It is always heartwarming and helpful to return to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Even though Dr. King’s last words were spoken over 35 years ago, much of what he had to say still has application to our struggle against right-wing reaction and its representatives in government. Through religious parable, philosophical reference, and political analysis, Dr. King argued and actively fought for a better America.
In the sermon just before his last, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” presented at the National Episcopal Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on March 31, 1968, Dr. King warns that it would be very unfortunate to miss the great events of social change developing in one’s own epoch:
One of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses – that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.
Dr. King indicates that revolutions were taking place in technology, the weapons of war, and human rights which open the door to new opportunities and new challenges. The technological revolution demands that we develop a global perspective, he said. “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
He directs our attention to the relationship between the fight against racism and the fight against poverty at home and abroad. Though America has the technological know-how to rid the world of poverty, he questions if the powers that be have the will. Dr. King asserts that without an adequate job or income, a human being cannot pursue what America says it guarantees all of its citizens.
There is another thing closely related to racism that I would like to mention as another challenge. We are challenged to rid our nation and the world of poverty. … There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will. … We read one day: ‘We hold theses truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness.
Over 30 years ago, Dr. King warns that the revolution in warfare weaponry makes the waging of war potentially catastrophic. He states even then that the United Nations needs to be strengthened to play a greater role in world affairs. His unequivocal position was that the whole world needed to disarm. “Anyone who feels … that war can solve the social problems facing mankind is sleeping through a revolution.”
The alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.
A reporter mentioned that contributions to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference must have declined as a result of a negative reaction to Dr. King’s antiwar stance. He responds in this sermon by indicating:
There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right. I believe today that there is a need for all people of good will to come with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “We ain’t goin’ study war no more.” This is the challenge facing modern man.
Dr. King came to know that his promotion of opposition to the forces of reaction rallying around war and racism was producing a response from them that was a threat to his well-being. Still, he lectures in this sermon:
For more than two centuries our forebears labored here without wages. They made cotton king, and they built the homes of their masters in the midst of the most humiliating and oppressive conditions. And yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to grow and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery couldn’t stop us, the opposition that we now face will surely fail.
Even in the face of danger, Dr. King instructs that to forge progress human beings have to consciously act. Though the revolutions in technology, weaponry, and human rights were creating the possibility for dramatic changes to take place, Dr. King counsels:
Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals. … And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.
In this sermon Dr. King does not complete his reference to the revolution taking place in the struggle for human rights. For that we have to turn to his last sermon, “I See the Promised Land,” delivered at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968.
In this last sermon, Dr. King says that if he could have his choice of moments in history in which to roam the earth, though he would be in awe of other periods, he would choose the point in time he actually lived in. He says this is true because at the moment he was living, all over the world masses of people were rising up, saying, “We want to be free.” He says that the importance of his time is also related to the struggle to achieve what history was now requiring.
And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.
In terms of the human rights revolution, Dr. King asserts, “We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world.” He reveals that he knew that the danger he and the movement faced were in response to their unwavering insistence for freedom, equality, and peace.
And that’s all this whole thing is about. We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying that we are God’s children. And that we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.
We reap the benefits even today of Dr. King’s steadfastness. If his life had not been cut short, he would have reached the ripe young age 75 this year. At 39 years of age his voice was silenced, but the struggle to which he contributed his all continues, be it in the form of the fight against the Patriot Act, for peace and against war, for jobs, education, and health care or any of the many issues related to the realization of his truly democratic dream. We rejoice in honoring him at every opportunity.
Dee Myles is chair of the Communist Party USA’s education commission and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: Next week’s edition of the People’s Weekly World will contain a round-up of many of the King Day observances and demonstrations across the country.