Well, I’m posting past midnight, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is just past. But in doing some reading on the Montgomery bus boycott, I came across a sermon he gave in March 1956. His point of departure was a recent court decision that ordered the University of Alabama to admit black students and the violence that met the first enrollee. King reacted angrily to the university’s decision to ask the student to leave school to restore peace to the campus.
It’s hard to choose an excerpt because the entire text is full of truth and fire. But here’s where he gets to the heart of his subject:
Yes, things are quiet in Tuscaloosa. Yes, there was peace on the campus, but it was peace at a great price: it was peace that had been purchased at the exorbitant price of an inept trustee board succumbing to the whims and caprices of a vicious mob. It was peace that had been purchased at the price of allowing mobocracy to reign supreme over democracy. It was peace that had been purchased at the price of capitulating to the force of darkness. This is the type of peace that all men of goodwill hate. It is the type of peace that is obnoxious. It is the type of peace that stinks in the nostrils of the Almighty God. …
In a very profound passage which has been often misunderstood, Jesus utters this: He says, “Think not that I am come to bring peace. I come not to bring peace, but a sword.”
Certainly, He is not saying that He comes not to bring peace in the higher sense. What He is saying is: “I come not to bring this peace of escapism, this peace that fails to confront the real issues of life, the peace that makes for stagnant complacency.”
Then He says, “I come to bring a sword” — not a physical sword. Whenever I come, a conflict is precipitated between the old and the new, between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. I come to declare war over injustice. I come to declare war on evil. Peace is not merely the absence of some negative force–war, tension, confusion, but it is the presence of some positive force–justice, goodwill, the power of the kingdom of God.
I had a long talk with a man the other day about this bus situation. He discussed the peace being destroyed in the community, the destroying of good race relations. I agree that it is more tension now. But peace is not merely the absence of this tension, but the presence of justice. And even if we didn’t have this tension, we still wouldn’t have positive peace. Yes, it is true that if the Negro accepts his place, accepts exploitation and injustice, there will be peace. But it would be a peace boiled down to stagnant complacency, deadening passivity, and if peace means this, I don’t want peace.
If peace means accepting second-class citizenship, I don’t want it.
If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it.
If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening status quo, I don’t want peace.
If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace.
So in a passive, non-violent manner, we must revolt against this peace.
Above: The big oak in the schoolyard garden at Martin Luther King Jr. MIddle School, just around the corner and up the street from us. School was out today, and of course the occasion I connect the date with is April 4, 1968, the day King was murdered. I don’t remember anything about that day until hearing the announcement, at the tail end of the NBC national news, and I think Chet Huntley read the report, that King had been shot in Memphis. The rest of the evening and much of the next several days is vivid. My recollection is that the show essentially signed off with that report at 6:30 p.m. There was no cable TV to speak of, let alone CNN, so I think our immediate recourse would have been to the radio (not sure if WBBM had adopted an all-news format by then or not).
In any case, I remember that it was already dark, and it was raining. My mom had been out shopping for groceries, and she pulled up within a few minutes of when we heard the news. She had been involved in various civil rights activities and had actually driven by herself up to the South Side one night–in 1965, maybe?–to see King speak at a neighborhood church. I think we–my brothers and I–probably imparted the news in a panicked way and probably passed on the first report that King might have been shot in the head. I think that because of the shocked and despairing reaction I remember from my mother: “Oh, they always shoot them in the head!” I’m sure she was thinking back to President Kennedy. Maybe even to Lincoln. Bobby Kennedy wouldn’t be shot for another couple of months.
The connection, if any, to today. None. The schoolyard was beautiful, the day warm, and that night might never have happened except for what we remember and have brought with us into our future.
Kevin Morrison, an old softball teammate of mine, just put together a four-minute montage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech at the Riverside Church in New York. He juxtaposes images of Iraq over King’s words to devastating effect. Kevin also did a Q and A on the historical context of King’s speech, available at a blog called Pop + Politics.
After that football game, of which for reasons disclosed elsewhere I saw only the last quarter, Kate came home and our ensuing channel surfing fetched up on “Citizen King,” an episode of “The American Experience” on Martin Luther King, Jr. Probably because you know the way the story is going to come out, or at least his part of it, it has the feeling of a tragedy alongside which the made-up kind pale (sorry, Will). The tragedy resounds the more deeply because of the aftermath of King’s death. One can hardly argue that we’ve reached that moment he talked about the night before he died that his people — the black, the poor, and the oppressed, would reach the promised land. It wasn’t a promised land just for those whose cause he made his own; it was a destination for the United States, too. I wonder, with the pictures of the mid-60s, and 1968 especially, fresh again, whether the nation suffered a blow, a spiritual injury, that was too big to be overcome in our lifetimes. That may be the still-impressionable spectator of the events talking; the sizable portion of the population born since then might ask what’s the big deal. But it’s true, too, that as a nation we’re swept along by the silent currents of events that predate us, predate our families’ arrival in the United States.
And speaking of family connections, there was a moment in the film when my Uncle Bill appeared on the screen. He spent a lot of time in his career as a Catholic priest in Chicago working on movement issues, and joined some of King’s campaigns in the South (the Selma-Montgomery march in 1965, for instance; amazingly, the route of the march is now a National Park Service National Historic Trail). Anyway, Bill: The documentary included an extensive section on King’s campaign in Chicago, including his marches in Cicero and the segregated neighborhoods of Gage Park and Marquette Park. Suddenly, there was film of marchers filing down the sidewalk, and for two seconds, maybe, there’s Bill. I went back and looked again (on Tivo — well, there’s one thing about the world you can say is better than the ’60s). No doubt — it was him, caught just for an instant doing what he did.