Updated: May 2, 2021
A Letter to Dr King on the 50th Anniversary of His Assassination.
If you were alive today you would be 89… It’s hard to imagine you with hair white and body slowed by age. But your spirit was always so much older than your years, as though the Ancestors themselves had resided in you for a season and then left us on our own after you were so abruptly taken… Now you are the Ancestor, shining your vision and wisdom, and your prophetic chastisement through today’s young people. Have you seen them? Surely you have. They are magnificent. The young people of the Black Lives Matter movement, standing with fierce dignity and determination against the state sanctioned slaughter of African Americans. The young people of the Dakota and Lakota Nation who ignited a movement that drew thousands in peaceful witness at Standing Rock to protect the sacredness of Water as Life. The young people called Dreamers, and all their comrades working for immigration justice and to transform the hearts and policies of this nation. The middle school and high school students who are defying government inaction in the face of yet another mass shooting, calling out the moneyed interests and demanding change. The young people of the Occupy movement – which looked in many places like Resurrection City – calling for an economy based on equity and compassion. These and so many more are your children.
They give me hope in this time of bloated and crumbling empire. The depth of festering decay is being exposed daily… The triple evils you warned about – racism, militarism, capitalist materialism – inflated to grotesque proportions, are rotting from the inside and toppling from their own obscene weight. Martin, you used to say it was inevitable that Jim Crow must die, the only question was how expensive the segregationists would make the funeral. I think of that a lot as I watch the mounting costs of this empire’s death throes. So much unnecessary destruction, and so much suffering…
Are people still so afraid?
So hateful that they would sacrifice their own grandchildren to feed their insatiable craving for more – more money, power, weapons, revenge… Hegemony is a terminal illness. And it is heart-rending to witness its ravages. Our sweet Earth has taken so much abuse, and yet mostly keeps loving us. At some point she may need to purge herself of our presence in order to restore balance to the whole. I wouldn’t blame her. We treat her as a commodity and a sewer.
Oh, Martin, you understood so much in your young years and Ancestor spirit. It must have broken your heart, too, to see so many suffer at the hands of greed and hatred (both I suspect the fruits of fear). They say when you were killed that your heart was medically much older than it should have been in a man so young. It makes sense. Your precious heart living so open and undefended as you faithfully practiced the spiritual discipline of love in the face of ongoing assault.
I was only in grade school when they murdered you. But even in those short years, I was yours. I created an “underground newspaper” called The Dove, dedicated to peace and nonviolence. It was handwritten and xeroxed at my father’s office; distributed to my third grade class, the bus driver, and a few sympathetic adults. I marvel now at the prescience and depth of that little girl, and strive to be more like her. To recover now, more than fifty years later, some of her boldness and tenderness and wisdom. To be faithful to her. And to you.
I was too young to march, and my parents were not activists, but there was something in me then that was part of the Movement – that understood (as you reminded us) justice must go together with love, and social transformation must go together with personal transformation, in order to endure. And that the true struggle was and remains, as you put it, to redeem the soul of this nation.
I know they say that the Movement made you, rather than you making the Movement. But isn’t it the movement of our times, the movement of Life, that makes any of us? … The thing is, at some level you said “yes.” You gave, as our beloved Dr. Thurman says, “the nerve center of your consent.” At first you probably had no idea just how much you’d said yes to. None of us really does. That’s how God/ Life/ Universe works with us. “Build an ark,” It said to Noah – no mention at first of animals gathered and months at sea with nothing but a thin hope of ever finding land.
“Build an ark,” the Spirit says. “Be the spokesperson for the bus boycott,” It said to you when you were a 26 year-old pastor newly arrived in Montgomery. “Black lives matter,” Spirit said to and through Alicia Garza. “Water is Life,” It said to the Lakota young people. “Me too,” It told Tarana Burke. “Take a knee,” It directed Colin Kaepernick. “Climb a tree,” It told Julia Butterfly Hill. We never really know. I think it’s by design, because maybe if we did know what-all we were really agreeing to we would never say yes in the first place. But God and the Ancestors lead us in little by little. (Like the story about how you can boil a live frog by putting it in cool water and turning up the heat so slowly as to be almost imperceptible. Until it is too late.) By the time we realize the magnitude of it we are already committed. And we keep saying yes. Some of us anyway… like you, Martin. It can be costly, but how much more costly if we don’t. How tragic to play it safe, to never live into the fullness of our calling.
I wonder sometimes what you make of this 21st century world. Does it seem worse to you, or better, than the one you walked? Do you see the Promised Land for us still – or will our demons and follies claim us first? Most days, I honestly don’t know. I expect that I will be with you in the Ancestral Realm before the question is answered. But these young people! The world they build – if they can take charge of it in time – will look a whole lot more, I think, like what you saw from your mountaintop.
Help me, dear Prophet and Elder, and help my generation, to be worthy shoulders for them to stand on! We had such noble shoulders in you and your generation. Brave and wise and wonderfully human and imperfect shoulders, like those of Fanny Lou Hamer, Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, Anne Braden, el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, Grace Lee Boggs, and so many others… now Ancestors. Help us to be faithful to that beautiful gift, and to pay it forward in whatever ways we can.
A minister-friend of mine, when doing baby blessings, recalls the saying “It takes a village to raise a child,” and points out that the corollary is also true – it takes a child to raise the village – calling us to our best selves so we can be worthy parents and guides and community for their becoming. Help us, Martin, dearest Teacher, Father, Brother, to become the best versions of ourselves, so that we can be faithful shoulders for the next generations… so that all of us may Rise.
(photo: library of congress/ public domain)