Perhaps it is appropriate that the commemoration of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. comes on Holy Saturday this year.
We know that Dr. King was a real human being, with faults that have been sometimes too eagerly made public. But that he was a martyr in the cause of civil rights, no one can deny.
There was a time when I couldn’t stand to listen to old fogies say, “I remember where I was when. . .” Now I’m that old fogy. On April 4, 1968, I was 15 years old. We had an early dinner, and my parents took me to the neighboring town for the second night of a talent show that I was in. Ordinarily, we would have been at home with the television news on, but this night we had to forego that ritual.
My “talent” was playing the piano, which I didn’t do extraordinarily well. While I had taken piano lessons, I had never studied long pieces, a whole sonata, for example. So I had made up a medley of “Für Elise” by Beethoven and “Lara’s Song” from “Dr. Zhivago.” Despite my lack of exceptional talent, another mother tried to have me disqualified because her daughter was playing “Für Elise” (correctly, as it turned out).
My parents went out to the car after my turn came, but I hung out for a while. A thunderstorm had begun, and when I finally ran out to the car and jumped in, soaking wet, I at first thought the tears running down my mother’s face were a reflection of the rain on the windowsill. Then my father told me, in a solemn voice, “Martin Luther King’s been assassinated.”
By 1968, it had been about five years since television stations had started to take the civil rights movement seriously and broadcasting both the horrific (Freedom Riders buses being burned) and the triumphant (March on Washington) aspects of the movement. I had seen African-Americans being cannoned with water on the nightly news or being menaced by barely restrained dogs.
In my youthful liberality, I just couldn’t understand why black people were hated so much. I had yet to learn about the complexities of white supremacy and institutionalized racism, in both of which I myself have been complicit. It seemed very clear-cut to me when I was 15. I would sometimes pretend, while sitting in a hot bath, that I was speaking to the United Nations on behalf of all African-Americans and make the case that we were all equal and, foreshadowing Rodney King, why couldn’t we all get along?
In later years, I would feel embarrassment upon remembering this, until I learned that Stokely Carmichael and other founders of the Black Power movement, also went to the UN, believing that the racism in the US made of African-Americans another country that needed the UN’s protection.
On the program for this year’s inter-church Good Friday program is this quote from Dr. King: “Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil; a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.”
Oh Dr. King! Oh Medger Evers! Oh James Chaney! Oh Malcolm X! Oh Jimmy Lee Jackson! Oh Viola Liuzzi! Oh all the martyrs of the movement, would that 47 years ago this country had had the will to keep alive the ideals that you embodied; had had the will to protect the legislation that came out of each painful moment of your work; had truly believed that racism could be overcome; had understood that that creative force working to pull down the evil cannot do it without our participation because where there is free will, there will always be evil. If we do not align our wills to God, we cannot possibly reach the bright tomorrow.
My heart broke recently (it’s been breaking a lot lately) as I listened to an audio version of Frederick Douglass’s second autobiography. His last chapter detailed the strides that had been made and his optimism for the future. I had come to feel as if I knew him intimately after listening to this very personal memoir, and I wanted to weep thinking of what he would make of our world today.
Barbara Harris, the first African-American woman Episcopal bishop, used to exhort us to be Easter people in a Good Friday world. Despair over the death of Dr. King and his dream is not an option. We must resurrect his dream on a daily basis. We must meet Jesus at the tomb every day and say, “Yes, Lord, we believe and we will spread your word and work unceasingly to bring your kingdom here on earth.” Let us not betray the martyrs, but fulfill the work that they started.