Every year at this time we see snippets of Martin King’s speeches on the internet and television. People gratuitously recite his speeches and other works and pay lip service to his dream, the dream for which he died.
The media drags out his “I Have A Dream” speech every January. You may even see his prophetic last speech in Memphis where he rose high above the sanitation strike to tell us that we would get to the Promised Land. But that’s about all you will see from 1967 and 1968.
It’s as if the last two years of his life have been erased from the annals of our history. Pay close attention and you will notice that rarely will you hear anything about his condemnation of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
You don’t hear anything about his Poor People’s Campaign he was planning before his death.
His goal was to take the poor and downtrodden of all races, the poor from the Mississippi Delta, the poor from Appalachia and the poor from the slums of the North, the least of these from all races and drop them on the doorstep of Congress.
His goal was to disrupt the daily workings of our government until America faced the reality of God’s children suffering in poverty in our own land.
He wanted to shame our government leaders into committing to an annual guaranteed income for every adult American. He wanted our government to commit to a plan to eradicate poverty throughout our country.
“My earliest memory of Dr. King is from April 3, 1968, the night before his death. I remember my mom and dad scurrying around getting ready to go hear him speak at Mason Temple in Memphis. Even at 5 years old I knew they were going somewhere special and I wanted to go.”
CHARLES WINTON, FGCU FOUNDATION CHAIR EMERITUS
King had watched his dream turn into a nightmare. He had come to realize what good was it to integrate lunch counters in Birmingham if poor people couldn’t afford a cup of coffee or a sandwich.
He saw his fight for open housing in Chicago was futile if men and women couldn’t earn a fair wage to afford a home. He watched the money that the government should have been spending on Johnson’s War on Poverty being wasted on what he called “America’s reckless venture in Vietnam.”
You do not hear too much about this King. This was the revolutionary King, the King who had shaken off the label of civil rights leader. The Martin King who had accepted his calling as a 20th-century prophet, commissioned by God himself to be a voice crying out in the wilderness.
History has forgotten the Prophet King and conveniently only wants to deal with the “I have a dream” King. The poem says:
“Now that he is safely dead,
Let us praise him.
Build monuments to his glory.
Sing Hosannas to his name.”
History has forgotten the Prophet King. He was too revolutionary. Like all prophets, he was out of step with his time.
History has conveniently forgotten that he spoke truth to power and called out his own country in a time of war like no one has before or since. History has forgotten that in 1967 he called America the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. History has forgotten that he told America, “God didn’t call you to be a messianic policeman of the whole world.”
History has forgotten that he told America, “You are too arrogant and if you don’t change your ways, God’s going to rise up and break the backbone of your power and place it in the hands of a nation who doesn’t even know his name. You better be still and know who God is.”
History has forgotten he told America “How can you call yourself a liberator in Vietnam when you are burning little children with napalm?”
His friends and advisors had warned him not to come out against the war. They warned him that peace and civil rights do not mix and that everyone who had supported the movement in the past would turn on him. They were right. Time magazine called his famous Riverside Church speech “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.”
The Washington Post warned, “Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence. King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, and his people.”
Even those in the black community turned against him. The NAACP gave him the cold shoulder. The organization he founded, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, issued a statement that his speech was as a private citizen and not as its president.
Worst of all he made an enemy of Lyndon Johnson. Johnson had been a friend to the movement. He personally pushed passage of the Voting and Civil Rights Acts through Congress.
Johnson, the ultimate career politician, saw King’s stance against the war as outright betrayal. He was never again invited to the White House and from then on Johnson referred to him as that “n word” preacher.
His only response was “before I was a civil rights leader I was a minister of the gospel. I must tell the truth. And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because his conscience tells him it is right.” The poem says:
“Dead men make such convenient heroes.
For they cannot rise to challenge the images
That we might fashion from their lives.
It is easier to build monuments
Than to build a better world.”
The King holiday and his monument on the National Mall have come at a terrible price. King’s life, his speeches and his challenges to his own government had to be sanitized and purged to make him palatable to mainstream America. Before America could make him into an icon, we had to purify his image.
For like all of us, he was human, imperfect. It’s well documented that Martin King was a closet smoker and a skirt chaser. He used to tell his congregation at Ebenezer (Baptist Church) “you don’t have go out here and say that Martin Luther King is a saint. Oh no, I’m a sinner like all of God’s children, but I want to be a good man.”
