March 31 is the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last Sunday sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. in 1968 before his assassination four days later: “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”. Dr. King said he believed a triple revolution was taking place in the world – a technological revolution, a revolution in weaponry, and a human rights revolution. To face this triple revolution, he said we must figure out how to develop a world perspective, eradicate racism and economic injustice, rid our nation and world of poverty, and find an alternative to war and bloodshed – all with great urgency:
“It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.’ Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”
We must act upon his warnings if our children, nation’s future and founding principles – subverted and still sullied by the legacies of slavery, Native American genocide, exclusion of women and nonpropertied men of all colors from our electoral processes – are to be saved.
I have said often that too many Americans would rather celebrate than follow Dr. King. Many have enshrined Dr. King the dreamer and ignored Dr. King the “disturber of all unjust peace,” as theologian Vincent Harding said. Many remember King the vocal opponent of violence but not the King who called for massive nonviolent civil disobedience to challenge the stockpiling of weapons of death and the wars they fuel and the excessive materialism of the greedy which deprives the needy of the basic necessities of life. And many celebrate Dr. King the orator but ignore his words about the need for reordering the misguided values and national investment priorities he believed are the seeds of America’s downfall.
Dr. King’s greatness lay in his willingness to struggle to hear and see the truth; to not give into fear, uncertainty and despair; to continue to grow and to never lose hope, despite every discouragement from his government and even his closest friends and advisers. Contributors deserted him as he spoke out not only for an end to the Vietnam War but for a fairer distribution of our country’s vast resources between the rich and the poor. Why was he pushing the nation to do more on the tail of the greatest civil rights strides ever made and challenging a President who had declared a war on poverty? Because he saw that our nation’s ills went far deeper and that fundamental structural and priorities changes had to be made and that the War on Poverty and Vietnam War were inextricably intertwined.
In the Cathedral sermon he announced that in a few weeks he would be coming back to Washington leading a Poor People’s Campaign: “We are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses . . . We are going to bring children and adults and old people, people who have never seen a doctor or a dentist in their lives . . . We are not coming to engage in any histrionic gesture. We are not coming to tear up Washington. We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty. We read one day, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.”
“We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that it signed years ago. And we are coming to engage in dramatic nonviolent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible. Why do we do it this way? We do it this way because it is our experience that the nation doesn’t move around questions of genuine equality for the poor and for black people until it is confronted massively, dramatically in terms of direct action . . . And I submit that nothing will be done until people of goodwill put their bodies and their souls in motion.”
As always Dr. King’s voice and vision were prescient and right – and speak to where our nation is today. Towards the end of his life Dr. King said to a group of friends: “We fought hard and long, and I have never doubted that we would prevail in this struggle. Already our rewards have begun to reveal themselves. Desegregation…the Voting Rights Act…But what deeply troubles me now is that for all the steps we’ve taken toward integration, I’ve come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house” riddled by excessive militarism, materialism and racism. When asked what we should do Dr. King answered: “We’re just going to have to become firemen” and sound the siren of alarm.
Our nation and world desperately need loud sirens and firefighters for justice right now to curb morally obscene child poverty rates; wealth and income inequality; massive miseducation of poor children of color; preventable hunger and homelessness; mass incarceration and unjust criminal justice systems that criminalize the poor; and bullying and demagogic politicians encouraging assault of nonviolent protesters.
The time is ripe right now to do what is right and reject the ugliness, violence and greed that have permeated too much of our political discourse. We need to move forward and not backward and teach our children we can disagree strongly without disagreeing wrongly.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.