One of the highlights of my life came several years ago, when I got the chance to speak from the pulpit at historic Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Avenue, to stand where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had stood so many Sunday mornings, to gaze out at the simple, unadorned sanctuary, at the pews filled with people, and to see just for a moment what he must have seen.
King was a preacher, a writer. He did not command an army or lead a government or take up arms against our enemies, yet with nothing more than a pulpit or podium, a microphone and words, he nonetheless altered the course of our nation’s history. And although King has left us — stolen from our midst almost a half century ago in Memphis — we still turn to his speeches and writings for inspiration. As he told us in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the national mall in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln:
No assassin’s bullet can silence those words or take them from us. And as we approach the national holiday in his honor, it’s important to remember that in contentious times such as these, when questions of race and economic justice still dominate our political discussion, when the forces of hate still contend with the forces of love and brotherhood, his words remain extremely relevant.
With protest marches planned around the country to mark the inauguration of President-elect Donald J. Trump, and with Black Lives Matter and other protest groups in the news, for example, we can turn to King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which explains with exquisite clarity that there is often no substitute for peaceful, nonviolent protest, and that the tensions created by such protests are creative, regenerative tensions needed to press change. They are supposed to make us feel uneasy.
But rather than offer a poor paraphrase of his words, we can turn to the thoughts of the man himself:
In his final, extremely moving “mountaintop” speech in Memphis, delivered the night before his death, King taught his listeners the importance of rejecting bitterness, of rejecting discouragement, of always calling upon the best in the American people and tradition knowing that in the long run, we shall not be disappointed.
Most of those who were in his audience at the Mason Temple that night — many of them the Memphis garbage workers whom he was there to help — are no longer here. But still, after all this time, we have his words:
The historic King, the man himself, was not the safe, establishment figure that some have made him out to be. He came from a prophetic tradition, turning often to angry biblical teachers such as Amos for his own inspiration. Largely through words alone, he called upon this nation, our nation, to redeem itself of its greatest sins, and through those words his memory will be preserved so that later generations of Americans can learn from him as well.
“(text withheld due to copyright concerns),” he reminded us. “(text withheld due to copyright concerns).”
NOTE: This may prove helpful to those unfamiliar with the King family’s position on use of King’s words.