Staying Awake Through a Great Revolution

In response to a letter from this congregation when it used to be called the United Liberal Church of Atlanta—a letter inviting him to preach—Martin Luther King Jr. wrote,

I am deeply grateful to you … for inviting me to preach at the United Liberal Church. I have a great deal of admiration for the significant things that have been done through your church. I would consider it to be a distinct honor to be with you.  Unfortunately, however, some roadblocks stand in the way of clearing a date. I preach here at Ebenezer Baptist Church twice a month and the others Sundays are usually given to engagements out of the city. My calendar reveals that I am previously committed for almost every Sunday through May of 1962. The only possible date that I can see open at this time is Sunday, December 31, 1961….

And Sunday, December 31 it was. We were so lucky. Can you imagine your regret, later on, if you had happened to miss that Sunday because of some reason or other? MLK was in the pulpit, among us, and what he brought was a message about a great revolution. Remaining awake. But this would not be the first time he preached it. MLK had begun crafting this particular message a couple of years earlier, in the context of a speech given at a 1957 NAACP rally, and he would continue to deliver variations of it—it would continue to evolve—throughout the 1960s. It means that our privilege this morning is to grasp the great revolution message heard in this congregation almost 50 years ago and then track it, witness its growth and development over the years. The message was too good to preach only once. And it still preaches in our own time, today.

But we begin with the great revolution message in its 1961 version. When MLK came here to preach it, by that time he’d led the Montgomery Bus Boycott; he’d co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; he’d been stabbed by a mentally ill woman at a book signing event in Harlem; and he’d gone to India to study Gandhi’s techniques of nonviolent resistance. All these things, and so much more. Too much going on with civil rights for him to do justice to his work as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama, so he, Coretta Scott, and their children moved to Atlanta in 1959, where he became co-pastor with his father of Ebenezer Baptist Church. This is when he comes and preaches. Now, I don’t have the transcript of the actual sermon from almost 50 years ago. We do have a photocopy of the order of service—although it lists his sermon title as “Remaining Awake Through a Revolution,” which is not 100% correct—it’s supposed to read GREAT Revolution…. But perhaps we’ll be fine by taking a look at the version of this speech which he gave at Morehouse College in June of 1959. Probably very similar to the great revolution message he preached here.

He begins: “There can be no gainsaying of the fact that we are experiencing today one of the greatest revolutions that the world has ever known. You can hear its deep rumblings from the lowest village street to the highest intellectual ivory tower. Every segment of society is being swept into its mainstream. The great challenge facing [us now] is to remain awake, alert and creative through this great revolution.” But what is this revolution, exactly? It’s India shaking off British colonial control, and becoming self-determining. In the United States, it’s the African American’s changed sense of self-understanding—a new sense of self-respect and dignity. It’s also the 1954 Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation in the public schools. Finally, it’s technological revolution: “Man through his scientific genius has been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. He has been able to carve highways through the stratosphere, and is now making preparations for a trip to the moon.” All these combined: the tidal wave of worldwide revolution, rumbling, rushing forward.

I wonder what it must have been like to hear this. Sitting in the pew, with this imagery of a tidal wave forming in the mind, its rumbling sound. And congregants knew what he was talking about. They were a part of it. In the late 1940s, the unresolved question of racial integrationism had killed our congregation but, like the phoenix, we were reborn in the early 1950s because we finally came up with an answer: Yes. Yes, to integrationism. First congregation to do so in Atlanta. Then, later on in the 1950s, the more than a hundred charge cards returned to Rich’s Department Store, in protest of their practice of segregating the lunch counter. Also this congregation arranging joint Sunday evening youth programming with Ebenezer Baptist Church, and the threats of violence that ensued. People in this congregation losing reputations and jobs because they were known to go to church with African Americans. MLK talked about a great revolution of Love and Justice, sweeping in like a tidal wave, with a deep rumbling sound, and our people were right there with him.

