Find Out What the Dream Was
In the spring of 1968, I was in the final months of my ministry to a small Unitarian church in Massachusetts. I was also a graduate student at Boston University — and the salary was minimal. I supplemented my income by working Sunday afternoons and a few evenings a week at an art museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts. My wife also worked there. It’s where we met. So the place holds more than one significance for me. My recollection of my position there was that I was a sort of supervisor. Her recollection is that I was a sort of custodian.
In 1968, on the night of April 4, I was in my little cubicle in one of the studios from which I sold art materials to evening students, studied, wrote my sermons, and chatted with students and teachers. It was not an onerous occupation. On that night, barely aware of the sounds from my little radio with its volume turned low, I suddenly heard its commotion, sputtering, confusion and gradually was able to let the message seep in — Martin Luther King had been shot and was dying. I twisted the dial in frenzy, praying for a mistake or for another kind of Orson Welles madness, looking for Beatles music or concertos, anything that would be the truth. But it was the truth. His dying was the truth. Beyond the open door of my little room was the quiet murmuring of students and teacher, painting, sculpting, jewelry making. There was a new reality in the world of which they, as yet, were unaware; a nightmare not yet come to them.
There were four buildings in the art school complex of the museum. I went to each of them, carrying the news of the new reality. It was like carrying a torch, spreading a fire. I was the messenger of a death. Some who heard froze in silence, some fell to the floor in cries and moans. I could hear wails from buildings I had left as the fire continued to rage. One teacher, a tall and gentle man, grabbed the front of my shirt in both his hands and screamed “O the bastards! The bastards!”
Everywhere in the days that followed, I heard the poet Yeats quoted,
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The best purpose of such birthdays as these is to prompt us to tell the story. To tell it over and again, lest we forget. This is the story of a dreamer. The beginning’s of the dreamer were inauspicious. His mother was a schoolteacher. His father was a back-to-basics preacher right here in Atlanta at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Martin just followed in his father’s footsteps, attending Crozier theological seminary, then Boston University’s School of Theology.
It has been said that he was Unitarian at heart. I don’t know about that. It is true that he wrote his doctoral dissertation comparing the concepts of God of the Unitarian-friendly philosopher of religion, Henry Nelson Wieman, and the pre-eminent liberal theologian of the century, Paul Tillich. He said that he wanted to see if religion could be “both intellectually respectable and emotionally satisfying.” I still wonder about that.
It is said that, while at Boston University, he dabbled in the literature of social conscience and change. If he “dabbled,” he played with fire, because it was Thoreau he read, the early prophet of American civil disobedience and non-violence. And one dabbles in Gandhi at one’s peril. With his practice of Satyagraha — the principle of non-violent resistance — the martyred Gandhi became a mentor for King a soul-brother and relentless commander of his will. Gandhi’s principle had “saved” India. Perhaps it could save America from the disease of racism and oppression.
On receiving the Nobel prize in 1964, King said, “I am only too well aware of the weakness and the failures which exist, the doubts about the efficacy of non-violence… But I am still convinced that non-violence is both the most practically sound and morally excellent way to grapple with the age-old problem of racial justice.”
Years before, a lone black woman, a seamstress, had reached the same conclusion. On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat at the front of a bus to a white man.
Her name — let it be listed among the names of the saints — was Rosa Parks.
In a way, it was Rosa Parks who drew Martin Luther King into the role of conscience of the nation, leader, and prophet. After her arrest, the black elders of Montgomery quickly laid plays for a boycott of Montgomery’s transportation system. They gave the top leadership roles in the boycott to two men, Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr. They were chosen, in part, because they were the two newest ministers in town and had the fewest enemies. When the boycott ended, three hundred and eighty-one days later, with a court order desegregating Montgomery’s buses, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a national celebrity: “almost a kind of icon,” some said. The nature of black protest in America was changed.
It would be mere romanticism to think that everyone was Martin’s follower. There were many who considered him at best an egotistical fool and at worst a traitor to his race. Some, like Stokely Carmichael, who would become the leaders of the black power movement, whose philosophy was to fight fire with fire, understood non-violence to mean submission. Some whites took comfort from King’s principles, believing that non-violence would maintain the status quo for generations to come. They didn’t know their history — they surely didn’t know about India.
The black militants and the comfortable whites were both wrong about the nature of non-violence. Their understanding of nonviolence was shallow. They saw it as sitting around doing nothing while people kicked you and threw you into jail. They understood the behavior of non-violence, but they did not understand it as a powerful tactic in the struggle for social change. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood it very well. “Non-violent direct action,” he wrote, “seeks to create such a crisis…and tension that a community…is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored.”
King and his followers were consciously provocateurs, “stretching a community’s nerves up to and sometimes beyond the breaking point,” as King said. People know that the Bible says to love one’s enemies, bless those that curse you, and turn the other cheek. But most forget the rest of that passage, which is.. “…that you might heap coals of fire upon their heads.”
Gandhi’s followers, by the hundreds of thousands, laid their bodies across the highways and across the railway tracks of India. King’s followers sat in the streets of Memphis, and Selma, and Atlanta. Sheriff Bull Connors’ dogs, the fire-hoses, the kicks and beatings, the tear gas — all used again and again against men, women, and children whose courage of non-resistance heaped coals of fire on the heads of their oppressors and shamed this nation before the entire world.
