Early morning, April 4
A shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride
In the name of love
Pride (in the Name of Love) - U2
Forty years ago today, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis. He was there in support of the striking sanitation workers. The previous evening, he gave what has come to be known as the Mountaintop speech.
In the speech, Dr. King prophetically talks about leading people to the promise land, but not entering himself. Much like Moses, he led us. Much like Moses, he did not enter the promise land. Unlike the Israelites, forty years on we have not reached the promise land.
Since his death, Dr. King has become an icon. As often happens with icons, they lose detail after years of polishing. In focusing on his speeches, marches, and civil rights work, we lose insight into his multifaceted persona and wide-ranging passions. We do not mention his stance against the Vietnam War (a stance that reduced his access to President Johnson). We hide his focus on eliminating poverty. Some are working to keep his memory more complete.
- Sister remembers 'horrible moment' King was killed
- Honoring MLK by Changing the Wind (by Troy Jackson)
- Recapturing MLK's Radical Vision (by Adam Taylor)
Some are not. Recently, presidential candidate Barack Obama invited the nation to have a conversation about race. If you are not among the nearly 4 million people who have watched the speech, you probably should.
Unfortunately, most of the coverage of this speech has not been a discussion of race, it has been a discussion of how this speech and the controversy that preceded it will affect Sen. Obama's chance of obtaining the Democratic nomination and being elected president. There have been some exceptions, notably former Republican presidential candidate and minister Mike Huckabee and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In the news media, Bill Moyers had excellent pieces on the Kerner Commission Report and Newark Mayor Cory Booker. But for the most part, we have not addressed what Sen. Obama in previous speeches called, in a different context, the "empathy deficit" in our country. The inability of people in our society to see things through other's eyes. The impulse to judge rather than to try to understand. The inability to walk a mile in someone else's shoes. We pretend we understand what it is like for a woman in a male dominated world. We pretend we understand what it is like for an African American to come of age in a "post-civil rights" era. We pretend we understand what it is like to be an immigrant in an ever-increasingly xenophobic society. And in our pretend world, we feel free to condemn. Just lest ye be judged.
Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was in Indianapolis the day Dr. King died. He had to tell the mostly African American crowd that had gathered to see him that Dr. King had been killed. In talking about the loss of Dr. King and the loss of his brother, he quoted Æschylus.
In our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart
until, in our own despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
Agamemnon - Æschylus
Update: added links to Bill Moyers Journal.
Update2: now there have been over 4 million viewings of Sen. Obama's speech.