at the counter; you can eat at the restaurant; you can spend the night here at this hotel.’ But [Dr. King] began to talk about economics, and he began to talk about redistribution of the wealth, which some folks didn’t understand. I think it was then that J. Edgar Hoover and others decided that this man was definitely a menace to our society and was going to tear down everything they had built up.” 8
But your challenge to the violence of war was not a loss of center, but a broadening of it, an affirmation that strong, non-violent, assertive love brings life and that dehumanization and exploitation brings death. You expressed this conviction clearly in your address when you accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. You said, “I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction.9 . . . [We] must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” 10 It was, of course, your identification with the poor that brought you to your death. You took seriously the notion that God’s word of justice was that “those of low degree” would be exalted. You were assassinated while contending for the garbage workers of Memphis.
Even your death brought the hate of people’s hearts to the fore. An officer of the church I was serving at the time was in our home, moving a piano, when the word came of your death; he turned to me with violence in his voice and said, “He was asking for it!” And on Sunday, at the church’s morning communion, I prayed a prayer confessing that we all, in our own racism and our acquiescence to things as they are, had played a part in perpetuating a society capable of doing in its greatest agent of peace. During the worship service, in front of the gathered congregation, a deacon refused to receive communion from me because of my words, telling me at the door as he left, “I didn’t kill anybody.” He left our membership to go to a church that wouldn’t disturb him the way ours had.
Time, of course, has a way of changing opinions–sometimes, even recollections. I’m sure you’ve heard by now that your birthday has been made a national holiday. It’s appropriate that we should celebrate your life and legacy in a holiday. But there’s a danger in it. The radical, challenging tone of what you said and did can get covered over with sentiment and with assumptions that ignore the reality of those times of fierce and bitter opposition and with an after-the-fact boast about “what I would have done if I had been there then.”
Carl Wendell Hines, Jr. was in his late twenties when you were assassinated. He’s written a poem which contains these lines:
Now that he is safely dead
let us praise him
build monuments to his glory
sing hosannas to his name.
Dead men make
such convenient heroes;
to change the images
we would fashion from their lives.
it is easier to build monuments
than to make a better world.11
I’ve said how I wish you were still with us–how your words might call us as a nation to actions of morality. Night after night, as the Lehrer News Hour ends, we see the often-young, often-smiling faces of young men and women moving silently across our television screens, the latest fatalities in an on-going war. We read of the homes of families in another land, their means of livelihood, their cultural treasures, their family members’ lives destroyed as collateral damage through our nation’s effort to remove a tyrant whom once we funded. We see civil rights ignored at home, people detained without legal representation, day-to-day freedoms curtailed (and even happily surrendered!) in an illusive search for security. We see a world divided into the good and the evil, determined, we’re told, by whether a given power is “for us” or “against us.” Does this, perhaps, describe the “descending spiral” you spoke of concerning the spirit of war?
May I tell you of three pictures that surface in my memory? (It may help you know how to counsel me.) One picture has to do with gas masks. I was with a family in a home in London. We were talking about the war, then some years past. They spoke of the impact on their lives of the daily awareness of war during that time: the extraordinary and fearsome became commonplace. For one period, whether it was during the blitzkrieg bombings or later I don’t recall, it was necessary for the school children to carry gas masks with them to school. “I think we stil1 have one of them up in the attic,” the father told me, as he left the room to look for it. I anticipated an olive-drab, technical-looking apparatus. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw when he brought it into the room! It looked like a child’s toy; the long air filter through which the child was to breathe was painted like a Mickey Mouse nose. The innocent joys of childhood were twisted for the children’s preservation, understandably–but twisted, nevertheless. Quickly the mood of the happy evening changed, as if a cloak had been pulled back exposing the scars and pain that were there so slightly below the surface after those years.
The second picture is of a pair of plaques on the wall of the entry way of New College Chapel in Oxford, where I sometimes attended evensong during my graduate student days. The first plaque was much like those found in many churches throughout England. It read something like this: “Dedicated to the Glory of God and to the Memory of these men who studied here and who gave their lives in the Great War of 1914-18 in response to the call of their country.” There followed names like “Brian Smith” and “Gordon Bancroft” and “Clive Oliver,” common, everyday English names. Next to it was the other plaque. It read something like this: “Dedicated to the Glory of God and to the Memory of these men who also studied here and also gave their lives in response to the call of their country.” Then followed names like these: “Gerhardt Schultz” and “Erik Sommerfeld” and “Karl Steinhausen.” I couldn’t finish the list. My vision got too blurred as I stood there thinking about young men attending lectures together, playing field hockey together, kneeling in prayer together in the same chapel each evensong, praying the same prayer together, “Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give.” I thought about these same men, possibly on the same battle field, killing each other.
The third picture is of some parents returning home after an evening out. Their high school daughter, who also had been with some friends, had just returned home before them. She had seen the film “Testament,” which portrays the advent of nuclear war. “How was the film?,” the father asked. The daughter made no answer, but quickly turned to leave the room. Then in a single movement, she rushed to her father and threw her arms around him and said, “I’ve never been so frightened. People were dying everywhere, and the picture ended with them just sitting there in the dark–waiting! . . .0h, Daddy! there are so many things I still want to do!” Until that man dies, he’ll still feel the arms of his daughter around his neck that night! War not only kills our children, it destroys their hope!
Oh, Martin, you were a man of hope, and we want to be people of hope, too! We want to catch a vision of the hope you had, especially in these times. You said your hope was grounded in the victory of Easter. We want to believe with you when you say, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. . . I still believe that one day [human]kind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will be proclaimed the rule of the land. . . ‘And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and [all] shall sit under [their own vines and fig trees] and none shall be afraid.’ I still believe that we shall overcome!”12
Martin, you’ve given us your gift. It’s up to us now to live out the gift and carry it to the next generation.
REFERENCES1. Christmas Sermon, “Loving Your Enemies,” 1957, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery; in Essay Series published by A. J. Muste Memoria1 Institute, New York City.