Martin Luther King, Jr. was arguably the most publicized civil rights leader in the 20th century, but somehow, I have never come across this image until now. As recipients of history, we see the images of King addressing the masses in Washington, D.C. or locking arms with other leaders in a march. We see him nobly posed or having a contemplative conversation. This image of King, however, is vulnerable and raw. There is no grandeur or glitz, no microphones or signs. It displays age, concern, and focus. We feel an inherent worry that was rooted in a perpetual sense of doom as America stumbled through its civil rights problems. This particular image enhances King’s human-side, for he is ever portrayed as the martyr, untouchable and angelic. We experience him here as a person putting forth all of his energy into the work of the people.
As we traverse the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr., there is a very obvious difference between sermons like “A Time to Break the Silence,” “Where Do We Go From Here,” and “Christmas Sermon” compared to “I See the Promised Land.” The lattermost sermon is his most well-known, and for good reason. Its prophetic nature is uncannily eerie in retrospect, carrying an inherently unsettling message as King was unknowingly facing his last days. King shares the story of the attempt on his life at the early age of 29 and how, in the wake of nearly losing his life, he was the recipient of tons of letters of well wishes. In his “Promised Land” sermon, he reflects on how he does not remember what the letters from the President and Vice President said, but rather the content of a letter from a white schoolgirl:
And I looked at that letter, and I’ll never forget it. It said simply, “Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the Whites Plains High School.” She said, “While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I am a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.” (King 285)
King focuses here on the spirit and innocence of youth, how this young woman feels absolute joy in knowing that King lived to see another day after the attack. Ward discusses the efforts in Newcastle to implement more civil rights education in schools, imparting this vital knowledge to people during the most impressionable times of their lives. Ward says that this work with schools “gives hope for memory” (“King, 1967”). King’s interaction with the communication from this young woman parallels modern efforts to include more civil rights history into mainstream curriculum. We recognize more and more that young people are the force behind change.
In King’s “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” he introduces the three different types of biblical love: eros, philia, and agape. He explains that the agape brand of love is the one to which American truly need to subscribe in order to move past hatred, and even tolerance, and into acceptance and freedom. Though King is a brilliant minister of faith, he often breaks down biblical concepts into language that is purely human and can be applied outside of the realm of the religious.
I invoke both Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown and their relationships with faith in their respective texts. Brown explores the hard-heartedness of Christians in Clotel, but introduces Georgiana as a kind of faith-based silver bullet. She provides an insight into the proper application of Christianity and what one could identify as her efforts at agape, sharing that “‘it loves all who love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity, without regard to colour or condition’” (Brown 100-1). Georgiana is narratively ahead of her time as readers sense a strong comparison in her command of scripture with how King maneuvers scripture, encouraging the idea that love is a universal language.
For Douglass, who had been captive to headstrong and ill-informed figures of faith, it must have been difficult to see redemptive and understanding love around him. However, Douglass recollects different people helping him on his journey to freedom and the “manifestation[s] of…providence…[that] marked [his] life with so many favors” (Douglass 111). In hindsight, these people and this providence which aided him into freedom had to be agape. By those standards, Douglass lived a very early form of the same love that King invokes in the people hearing his Christmas sermon, looking toward a similar result — escaping the bondage of discrimination.
Though his closing remarks in “I See the Promised Land” are by far the most jarring in historical context, King’s statements about governmental priorities are rousing and unbelievably applicable to our current social climate. In “Where Do We Go from Here?” King laments the problematic priorities of the American government:
“Now our country can do this. John Kenneth Galbraith said that a guaranteed annual income could be done for about twenty billion dollars a year. And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth.” (King 248)
King’s assertions here ring eerily true as we currently face the COVID-19 crisis. A few weeks ago, the government stimulated the stock market with some $1.2 trillion, which, coincidentally, is the same amount of student loan debt in the country today. For years, we have heard that the money to dig students out of debt does not exist, and then it suddenly appears in order to appease the 1% in America as they feared decline in their businesses. Meanwhile, families all over the country cannot put food on their dinner table. Millions of people go without housing, healthcare, and education, but military spending equates to nearly $4 trillion a year.
King recognizes that civil rights blends into human rights as the efforts boil down to destroying racism, poverty, and war. He would be severely disappointed to see that our country has not come too far from when he lived. Our systemic oppression takes different and latent forms — such as the prison-industrial complex, foster care system, and unlivable minimum wages. Our discrimination does not manifest in “whites only” signs, but rather in the severity of criminal charges for minor drug misdemeanors. It is not in discriminatory laws for education, but rather in underfunding HBCUs. Our responsibilities lie in applying a holistic knowledge of civil and human rights in order to bring people into safety and security.
Brown, William Wells. Clotel. Edited by Geoffrey Sanborn, Broadview Press, 2016.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Edited by Celeste-Marie Bernier, Broadview Press, 2018.
“King, 1967.” About South from Soundcloud, August 2019, https://soundcloud.com/about-south/s04-episode-2-king-1967
King, Martin Luther, Jr. A Testament of Hope: the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by James Melvin Washington, HarperOne, 1991.
“Tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr.” by U.S. Embassy New Delhi under CC BY-ND 2.0.