Dr. King’s persistent message

On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, coverage is all over the media and snips from the speech are being played and printed. But only selective snips.

Americans haven’t been seeing or hearing his fuller message. There’s no question the civil rights movement the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led made historic and lasting gains in this country’s laws, politics and social fabric. He dedicated his life’s work to that, always grounding those soaring speeches and addresses in the Gospel, weaving scripture throughout his messages and referring nearly always to the Almighty, on behalf of “all God’s children.”

But some of the very people today who stand on the shoulders of the great civil rights leader and who claim his legacy gave them that opportunity, cite only portions of the Rev. Dr. King’s speeches and apply them strategically and even politically in ways he may not appreciate if he were here today.

But his niece Alveda King is here and was with me on radio with her unique insight into the fullness of Dr. Martin’s message and intentions. Which she said were all about ‘finding a more excellent way.’ Some of what she told me she had already shared here.

…Martin Luther King, Jr., my Uncle M. L. took a lot of time praying, seeking the Lord, inquiring of the Lord. So as we continue to follow his pattern for the rest of this week, for the rest of this year, for the rest of our lives – if we can only begin to realize that we’re not separate races – we are one human race in need of the love of God – and believe that truth will set us free – together we can overcome in Christ.

Therefore, I can understand why my uncle, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “We must learn to live together as brothers [and I add sisters] or parish together as fools.”

And so, for those of us who believe the Bible, who trust God, who have been very sinful and are now repentant, we know that we need God. We know that we need to be forgiven and healed. We know that we cannot be intolerant of other. That we must seek transformation, not just tolerance, not compromise but transformation.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz said the same thing, movingly, in talking about Dr. King’s legacy and the modern movement for human rights and dignity. He was the Catholic bishops’ representative at a Christian symposium in Alabama earlier this year commemorating Dr. King’s ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail.’ His remarks then applied today, so we discussed them again today.

This letter, which is rich in foundations of scripture and human philosophy, direct, and prophetic, gave a rationale for strong action as well as marching orders for the steps we must follow to lift us, as the letter states, “from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.” Rightly, he uncovered the words of St. Thomas Aquinas that the unjust law is “the human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law” and so is, as Dr. King says, “out of harmony with the moral law.”

Archbishop Kurtz talked about the consequences of losing the sense and awareness of the natural law written on the heart, and we’re certainly facing the signs of that in the culture, law, politics, everywhere.

But it’s important, he added, to recognize the gains and the good and acknowledge them.

Thus today, we must ask forgiveness for past wrongs, be grateful for words that have already borne fruit, and be resolved for more action…

Listen again to the final words of Rev. King’s fifty-year-old letter: “Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

We hear and heed these words with great hope, and we pray “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where is sadness, joy … For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.”

And as Dr. Michael Coulter points out, we need to hear the words of Dr. King’s famous speech later that same year, commemorated this Wednesday, lesser known words from ‘I Have A Dream’.

In the third paragraph of King’s text, he says that “when the architects of our Great Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”…

A “promissory note” is not one of those terms we use frequently, but it’s a powerful term. It’s not a hope or a wish. In fact, there was an international agreement in 1930 which defined a promissory note as implying an unconditional promise. For King, the Declaration of Independence, which he quoted directly from, was a promissory note that the United States would ultimately guarantee for all people “the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” As King then said, “It is obvious that America has defaulted on this promissory note.” King was not calling for the destruction of the American political order, but rather for us to be true to the ideals of the founding, and that’s why it is important that he quoted the Declaration.

So few commentators note this, or know this. But it’s important to know and talk about.

Finally, at the end of King’s speech is a beautiful sequence where he presents images of a truly post-racial society—and there again is one more reference to the Declaration of Independence. As he begins this “dream” section, he says: “I still have a dream. It is deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

King’s hopes were rooted in that powerful second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence that claims that no man by nature is ruler or the servant of another. It’s not just a great statement during a social struggle, it’s a great statement about what it means to be an American.

And one hoping to reveal and struggling to defend self-evident truths about the dignity of “all God’s children”, no exceptions.