And he said, stay awake. Don’t fall asleep. “Achieve,” he says, “the new mental attitudes which the situations and conditions demand.” One of them is a sense of interdependence. “The geographical togetherness of the modern world makes our very existence dependant on co-existence. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.” “Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”

“All life is interrelated.” This is one of the mental attitudes we really need to get, to remain awake through a great revolution. And then here is another: changing our emphasis on growth, from an exclusive focus on scientific and technological development to one that balances this with moral and spiritual development. “Certainly,” MLK says, “one of the tragedies of the present era is modern man’s blatant failure to bridge the gulf between scientific means and moral ends. Unless the gap is filled we are in danger now of destroying ourselves by the misuse of our own instruments.” Then MLK quotes a line from Henry David Thoreau, where he talks about “improved means to an unimproved end.” “So,” he says, “we have ended up producing a generation of guided missiles and misguided men. Unless we awake and solve this problem soon our civilization will not only be indicted for sleeping through a revolution; it may well be destroyed before it has the opportunity to arise from its complacent slumber.”

That’s no doubt the essence of what people heard on Sunday, December 31st, 1961 at the United Liberal Church in Atlanta Georgia. The sermon, says the order of service, was followed by a hymn, then closing words, then a postlude, a short intermission where everybody grabbed some coffee, and then they all came back in the sanctuary for the sermon “talkback.” Oh yes. “Rev. King, thank you for saying….” “Rev. King, I love your general message, but there’s this detail that’s really bugging me…” Maybe even some, “Rev. King, here’s where you’re wrong, and now I am going to dissertate for 10 minutes on my alternate views…” Who knows what verbal fencing went on during that sermon talkback many years ago. But that’s OK. MLK loved Unitarian Universalists. He did. Even considered becoming one, until he realized that leading his African American brothers and sisters would require him to operate within the historic black church. That’s where he needed to be, and we bless that decision and we bless his name today.

Now, some messages soar, and some sink. We all know it. Some are preachable over and over and have this amazing inner vitality that never fades. Some sound like fingernails on a chalkboard, and the quicker they’re put to sleep, the better. We know which one describes MLK’s. His great revolution message took on a life of its own and was capable of growing with the times, capable of saying far more than what was heard on that late December morning almost 50 years ago. We turn now to “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” as it was preached in its final version, on March 31, 1968, at the National Cathedral in Washington, just four days before his assassination. “There can be no gainsaying,” he says, “of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in the world today. In a sense it is a triple revolution: that is, a technological revolution, with the impact of automation and cybernation; then there is a revolution in weaponry, with the emergence of atomic and nuclear weapons of warfare; then there is a human rights revolution, with the freedom explosion that is taking place all over the world. Yes,” MLK says, “we do live in a period where changes are taking place. And there is still the voice crying through the vista of time saying, ‘Behold, I make all things new; former things are passed away.’” MLK is quoting scripture here, the book of Revelation. He’s just not the same person he was back in 1961. It’s seven years later. He’s marched on Washington, preached “I Have A Dream;” seen the historic passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act; won the Nobel Peace Prize; and also expanded the scope of his concern to include poverty. But he’s also been severely criticized by his own supporters for not exclusively focusing on racism; he’s been arrested and jailed multiple times; he’s been threatened with death multiple times; he’s been stoned by Black Muslims; and just three days before he gives the speech at the National Cathedral, he led a march that, for the very first time in his career, turned violent. His people!

So the great revolution message in 1968 is not only more expansive, it is also more urgent and more cutting. For example, in this version of the speech he says, “Let nobody give you the impression that the problem of racial injustice will work itself out. Let nobody give you the impression that only time will solve the problem.” Ever heard that before? But MLK’s not buying: “That,” he says, “is a myth, and it is a myth because time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I’m absolutely convinced that the people of ill will in our nation – the extreme rightists – the forces committed to negative ends – have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic works and violent actions of the bad people who bomb a church in Birmingham, Alabama, or shoot down a civil rights worker in Selma, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.’ Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals. Without this hard work, time becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always right to do right.” That’s MLK, and what does this suggest? We know that in his lifetime he encountered opposition within the African American community and also within the community of white liberal support. Was this one form the opposition took? “Slow down, Rev. King. It’ll work itself out. Wait on time.” But MLK rejected this. We have to help time. Got to make time OUR ally. The time is always right to do right. Yes it is.

Or listen to this, when MLK talks about poverty. “Jesus,” he says,” never made a universal indictment against all wealth.” The problem is when wealthy people don’t see the poor, don’t notice, don’t care. He says, “There is nothing new about [poverty]. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of [it]. The question is whether we have the will.” “One day we will have to stand before the God of history and we will talk in terms of things we’ve done. Yes, we will be able to say, we built gargantuan bridges to span the seas, we built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies. Yes, we made our submarines to penetrate oceanic depths. We brought into being many other things with our scientific and technological power. It seems that I can hear the God of history saying, ‘That was not enough! But I was hungry, and ye fed me not. I was naked, and ye clothed me not. I was devoid of a decent sanitary house to live in, and ye provided no shelter for me. And consequently, you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness. If ye do it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye do it unto me.’ That’s the question facing America today.”

