Wednesday, April 04, 2018

The Wednesday After Easter: A Fifty Year Memory

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. -MLK

LBJ had just announced that he would not run again. Stunning. But as I said in Saturday's memory post, it was but the beginning of a series of events that would stun and forever alter the American political landscape. In reality it had begun at the end of January of 1968 when the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong began the Tet Offensive. Suddenly American military might was being seriously challenged. Johnson's decision was based in that as much as on Eugene McCarthy's show of popularity and the entrance of Bobby Kennedy into the race two weeks earlier.

But no one was prepared for what was to come beginning on that Thursday evening 50 years ago today. I had been studying and took a break to go to the college radio station. I walked in and noticed that the UPI Teletype was printing something. I don't remember if there were any bells going off or if our machine even had the bells for important news. Like November 22, 1963, the news didn't seem real.

Martin Luther King was dead. Shot on his motel room balcony in Memphis, TN.

King, as much as any other American of his time was the heir of Thoreau's civil disobedience. He had written in his autobiography:
During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau's essay On Civil Disobedience for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander's refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery's territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times

I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau's insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.
This, no doubt, may be the greatest impact of Thoreau's writings on the life and character of the United States. Which is why I have added this one last "different drummer" post to the Lenten series. It is an appropriate closing to the Lenten journey and the hope promise of resurrection included in it and Easter. The nonviolence at the heart of the Civil Rights movement was planted in Thoreau's one night stay in jail for refusing to pay a tax. The challenge to our country's greatest sin- slavery and racism- is, I believe, Thoreau's ongoing gift to us.

As I remember Martin today, I remember the hopelessness and helplessness of April 4, 1968. This can't be happening. We are a better nation than that. The riots that followed were frightening. When an icon of nonviolence like King or Gandhi is the victim of violence, it is easy to lose hope or belief in the power of the nonviolent movement. For me- and for others I am sure- it only further solidified my personal direction as a pacifist. Pacifism is not some "pie-in-the-sky" idealism, Martin Luther King, Jr. showed. It has real-world consequences. It can be victorious as many of King's actions were. It can also be dangerous.

King was aware of that. In his last speech the evening before he famously told the audience:
Well, I don't know what will happen 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 place. 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. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Thank you, Dr. King. Without your witness, work, and sacrifice, we would be a much poorer and sadder nation. May we all continue to work toward those dreams.

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