The suffering inflicted on the people produced a gift — it gave them the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sheriff Jim Clark’s billy-swinging Neanderthal posses were so helpful to the cause in Selma that King’s followers voted him honorary member in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Some felt that Martin Luther King, Jr. was the civil rights movement. He wasn’t, of course. No single person is everything — at least, not in retrospect. He did not forget, and we should not forget, all those martyrs and heroes of a century of struggle before him. The Rosa Parks who first put out their foot and the seas parted. King, like most of the prophets, came along in what the Bible calls “the fullness of time.” The prophet is grasped, compelled, sometimes dragged kicking and screaming into history. Always in the fullness of time, always in the historical right moment, when the way has been prepared and history will not wait. King was not the civil rights movement but because the time was ready to be fulfilled, he was the embodiment of the movement. One reporter wrote after his death,
“Some of King’s peers to the right and the left within the movement envied his celebrity, mistrusted his visionary cast of mind, doubted (with some good reason) his talents as a day-to-day tactician. But they recognized him as the movement’s most precious public asset, a holy icon to be borne along at the head of the procession. His voice, more than any other, was the movement’s great instrument. This evaluation was eminently borne out on August 28, 1963 — the day of the march on Washington, when Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, surveying the thousands who had come to commit to the cause, his great, booming voice flowing out of the capitol — ”
“I have a dream…”
“Blest is that man,” the hymn sings, “who sets his soul’s desire upon a dream though half the world forsake him.”
On that great day in Washington King was at the zenith of his prophetic power and influence. It seemed to him that the dream would surely be fulfilled. But, in the few year remaining to him, what had been a tightly woven fabric of black leadership in a single cause began to weaken and to tear. The focus of the movement shifted from the South to the North, and King’s style did not travel well.
The issues, too, became more subtle, more complex, the focus shifted from basic human dignity here in the South to mammoth problems in the north of caste and insurmountable urban poverty. King’s victories in the south fired hopes in the north: in Harlem, in Detroit, in Chicago. Ironically, in those places, the southern victories did not narrow the race gap, but widened it as the cries grew louder — not for “Negro dignity,” but for black power. Riots in the cities stiffened the resolve of whites to not “give in.” The war in Vietnam drained the white’s resources and mired them in moral confusion. Those who, only a few years before, had been King’s “spiritual godchildren,” stole the 1966 march in Meredith from him and made it a national showcase for SNCC and the new black power movement. His first venture into the north, in Chicago, fizzled. The black leadership was not solidly behind him, and the young people of the north had not been caught up in his charisma.
King became more and more involved in the peace movement, an involvement which irritated the conservative elders among his disciples, diluted the energy, and confused the issues. Though King himself believed the issues of peace and racism were inseparable, his followers did not and his linking them cost him considerable support.
He planned another march on Washington, a march which he knew would be a final testing of his declining star. He never had the opportunity to make that test. A single bullet handed the movement over to his adversaries. The cities went up in flames. Non-violence was over. Soon, the movement would be over.
It was ironic that his death came just three days before the Christian celebration of Palm Sunday. That day commemorates the entrance of Jesus of Nazareth into Jerusalem. Jesus was well aware of the temper of that city. His enemies there far outnumbered his friends. Yet, in the words of the Christian Scriptures, “He set his face steadfastly toward Jerusalem.” And it is written that Jesus climbed a high hill, looked out of the city and cried, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, long have I wept over you.” Martin went to the city of Memphis and there gave his last prophetic speech. He said,
And then I got into Memphis. And some began to talk about the threats… Or what would happen to me from some of the sick white brothers. But I don’t know what will happen to me now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop, and I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its grace. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land.
Hours after that speech, I watched the taped transcript of it and thought, as millions did, “My God, he knew, he knew!” Socrates. Jesus. Gandhi. Lincoln. John Kennedy, the night before Dallas, saying, “Oh we’re going into nut country today.” It is part of the burden of the prophet to know what the end will be, to know what the cup holds, and to drink it down. And it is the final role of the prophet to make the sacrifice that stands and shines as the ultimate offering to The Eternal Good, the ultimate to which the rest of us may move but are not called to achieve, the ultimate which challenges us with the hard message that we can never do enough because, as Jesus said, “Greater love than this has no man than that he lay down his life for his friends.”
During King’s Memorial Service, FBI agents scurried about, inside and outside the church, murmuring furtively over walkie-talkies, ready for anything — revolution, massacre, who knows. One agent gave the word over his walkie-talkie to his superior outside that Corretta Scott King had just said that Martin’s dream would never die. The supervisor replied, “Find out what the dream was.” After all that, after all that, the establishment and its watchdogs did not even know what the dream was.
What did it all come to? I, as a white man, cannot presume to measure what Martin Luther King, Jr. accomplished. Socrates died for truth. Do we have truth? Jesus said, “I am come that you might have life.” Do we have life? Martin Luther King said he would die to make women and men and children free. Are we free? Free at last?
What do the prophets accomplish beyond a birthday nationally established soon degenerated into a sales day at the mall? Do they bring about what it is they live and die for? Perhaps not. I doubt that they expect to. The prophets arise, from time to time. The prophets arise, in the fullness of time to remind us, lest we forget, that these — truth, life, freedom — do exist. They do not give us truth, life, freedom. But without the light by which the prophets burn in their passion we would forget what the dream is and we would live in a darkness which would consume us.
In Albany, in Georgia, in 1962, he said, “It may get me crucified. I may die. But I want it said even if I die in the struggle – He died to make me free.” Let that be said.
That’s what the dream was.