April 4 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee, where an assassination’s single high-velocity shot pierced the right side of his face.
King was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital and pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m., an hour later.
On the Sunday morning prior, King was in Washington, where he delivered his final sermon at the Washington National Cathedral. Clergy, laymen and the interested packed the pews to here God’s words flow from King’s mouth to their ears during one of those great gettin’ up Sunday mornings.
After thanking the cathedral’s congregants, King revealed the title his sermon, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” and made an analogy about the world today and Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” who slept for 20 years and missed the “revolution”:
“There can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in the world today. In a sense it is a triple revolution: that is, a technological revolution, with the impact of automation and cybernation; then there is a revolution in weaponry, with the emergence of atomic and nuclear weapons of warfare; then there is a human rights revolution, with the freedom explosion that is taking place all over the world. Yes, we do live in a period where changes are taking place. And there is still the voice crying through the vista of time saying, ‘Behold, I make all things new; former things are passed away.’”
Many considered King an agitator and a communist, others a peacemaker and nonviolent messenger. To legions, he was simply a dreamer and prophet who had glimpsed the promised land.
A 39-year-old preacher reared in a Southern Baptist home, he understood that the rhythms of preaching were as important as connecting the dots in speaking — and that those dots also connected generations.
King witnessed as much in Selma and Birmingham, of course, where college students and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (including Marion Barry, Stokely Carmichael and John Lewis) were preparing to run with the baton that King, C.T. Vivian and other Southerners had carried before them.
By 1968, SNCC had established offices on the U Street corridor (where I was caught leafleting one day). U Street, like H Street and other black D.C. corridors, were set ablaze the night of the King assassination, and while those avenues look nothing like time capsules, change is afoot again.
People and businesses movin’ out, people and businesses movin’ in.
Change, as King told the cathedral’s assembled, creates new challenges and new opportunities: “Now whenever anything new comes into history it brings with it new challenges and new opportunities. And I would like to deal with the challenges that we face today as a result of this triple revolution that is taking place in the world today.
“First, we are challenged to develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution. The world in which we live is geographically one. The challenge that we face today is to make it one in terms of brotherhood.”
And, we might add today, sisterhood.
We know what’s going on, and in a word it’s resistance.
Parents are resisting parenting.
Young people are resisting patience.
Houses of worship are resisting proselytizing.
Politicians are resisting passing the baton.
Too many of the above are resisting couth.
If you’re bound to social media, civility, it seems, has run its course. In its stead is an ardent sense of entitlement.
At 50 years in, it’s time, is it not? Time to dream and acknowledge we indeed are in the midst of a triple revolution. Accept it.
Recall, two short months after King’s assassination, presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy was felled by an assassin’s bullets, and had paraphrased playwright George Bernard Shaw, “Some men see things as they are and say, why; I dream things that never were and say, why not.”
Earth is always revolving. Resistance means you are not moving forward.
• Deborah Simmons can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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