Leonard Pitts Jr

King lives on that mountaintop because our zeal for justice keeps him there

Students from Douglas High read iconic MLK speech

Kai Koerber and Tyah Roberts, both student leaders at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, read Martin Luther King Jr.'s acceptance speech when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
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Kai Koerber and Tyah Roberts, both student leaders at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, read Martin Luther King Jr.'s acceptance speech when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

The sun was low in the sky and the breeze had begun to carry a bit of malice. Chicago priest Michael Pfleger had just finished a thundering oration from the balcony of the Lorraine Motel about how the church ought to be “dangerous to evil, dangerous to injustice and be responsible to shatter the darkness with light and expose the lies with truth and display the weakness of hate when it is faced with the power of love itself.”

And the clock struck 6:01 and the bell began to ring. It rang 39 solemn tones, one for each year of a life cut short 50 years ago. Thousands of people listened in absolute silence to the chimes. When the last one faded away, a sweet guitar began to frame one of the foundational melodies of the African-American church and the great Al Green appeared, singing a spirited “Precious Lord."

It could not be lost on anyone that this was the song Martin Luther King leaned over the balcony and requested musician Ben Branch to play at an upcoming mass meeting on that evil night half a century ago. “Sing it real pretty,” he had said. And then the shot rang out. Fifty years later, here was Al Green singing it pretty,singing it upbeat and happy. It was a fitting ending to a program that capped a week of remembrance.

The words, image and memory of King have been ubiquitous here this week, 50 years after he “got into Memphis” to lead a march on behalf of striking sanitation workers. April 3, 1968, was a stormy night here, and an exhausted King, nursing a fever, intended to spend it resting. But when his aide, Ralph Abernathy, called to tell him that the hall was packed and the people demanding to hear from him, King dressed and went out into the rain.

He spoke for 45 minutes from the pulpit of the Mason Temple, demanding economic justice and exhorting the workers to be firm in their resolve. Toward the end, the speech turned valedictory, as he looked back over his public life. Then it turned defiant, his powerful voice cresting and singing as he contemplated — and embraced — his own mortality. Tuesday night, in the darkness of Mason Temple, a spotlight illuminated an empty podium and those words from a half a century back echoed again.

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now,” said the disembodied voice of King. “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.”

And then he roared his last public words: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” He was struck down by an assassin’s bullet the next evening while standing on that balcony outside Room 306, bantering with his men as they prepared to go to dinner.

“Yes, I was there when the bullet struck,” former ambassador Andrew Young said Tuesday night, standing at the same podium from which King had viewed the mountaintop. “But you know, Africans say ‘You ain’t dead till people stop calling your name.’”

By that measure, Martin Luther King is alive and well — especially here, and especially this week.

King lived in the righteous preaching of his youngest child, the Rev. Dr. Bernice King, who followed Young to the podium. She recalled how her father, the week of his murder, called his mother to give her the title for that Sunday’s sermon, which he would not live to deliver. It was called: “America May Go To Hell.”

“And … as I look at the landscape of our world today, America may still go to hell. Fifty years later, I’m here to declare and decree, not only must America be born again, but it’s time for America to repent. It’s time for America to repent because we have not, in 50 years, dealt with … the last vestiges of racism. We must repent because Daddy challenged us to deal with a second evil, poverty, which we have refused to confront in this nation. Finally, we have to repent because of a third evil that my father identified, called militarism. Militarism has robbed us of the necessary resources to address the social injustices and the social ills and the social discrepancies in our nation.”

The events at Mason Temple were part of a remembrance called “I Am 2018,” co-sponsored by the Church of God in Christ (the Temple is its headquarters) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union King came to town half a century ago to support. But King lived also in the moral indignation of Dr. Charles McKinney, a history professor at Rhodes College, who was a panelist on the MLK50 Symposium at the University of Memphis, co-sponsored by the National Civil Rights Museum.

McKinney addressed what he called this nation’s ongoing “investment” in segregation, particularly as reflected in the economic nonsense that is mass incarceration. “Even in instances where it literally doesn’t make any fiscal sense to engage in patterns and practices that we engage in, we still see the deep, deep investment. So fiscal conservatives, who moan about pinching pennies, you hit them with ‘Hey, it costs $80,000 a year to lock a person up. It costs $40,000 a year to educate them. Which one would you prefer? ’”

The answer, he said, is that they would prefer to lock that hypothetical person up, assuming he is a person of color. "That investment in the racialized nature of mass incarceration is killing us economically, it’s killing us socially, it’s killing us in so many different ways, but that investment is so deep.”

In those words, in their impatience with the unfairness of a wicked status quo, Martin Luther King lived and breathed.

He lived in a voter-registration drive by local activist Rev. Earle J. Fisher, who decried what he said are studies proving, “The vote today is more suppressed than it was in 1968.”

He lived in protests. A group of immigration activists staged a demonstration Wednesday at the city jail. Another demonstration, dubbed a “rolling block party,” briefly choked off an access road serving FedEx, Memphis’ biggest employer.

He lived in former Polish ambassador Ryszard Schnepf, who explained to the audience in the courtyard of the former Lorraine Motel — now the National Civil Rights Museum — how King’s example inspired a Gdansk shipyard worker named Lech Walesa.

He lived in the Rev. William Barber’s announcement from the Lorraine balcony of a new Poor People’s Campaign, picking up the crusade King was pressing when he died. “There is power in the blood” of martyrs, Barber reminded the audience.

King lived, poignantly, in the reflections of Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicler of the preacher and the movement he led. In a speech at the University of Memphis on Tuesday, he reminded his audience that King would have required optimism of them, even in such a time as this.

“Do not let us become a mere contributor to cynicism by saying that our government is fatally poisoned against justice,” he said. “That’s what you get from Dr. King saying that ‘We will get to the Promised Land.’ He was not a Pollyanna. He knew as well as anyone the depth of what he was struggling against. But nevertheless, he had an optimism, every single time.

“I think that’s the most distinctive thing about Dr. King, the timbre of his voice. You hear the struggle between realism and hope in his voice, and it comes out as a hymn for hope every time. I think we have to be careful to do that, too, to figure out ways to offer optimism in this time of stirring.”

Optimism, said Branch, is an American prerequisite. He invoked the first sentence of the U.S. Constitution, which reads as follows: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.”

“That,” Branch said, “is an optimism that falls on every citizen. And nobody lived up to it better than the movement people in the Civil Rights era. To me, as a white Southerner who’s studied the movement now for 35 years, I think there’s no greater miracle than that a people who had been denied anything but the whiplash of our professions of liberty nevertheless had the political genius and the indescribable courage to lift the rest of us toward the meaning of our own professed values.”

And as speaker after speaker pointed out this week, 50 years later, the nation still struggles toward that meaning. As the Rev. James Lawson who, in 1968, invited his friend Martin to come to Memphis and support the sanitation workers put it from the Lorraine balcony, there is a need to “help the United States of America become the nation it sometimes pretends to be.”

In other words, to consider this simply a commemoration is to miss the point. Which is that poverty, racism, militarism, violence and bigotry did not end when Martin Luther King died. These are not relics of some distant past on which we have thankfully closed the door. Rather, they are clear and present and now.

So as the speakers pointed out, this is not just a time to remember what Martin Luther King once was. Rather, they said, it is a time to work for change in honor of what Martin Luther King still is.

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