Tribute to Martin Luter King

27 June 2008
This year Martin Luther King has been dead for longer than he lived. His thirty-nine years on earth present a certain Christ-like intensity. Jesus was a member of a subject people, surely darker of skin than the pale Roman occupying forces; Jesus’ revolutionary teaching was compressed into three short years; Jesus confronted the hatred and violence of others with the strength of faith and the acceptance of pain and death. King is remembered especially for his “I have a dream” speech, one that surely displays a brilliant, uniquely American gift for oratory, but his final speech, given on the eve of his assassination, mirrors even more closely his brief life. In this final testimony to his faith, King summed up his long march: he had journeyed with the Lord, he was confident in victory, he was prepared to die. Knowing that his life was under threat, King told the crowd at the church in Memphis:
I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. .. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life... 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. And 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.
The wonders of the internet now allow us to witness in real time the occasion of King’s “Dream” speech. For those of us used to participating in political demonstrations, the first striking thing about the April 1963 March on Washington is how well-dressed the marchers are. The footage shows a multi- racial, quite formal crowd. Most of the men are wearing suits and ties; the loosened-up mood of the end of the 1960s is still in the future. The second impression is the sheer size of the demonstration—a quarter of a million people, indeed the largest crowd ever to converge on Washington, they cover the Mall all the way to the great obelisk of the Washington Monument. They have come to demand justice, for black people, for all people. Most striking about King’s speech itself, now often forgotten, is exactly where he delivered it and where it is situated in history. We are in April 1963, King is standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, under the larger-than-life, thoughtful presence of the sixteenth President of the United States. One-hundred years earlier, on the first of January 1863, using his authority as Commander in Chief in wartime, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring freedom for the slaves. The Washington marchers have gathered a century later to complete Lincoln’s work. To the early twenty-first century ear, King’s statement, “We have come here to cash a check” is jarring, it sounds almost trivial—until one stops to remember that a check is a promise—a promise to deliver a certain sum to someone on the strength of someone else’s signature. Lincoln’s Proclamation promised to deliver freedom to black people—still called Negroes in 1863 and in 1963—and on the strength of Lincoln’s signature, the descendents of those former slaves have come a hundred years later to collect the still-missing sum of promised freedom. They still suffer discrimination, segregation, ghettoisation and the casual scorn and hatred of whites in both North and South. They want that check, dated 1863 to be finally cashed. Who knows if Martin Luther King on that April day, standing before that sea of people, thought of Lincoln’s own fate. The President was shot and killed on an April evening by a furious Southerner two years after proclaiming freedom for the slaves. King would himself be shot and killed on another April evening five years on. As T.S. Eliot wrote with more foresight than he could have imagined, “April is the cruellest month”. But on that April day of 1963, marching in Lincoln’s steps and standing in his presence, King gave renewed hope and energy to a nation. He knew that the battle for human emancipation is never-ending. Heroes like Lincoln and King died for it. Their sacrifice should remind us not just of their dreams but of their living reality and summon us to march in their steps whenever the struggle for justice calls.
Susan George is Chair of the Board of the Transnational Institute. Her latest books are Hijacking America: How the religious and secular right changed what Americans think, and We the peoples of Europe.