Anne Notations

Monday, January 21, 2008

His urgent, beautiful words

Today the kids and I are relaxing at home, thanks to a national holiday in honor of civil rights martyr Martin Luther King Jr. Every year on this day I have gathered the family to watch a videotape of King's immortal "I Have a Dream" speech, the capstone of a massive 1963 march on Washington on behalf of equality and justice for people of color in this slavery-haunted nation.

Since our move, we no longer own a VCR or, in fact, any videotapes. Nor do we have a DVD version of King's address yet. I was astonished to see that no television station appears to be marking the holiday with a broadcast of it. So I Googled.

If you have never actually read the text of "I Have a Dream," please pause right now and do so here. Then, watch the embedded video of King's actual delivery.

Words are the treasures of my own life as a reader, writer, and editor. The first time I read King's dream speech – in the pages of the wonderful Notre Dame Magazine, years ago – I gasped at its preacherly beauty and flow. I knew he was a leader of people, but I now appreciated what manner of writer King was, as well. He was a master of the motivational sermon and a lyrical poet for all time. The cadence and beauty of King's words was, and is, mesmerizing.

With a nod to Abraham Lincoln, whose statue brooded nearby that August day, King referred to the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln had signed 100 years earlier.
This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

King quoted Isaiah 40 – "the glory of the Lord shall be revealed" – and added,
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

The last portion of King's dream speech is a thrilling incantation that echoes the lyrics of "America" and underscores, through repetition, his theme of freedom ringing from mountainsides across the land. His concluding words reveal to his audience – who by now are applauding wildly and shouting "Amen!" and "Yes sir!", as if in a revival meeting – what is possible.
And when … we allow freedom [to] ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when allll of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last!
Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Here, I always have to stop and blow my nose and wipe away some tears.

We all know that King wasn't a saint. He was accused of having extramarital affairs (the curse of more than one charismatic, handsome leader) and, more disturbing to my editorial sensibility, of plagiarizing portions of his Ph.D. dissertation at Boston University. Martin Luther King Jr. was a real man, a human being with weaknesses and flaws. Painting him as a saintly artifact does no one any good, least of all King's memory. To me, 40 years after his death it is more important to appreciate that King stepped up when an articulate leader was needed by the Civil Rights movement. He put himself in mortal danger. He even got himself put in jail.

The best of King's prose is ageless. In April 1967 he spoke to clergy and others who opposed the Vietnam War at New York City's Riverside Church. How contemporary his invective against greed sounds today:

We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. 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.

In the same speech King repeats a phrase from his "I Have a Dream" speech – the "fierce urgency of now" – and rails against complacency.
Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The "tide in the affairs of men" does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. … Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: "Too late."

In his last speech, on April 3, 1968, to a small group in Memphis, King made it clear that he was still fired with that fierce urgency. On his way there to support a strike by 1,300 black sanitation workers, his flight that day had been delayed by a bomb threat. He knew his enemies might kill him at any time. But he would not be diverted by mere mortal fear.
I’ve been to the mountaintop. … And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But … we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

The next evening King was fatally shot on his hotel balcony. He had lived only 39 years. According to his biographer, Taylor Branch, an autopsy revealed that King had the heart of a 60-year-old, evidence of the punishing stress he had endured on his chosen path.

How will we honor the work of Martin's brave heart? How will we respond to his lovely, stirring words?


Post a Comment

<< Home