Today we observe the death of Rev. Dr. Martin (Michael) Luther King, Jr., America’s last prophetic voice to and for Black Americans. While standing over the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, TN he was gunned down leaving the country and the world to mourn his death. Following his death, riots broke out across the country as the angst of his loss spread. He was truly a non-violent force to be reckoned with. His death would become the impetus for much success politically and socially for black Americans, but it would also heighten the sense of despair and disparity for many of the same.
Dr. King’s final speech at the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ of Memphis, TN the night before he was killed provided insight into his prophetic voice and mission to America. I have visited this church, the Lorraine Hotel, and listened to this speech several times. The message continues to resonate within my soul as it affirms his life mission and my gratitude for God’s gift of him to us. I have taken a few quotes from his speech to reflect on as I write this tribute to him and his prophetic voice.
“It’s all right to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all of its symbolism. “
This statement stands out to me because up until the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, many Black Americans were conditioned in the religious expectations of the Promised Land being in heaven where all the races would be one in the New Jerusalem. It was the idealized mansion on streets of gold with new robes and new names over in glory that gave them hope for an eventual life of prosperity and inclusion. This was reinforced Sunday after Sunday during what Dr. King called “the most segregated hour in America.” In his final speech, Dr. King acknowledges the reality of that hope as a means of both coping but also emphatically states that the symbolism is insufficient for the times. I must agree with Dr. King, we can no longer place our hope in hope alone because without action it proves insufficient. Leading up to this statement, Dr. King states that he was” always happy to see a relevant ministry.” Indeed, in times like then and even now, our ministry must be relevant to the needs of the people we serve and lead. We must not be those selfish preachers only looking out for ourselves, we must be unselfish and loving and provide leadership that is relevant and challenging to the powers that would keep us oppressed.
“Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness”
Dr. King came to Memphis to rally with black garbage workers for fair wages and benefits. He had developed a greater sense of his prophetic voice to speak to not just racial inequity, but also economic inequity. In this speech he acknowledged the reality of our people living in poverty when compared to white America, but he then pronounced an affirming word that although we may be poor individually, “collectively we are richer than all the nations of the world with the exception of nine.” He advocated that this collective economic power be used to our advantage. He advocated the support of black owned businesses outside of the church and funeral homes. He strongly believed that if we became economically independent, we could do more to destroy the yoke of racial oppression within our communities. Those are certainly very relevant for us today. While there a great number of Black multi-millionaires and even billionaires, the reality is that we are still dangerously selfish. We are still afraid of the cooperative economic power that is available to us if we develop a dangerous unselfishness. I can only imagine what this kind of dangerous unselfishness would look like. I believe it would look like churches and businesses collaborating to make our communities economically self-sufficient. It would be black people investing in each other’s visions of business and economic development. It would cause our urban neighborhoods to have the development without gentrification.
“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!”
Dr. King lived daily with the threat of death. He tells the story of being stabbed by an anonymous woman once and how devastatingly close he came to die. He recalled the news reports of how critical his wound was, that if he had sneezed once he would have died. He stated how he received a letter from a white girl in White Plains who simply write, she was glad he didn’t sneeze. He too rejoiced that he hadn’t sneezed during that time because of all the future opportunities afforded to him upon his release from the hospital. What Dr. King rejoiced in, there were still many who had wished he had been killed. Dr. King could not have predicted that his life would end on a hotel balcony at the hands of a white sniper. He could not have predicted the many who would mourn his death. He certainly could not have predicted that there would be riots because of his tragic death.
I don’t believe Dr. King would even desire us celebrating his martyrdom. I believe that when he spoke those words, he had the reality of the deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and many countless others in his mind. I believe he understood that even at his young age, having become a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, a pastor, and leader for millions, he like Jesus his Savior, was still despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. This grief, however, drove him to seek God and God showed him the Promised Land. He knew the reality that just as Moses, he may catch a glimpse of the glory of the Promised Land, but he may never make it over to it. It is these last prophetic words that resonate with us 50 years later. We do not know what he saw. We do know what we see. We are in the Promised Land and are now still in need of deliverance from internal and external oppressors. We are in the Promised Land and are still as a people seemingly wandering in the wilderness. I won’t say we need another deliver like Dr. King, I will say that we have been equipped with the dream and the vision to make our Promised Land our Prosperous Land.