This is Carl Wendell Hines, Jr.’s poem about Dr. King called “A Dead Man’s Dream.” “Now that he is safely dead, Let us praise him. Build monuments to his glory. Sing Hosannas to his name. “Dead men make such convenient heroes. For they cannot rise to challenge the images That we might fashion from their lives. It is easier to build monuments Than to build a better world. So now that he is safely dead, We, with eased consciences will Teach our children that he was a great man, Knowing that the cause for which he Lived is still a cause And the dream for which he died is still a dream. A dead man’s dream.”
But to make Dr. King an American icon, America had to clean up her image as well and forget how she treated him. J. Edgar Hoover labeled him a Communist and the most dangerous man in America. He was on a list of subversives to be rounded up and jailed in the event of a national emergency such as 9-11.
From early 1963 to when he died there wasn’t a room he slept in that didn’t have a listening device to record all his private moments and conversations.
Every phone he spoke on was wiretapped. The FBI and CIA knew every nugget, tidbit of his private life. They shared it with friendly congressmen and reporters to discredit him.
History had to be rewritten and forgotten to purify King’s image and to overlook the crimes his own country committed against him.
By the time Martin King arrived in Memphis in late March of 1968 he was exhausted and emotionally distraught about the direction he saw America drifting. Signs of living under constant criticism, signs of living under the daily threat of death and the constant stress could easily be seen by those around him.
He had developed a tic, a hiccup that manifested itself whenever he was anxious. The doctors who performed his autopsy said he had the heart of a 60-year-old man, yet he was only 39. Yes, by the time Dr. King got to Memphis he had been used up.
My earliest memory of Dr. King is from April 3, 1968, the night before his death. I remember my mom and dad scurrying around getting ready to go hear him speak at Mason Temple in Memphis. Even at 5 years old I knew they were going somewhere special and I wanted to go. And as the baby, I normally could get my way.
So, I threw my best temper tantrum to get my parents to take me with them.
I can’t remember why, but they didn’t take me that night, maybe it was the thunderstorm, the tornado that passed through Memphis that night, maybe it was just the gravity of the moment. I wish I could have been there. For as a student of Martin King I see it as his finest hour. When you watch that speech, you can see the tears in his eyes, you can see the tension, you can see the pain and even the relief as he reveals what God has shown him.
Like Moses before him, God told Martin King, “I’m going to take you up to the mountain and I’m going to let you look over and see the Promised Land.
“You won’t get there. Your job is done. You have done all you can do. Your task is finished. You have done well, thy good and faithful servant. You won’t get to the Promised Land; but I want you to know that the poor, the downtrodden, the least of these, the people you have been fighting for will get to the Promised Land.” The poem says:
“So now that he is safely dead,
We, with eased consciences will
Teach our children that he was a great man,
Knowing that the cause for which he
Lived is still a cause And the dream for which he died is still a dream.
A dead man’s dream.”
As I come to a close, I want to you to know that the cause Dr. King fought and died for is the brotherhood of all men. We are all children of a common father.
And since we are all brothers and sisters, we have an obligation to love each other in all circumstances. This is the beloved community he talked about so much.
He used to say that love is the most durable power in the world. Love is the key that unlocks the door to true brotherhood. This was his true legacy. He never gave up on non-violence.
He refused to hate his perceived enemy. He used to say that we should never fight with hate and malice, because when the walls of segregation finally crumbled, we had to live together as brothers and sisters.
We all have an obligation to make his dream a reality. We all know someone who needs a helping hand, someone who may be down on their luck. Every day we are challenged to turn the other cheek and to seek reconciliation with those with whom we disagree. We can do this if we simply turn away from the status quo and have the courage to love.
Like him we have to shake off the labels of Democrat and Republican, left and right, rich and poor, Christian and Muslim and recognize that we are all God’s children.
Like him we have to love those we don’t like, we have to love the person and hate the evil deed they may be committing. Like him we have to have the courage to speak truth to our politicians and tell them to stop all this foolishness, stop demonizing each other and sit down and do what is right for this country and for this world.
Like him whenever and wherever we encounter injustice we must take a stand. Like him we must do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with thy God. This is how we make a dead man’s dream become a reality.