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MLK: Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory

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TIME: Even after the Supreme Court struck down segregation in 1954, what the world now calls human-rights offenses were both law and custom in much of America. Before King and his movement, a tired and thoroughly respectable Negro seamstress like Rosa Parks could be thrown into jail and fined simply because she refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus so a white man could sit down. A six-year-old black girl like Ruby Bridges could be hectored and spit on by a white New Orleans mob simply because she wanted to go to the same school as white children. A 14-year-old black boy like Emmett Till could be hunted down and murdered by a Mississippi gang simply because he had supposedly made suggestive remarks to a white woman. Even highly educated blacks were routinely denied the right to vote or serve on juries. They could not eat at lunch counters, register in motels or use whites-only rest rooms; they could not buy or rent a home wherever they chose. In some rural enclaves in the South, they were even compelled to get off the sidewalk and stand in the street if a Caucasian walked by. The movement that King led swept all that away. Its victory was so complete that even though those outrages took place within the living memory of the baby boomers, they seem like ancient history. And though this revolution was the mlk-x-obey.thumbnail.jpgproduct of two centuries of agitation by thousands upon thousands of courageous men and women, King was its culmination. It is impossible to think of the movement unfolding as it did without him at its helm. He was, as the cliche has it, the right man at the right time. MORE

INQUIRER: What we don’t celebrate, what we suppress, is King’s other great teaching: that if we wish to throw off the racism and militarism that have stained our history, we must reform our very economic and social system itself. That’s the prophecy we ignore – strenuously – every King Day. It appears increasingly in writings toward the end of King’s life, but its foremost statement was the sermon “Beyond Vietnam,” delivered April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York, and in slightly different forms elsewhere. King, among other aims, gave the sermon to explain why he, a minister, had joined the antiwar movement. King calls for the United States to abandon the war – but that’s only a first step. The true drama begins when he declares that the “war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.” What follows is an agonized protest: “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, 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.” MORE

MARTIN LUTHER KING: My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years — especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in mlk-x-obey.thumbnail.jpgthe world today — my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent. MORE

AMERICAN RADIOWORKS: Martin Luther King Jr. felt poorly the night he delivered this speech, the last one of his life. The venue was a mass meeting held in the Bishop Charles Mason Temple Church of God. Andrew Young, who was with him at the time, said King initially decided not to speak at all that night. King and his small entourage – including Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, and Benjamin Hooks – had led a march that day protesting low pay for black garbage collectors in Memphis. A rainstorm was gathering. King decided he was too sick to preach. He asked his best friend, Abernathy, to speak instead. Once in the church, Abernathy felt King would have to speak to the crowd, so he phoned King and asked him to come down. Abernathy promised that he would still do the preaching; King would just have to say a few words. Abernathy spoke for more than half an hour, his words energizing the crowd. That called up the spirit in Reverend King, and he spoke that night without a single note in hand. In a speech Benjamin Hooks delivered a decade after King’s death (also featured in this anthology), he recalled King’s final sermon: “I remember that night when he finished, he stopped by quoting the words of that song that he loved so well, ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’ He never finished. He wheeled around and took his seat and to my surprise, when I got a little closer, I saw tears streaming down his face. Grown men were sitting there weeping openly because of the power of this man who spoke on that night.” King had warned in previous sermons that he might die before the struggle ended. It was not the first time he told listeners he’d “seen the promised land.” King had been living with death threats for years. MORE

ABC: After Dr. King was shot and before his death was announced, I remember too seeing on television the powerful climax of the speech he had given just the night before. In some ways, that speech is more indelibly etched in my mind and memory than his more famous “I Have A Dream” speech of 1963. I read later that King was exhausted that night, April 3, 1968. He begged off speaking but finally agreed to address the audience at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple Church of God. His final words are chilling to hear or read even today: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life,” he said. “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!” The next day, Martin Luther King was killed by an assassin’s bullet. He was just 39. Had he lived, he would have turned 81 on Jan. 15. MORE

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