|By Dick DeMarsico, World Telegram staff photographer, via Wikimedia Commons|
It’s refreshing to dive back into the words of Dr. King, and surreal to dive into this particular speech. It was delivered at the 11th annual convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Council. I attended the 100th annual convention of the LCMS Michigan District this month, and King’s address follows the pattern of a good convention speech. With no offense to anyone who spoke at the LCMS convention, King may be a superior writer. True to convention-time speeches it is long and informative, boasting of grand accomplishments, warning of great obstacles, and doubling the courage of all who hear it.
At their 11th convention, the SCLC had changed the shape of the United States forever, and yet there was much work to be done. I cannot imagine the elation convention attendees felt, knowing that their actions over the past decade had struck down so much injustice. Still, King outlined the bleak state of race relations honestly:
“Half of all Negroes live in substandard housing. And Negroes have half the income of whites. When we turn to the negative experiences of life, the Negro has a double share: There are twice as many unemployed; the rate of infant mortality among Negroes is double that of whites; and there are twice as many Negroes dying in Vietnam as whites in proportion to their size in the population. (Yes) [applause]In other spheres, the figures are equally alarming. In elementary schools, Negroes lag one to three years behind whites, and their segregated schools (Yeah) receive substantially less money per student than the white schools. (Those schools) One-twentieth as many Negroes as whites attend college. Of employed Negroes, seventy-five percent hold menial jobs. This is where we are.” – King 1967
It is disheartening to read these figures from decades ago and know that similar disparities endure:
This prison population is disproportionately black and brown. As of 2006, the United States. penal population was 46 percent white, 41 percent African American, and 19 percent Latino. In practical terms, by 2001, about one out of every six African-American males had experienced jail or imprisonment. Based on current trends, over one out of three black men will experience imprisonment during their lives. – Manning Marable
As recently as the 1990s there have been “scholarly” attempts to prove the inferiority of black students, and thus excuse racial achievement gaps. It feels discouraging that although so much time has passed so much injustice and ignorance remains; I’m sure conference attendees brought reasons to feel discouraged. Fortunately, King was a champion of courage. That enviable courage was drawn from a deep rooted faith in the all-powerful and loving person of Jesus Christ. This shows through as King paraphrases 1 Corinthians 13:
“And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind's problems. (Yes) And I'm going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn't popular to talk about it in some circles today. (No) And I'm not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I'm talking about a strong, demanding love. (Yes) For I have seen too much hate. (Yes) I've seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. (Yeah) I've seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. (Yes, That’s right) I have decided to love. [applause] If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love. And the beautiful thing is that we aren't moving wrong when we do it, because John was right, God is love. (Yes) He who hates does not know God, but he who loves has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.And so I say to you today, my friends, that you may be able to speak with the tongues of men and angels (All right); you may have the eloquence of articulate speech; but if you have not love, it means nothing. (That's right) Yes, you may have the gift of prophecy; you may have the gift of scientific prediction (Yes sir) and understand the behavior of molecules (All right); you may break into the storehouse of nature (Yes sir) and bring forth many new insights; yes, you may ascend to the heights of academic achievement (Yes sir) so that you have all knowledge (Yes sir, Yes); and you may boast of your great institutions of learning and the boundless extent of your degrees; but if you have not love, all of these mean absolutely nothing. (Yes) You may even give your goods to feed the poor (Yes sir); you may bestow great gifts to charity (Speak); and you may tower high in philanthropy; but if you have not love, your charity means nothing. (Yes sir) You may even give your body to be burned and die the death of a martyr, and your spilt blood may be a symbol of honor for generations yet unborn, and thousands may praise you as one of history's greatest heroes; but if you have not love (Yes, All right), your blood was spilt in vain. What I'm trying to get you to see this morning is that a man may be self-centered in his self-denial and self-righteous in his self-sacrifice. His generosity may feed his ego, and his piety may feed his pride. (Speak) So without love, benevolence becomes egotism, and martyrdom becomes spiritual pride.” – King 1967
Loyal to the word that in God’s strength nothing is impossible (Matthew 19:26), King ended his address with a call to unconditional love, and a divine dissatisfaction with anything less:
“Let us be dissatisfied (Yes), and men will recognize that out of one blood (Yes) God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. (Speak sir)Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout, "White Power!" when nobody will shout, "Black Power!" but everybody will talk about God's power and human power. [applause] . . . and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights (Well), let us remember (Yes) that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil (Well), a power that is able to make a way out of no way (Yes) and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. (Speak)Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Let us realize that William Cullen Bryant is right: "Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again." Let us go out realizing that the Bible is right: "Be not deceived. God is not mocked. (Oh yeah) Whatsoever a man soweth (Yes), that (Yes) shall he also reap." This is our hope for the future, and with this faith we will be able to sing in some not too distant tomorrow, with a cosmic past tense, "We have overcome! (Yes) We have overcome! Deep in my heart, I did believe (Yes) we would overcome." [applause]” – King1967”
What always amazes me about Dr. King is his optimistic idealism. Although he lived in a time of darker trials than I can imagine, his words ring with hope. Take a moment today to ruminate on Matthew 19:26; begin to imagine a world transformed by God's unconditional love. We can create that world only if we rely on God's strength instead of our own. Ask God to work through you today. The possibilities are endless.