Attending a national conference on preaching here in the Washington, D.C. area this past week, I noted many references to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the recently past 40th anniversary of his tragic assassination was referred to by speaker after speaker. King was certainly a giant in our history, a man of thought and action remembered as someone who had the courage of his convictions.
Dr. King was a great man on so many levels. But he was first a Pastor-Preacher, erudite and eloquent – persuasive and passionate. And with preaching in the news recently, I revisited some of his last sermons and speeches, wondering how they’d play in today’s cultural and political climate.
Of course, such a translation of any discourse from one era to another is potentially perilous, running the risk of ignoring the context of the remarks and the idiosyncrasy of the current moment. But I think it’s fascinating to consider the words themselves, especially in light of the firestorm recently created by the pulpit pronouncements of Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
While there are occasional similarities in language between Wright and King, there is most certainly a difference in tenor and tone. Yet, Dr. King could be a controversialist himself when it came to saying provocative things from the podium or pulpit.
A year to the day before his death in Memphis, Martin Luther King Jr. occupied the pulpit of Riverside Church in Manhattan. This church, built against the backdrop of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920’s, was founded by Harry Emerson Fosdick and John D. Rockefeller Jr. - a liberal preacher with a generous benefactor. Mr. Rockefeller initially donated more than $10.5 million and his contribution grew to more than $32 million by 1959 – a case of petrodollars funding Protestant liberalism.
As Dr. King spoke to a crowd of nearly 4,000 on April 4, 1967, he said that as a religious leader he wanted to “move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high ground of a firm dissent.” His subject was not Civil Rights – it was the Vietnam War.
Though careful to talk about America as his “beloved nation,” and not at all hesitant to address the crowd as “my fellow Americans,” he said that “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” was “my own government.”
At that time, polls indicated that nearly 75% of Americans supported the war.
Dr. King faced his own media firestorm in the immediate aftermath of his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. The Washington Post described it as “unsupported fantasy,” and the New York Times called it “Dr. King’s Error.” U.S. News and World Report went even further suggesting that King was “lining up with Hanoi” and President Johnson angrily speculated that King had “thrown in with the Commies.”
Even legendary baseball player/hero Jackie Robinson came out against the speech and the NAACP adopted a resolution warning that King’s effort to connect the anti-war movement with civil rights was a “serious tactical mistake.”
Later that year, the annual Gallup Poll of the Ten Most Popular Americans would not include the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - for the first time in more than a decade.
One long and very difficult year after his Riverside remarks, Dr. King was in Memphis. And the night before his death he was scheduled to speak at Mason Temple. There were storm and tornado warnings and he was weary from travel, so he asked Rev. Ralph Abernathy to go in his place. When Abernathy got to the church, he saw thousands who had braved violent weather to hear King, so he called back to the Lorraine Motel and encouraged his friend to come over. King did and he gave what was to be his last sermon.
During his 20-minute extemporaneous address that evening he asked: “Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher?” - adding as a word of encouragement to the great number of preachers in the crowd: “I want to commend the preachers…and I want you to thank them, because so often, preachers aren’t concerned about anything but themselves. And I’m always happy to see a relevant ministry.” As he warmed to the crowd and his message he said: “We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words.”
He called for the development of what he referred to as “a kind of dangerous unselfishness,” and segued to a rhetorical comfort zone, the Biblical story of The Good Samaritan. He used the famous story as the basis for his admonition: “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with greater determination…We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”
Then he waxed personal and described a previous assassination attempt by “a demented black woman” ten years before and how the blade came so close to his aorta that one sneeze would have ended his life. This was a familiar King story, one that he told many times with the refrain “If I had sneezed…” being repeated again and again for effect. At this point, other preachers on the platform that night became unsettled because this story was usually one placed earlier in a speech. The concern was that Dr. King might “miss his landing” and not end on a high note.
There is an old formula in the African-American tradition of preaching: “Start low, go slow. Rise higher, catch fire. Retire.” The concern was that King was not quite catching fire. Then, however, came those final moments as he talked about being to the mountain top and seeing the “promised land” and the now famous and passionate ending: “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!”
As a preacher King was Sunday-centric, always with an eye on the next sermon. So the next afternoon, Thursday, April 4, 1968, he placed a call from room 306 of the Lorraine Motel back to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and gave his secretary the title for his upcoming Palm Sunday sermon: “Why America May Go to Hell.”
He never had the chance to preach that one. A few hours later his voice was silenced in a brief and deadly explosion of violence.
Dr. King is remembered 40 years later for his words and deeds. He is honored - appropriately so - as a hero. It is, though, an interesting question: “What would Dr. King say today – and how would he be received?”