S. E. Williams
With Deep Clouds of Disappointment Floating Through Our Mental Sky- Let Us Follow the Teachings of a King
As Americans prepare to honor the memory and deeds of the beloved Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on a day set aside for just that purpose, many do so, still reeling from the outcome of last year’s presidential election and with warranted concerns for the future of the nation.
Similar and in many instances, more grievous concerns were natural, unwanted companions during the Civil Right era. Some were truly unimaginable like the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in September, 1963, that killed four little girls. Civil Rights leaders during such trying times found their own mental skies filled with deep clouds of disappointment.
It was an unbridled belief in the righteousness of their cause that kept Civil R i g h t s activists moving forward—a determination rooted in hope for better days; embedded in a desire to offer a better life to Black children—largely inspired by the wisdom of the movement’s leader—Dr. King.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, America remembers with reverence, King—the Dreamer, who more than fifty years ago, at the peak of one of the fiercest fights for civil rights in the nation’s history, stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial among a throng of those who believed in a better tomorrow and delivered one of the most eloquent and inspiriting speeches in the history of the world—“I have a Dream.”
Yes, King was a dreamer; but many have forgotten he was also a revolutionary—a Drum major.
History books tell the story of the 1963 March on Washington and highlight King’s “I have a dream speech”; but much less attention has been given by history to one of King’s most significant and memorable speeches—a speech delivered at the Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967–exactly one year to the day before King would be shot dead in Tennessee on April 4, 1968.
The title of the speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” quickly put King at odds with many in both political parties and with some among his own supporters in the movement who believed he should keep his focus on issues related to civil rights.
King had stepped outside the box and expanded his focus to include criticism of the nation’s foreign policy especially as it related to the Viet Nam war as a symbol of oppression and death of poor people of color around the world; a check on how the spending of federal dollars on weapons of war took money away from fighting poverty at home in America; the reality that Black soldiers were dying in Vietnam in numbers disproportionate to their percent of the U.S. population; and the irony that they were fighting for democratic rights for people abroad—rights Blacks were not guaranteed at home in the U.S.A.
“Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy,” King stated.
During his presentation, King also stressed that America must undergo a radical revolution of values. “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society.” King expressed his belief that when machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
King also expressed his belief that a true revolution of values would at some point cause many Americans to question the fairness and justice of many of the nation’s past and present policies. “On the one hand, we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside,” King said. “But, that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway.”
It was at this point in the speech that King reminded his listeners, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar—it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
King expressed his hope that a true revolution of values would sooner than later, look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth and with righteous indignation, look across the seas and see, “Individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries.”
Again, and again throughout this portion of his discourse, King lamented, "This is not just." It was not just. It was also not surprising that as a Christian minister, King would claim a genuine revolution of values meant that in the final analysis, citizens’ loyalties must be ecumenical rather than sectional. King suggested that every nation act to develop a loyalty to mankind to preserve the best in their societies.
What King spoke about more than fifty years ago, some consider of relevance today. America’s president-elect built a successful campaign rooted in disparaging various groups of people and appearing to give tacit approval to groups that profess hate.
At the Riverside Church King cautioned, “We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.”
America is now faced with the vision King spoke about—and the reality of what he called tomorrow— as today. President Barack Obama constantly reminded the country of King’s proclamation, “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”
King also warned, “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity.” Did King foresee the outcome of the 2016 Presidential Election?
Yet, despite some civilizations in history that demonstrated a penchant for being late, King remained encouraged. He stressed that the "tide in the affairs of men" does not remain at the level of flood—it ebbs and time rushes on.
King spoke of an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect, "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on, " he said and then continued with this promise, “We still have a choice . . .”
To that end, he called upon Americans to move past indecision to action. “If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight. The choice,” King stressed, “is ours.”
King ended his speech at the Riverside Church in New York with words he often quoted from another great thinker, James Russell Lowell, as follows:
Once to every man and nation Comes the moment to decide, In the strife of truth and falsehood, For the good or evil side; Some great cause, God's new Messiah, Off'ring each the bloom or blight, And the choice goes by forever Twixt that darkness and that light.
Though the cause of evil prosper, Yet 'tis truth alone is strong; Though her portion be the scaffold, And upon the throne be wrong: Yet that scaffold sways the future, And behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow Keeping watch above his own.
Monuments to the King
Across America there are memorials to the life and work of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. From the shrine at the Memphis Lorraine Hotel where he was slain; to the massive stone monument on the Mall in Washington D.C.; to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, Georgia, among others including a life size statue of King at City Halls in San Bernardino and Riverside.
Yet, King was a citizen of the world—not just the province of America. Even in death, he continues to inspire freedom loving people everywhere who embrace the value and power of nonviolent resistance. Like Americans, citizens around the globe have also erected monuments in King’s honor.
In the center of Martin Luther King Jr. Plats (MLK Square) in Uppsala, Sweden stands a monumental sculpture, a symbol of the civil rights struggle. It serves as a constant reminder to students of the international lessons and profound truth of equality.
New Delhi, India
The India International Center’s Gandhi-King Plaza is considered a secret garden amid the chaos of New Delhi. Though the two figures never met, King cited Mohandas Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance as influential to his own crusade. The monument was designed by Joseph Allen Stein, the American architect who planned the entire India International Center. It opened in 1962. The monument includes a brick pillar whose four sides are inscribed with the sayings of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. The site also includes two ‘pilkhand’ trees that give permanent shade to the plaza.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Forest in the southern Galilee region of Israel is a protected forest that was originally planted as 10,000 trees on the 10th anniversary of King’s assassination. The Forest is also a tribute to Jewish organizations that sponsored the civil rights movement in the United States and also honors Jewish activists Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. The men were murdered in 1964 while registering Black voters in Mississippi.
A statue of Reverend King is just above the western entrance to England’s famed Westminster Abbey. Westminister Abbey was built in 1245 and over the centuries has become one of the iconic religious landmarks in the world. The image of King was placed in an unoccupied niche in 1998. Nine other civil rights martyrs from the twentieth century were placed in similar niches to his left and right.
Coretta Scott King died in Rosarito, Mexico in 2006. Since her death, a statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. now stands in this Baja California city.