Do we have the will? What will the God of history—who stands on the side of Love—say about us? The question facing America today.

On April 4, 1968, in a hail of gunfire, MLK died. Killed for his great revolution message. For a time, the world was struck dumb. People were like the man from the story for today, tears streaming down his face, who was asked, “Was there something you wanted to say?” “Yes” he said. “But I forgot what it was—something about love.” Perhaps we felt something like this when we heard about the Tucson shooting, when we heard President Obama talk about the “sudden hole torn in our hearts.” Perhaps.

Yet we’ve got to remember. We’ve got to remain awake. I loved it when President Obama went on to say in his speech, “I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here – they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.” Then there was Senator John McCain, in a follow-up Washington Post article, saying, “There are too many occasions when we lack that empathy and mutual respect on all sides of our politics, and in the media. But it is not beyond us to do better; to behave more modestly and courteously and respectfully toward one another; to make progress toward the ideal that beckons all humanity: to treat one another as we would wish to be treated. We are Americans and fellow human beings, and that shared distinction is so much more important than the disputes that invigorate our noisy, rough-and-tumble political culture. That is what I heard the president say on Wednesday evening. I commend and thank him for it.” Help time, in other words, but not by violence. Never by that.

Despite all, the great revolution continues. If we listen for it, we can hear “its deep rumblings from the lowest village street to the highest intellectual ivory tower.” The tidal wave of change, still coming. Almost 50 years ago, MLK gave this congregation a gift—a message that can grow with the times—and we need to take it up. “We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.” “Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.” Apply this interdependency vision to the same problems that MLK dealt with in his time, as well as to problems that were as yet undefined, but today, we know them all too well. The Crisis in the Middle East. Terrorism. Homophobia. Sexism. The lack of sustainability in our culture and economy, driving the environmental crisis. Or how about the immigration crisis, which reflects, in my mind, a new strain of the racism virus. Says President of the UUA, the Rev. Peter Morales, “Who has a moral right to be here? Oh, it is easy to determine who has a legal right to be here. But what about a moral right? Why is it all right if a wealthy family from New York retires to Arizona, but not all right if a poor family from Chiapas comes here seeking work?” “I would argue,” says a recent letter to the New York Times, “that risking one’s life in the hopes of making a better life for oneself and one’s child in a new and unwelcoming country is the very definition of what is in the American soul. Precisely what do [people think] the Pilgrims were?”

But “the wind of change is blowing.” That’s MLK. “We see in our day and our age a significant development. Victor Hugo said on one occasion that there is nothing more powerful in all the world than an idea whose time has come. In a real sense, the idea whose time has come today is the idea of freedom and human dignity. Wherever men are assembled today, the cry is always the same, ‘We want to be free.’”

But we’ve got to remain awake to grasp this freedom, to wrest it from the tight fists of racism and militarism and poverty and prejudice and violence and environmental injustice. We’ve got to remain awake. Got to help time. “The cards,” says MLK, “are stacked against us. This time we will really confront a Goliath.” But he says, “God grant that we will be that David of truth set out against the Goliath of injustice, the Goliath of neglect, the Goliath of refusing to deal with the problems, and go on with the determination to make America the truly great America that it is called to be.”

Got to take this message up. Develop it some more. Develop it though what we do collectively. Develop it through what we do individually. Pay it forward.

We’ve got to believe. Says MLK, “We sing a little song in our struggle—you’ve heard it—We Shall Overcome. […] God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race, the creation of a society where every man will respect the dignity and worth of personality. So when we sing We Shall Overcome, we are singing a hymn of faith, a hymn of optimism, a hymn of faith in the future.”

“However dark it is, however deep the angry feelings are, and however violent explosions are, I can still sing “We Shall Overcome.”

“We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

“We shall overcome because Carlyle is right—‘No lie can live forever.’”

“We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right—‘Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.’

“With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, the stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood, and speed up the day when, in the words of the prophet Amos, ‘Justice will roll down like waters; and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”

Say with me: Yes.