Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, speaks at Morning Prayers in Appleton Chapel on the 50th anniversary of the assassination the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
On April 12, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. sat inside of a Birmingham jail cell. His crime? – daring to challenge city leaders to dismantle the structures of racial segregation, economic suppression, and political disenfranchisement.
Though nearly a decade since Brown vs. Board Supreme Court decision, Birmingham, like the rest of the South remained obstinate and incompliant. Though local activists had struck deals in good faith with local businesses to integrate the labor force and city services, those who controlled the levers of power remained insidious and perfidious. Thus, Dr. King partnered with local leaders to engage in nonviolent demonstrations. They intended to expose the acute structural violence that encumbered the existence of blacks in Birmingham. "Public safety" commissioner Bull Connor and local police contributed to a theatre of terror for African Americans in the city. As King's nonviolent demonstration ultimately exposed, city leaders were willing to go to any extent – fire hoses, attack dogs, billy clubs, and even the bombing of churches – to defend an unjust status quo. White supremacy was the enduring lie that sustained those in power. It was the evil ideology that provided economic benefit to an elite few while exploiting a multiracial majority.
Resistance did not just extend from ardent segregationists. While King sat in jail that April day, eight local religious leaders released a public statement in several local newspapers. Entitled "An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense," these prominent ministers and a rabbi were well-respected as voices of moderation. They were highly regarded for their well-reasoned clarity and political savvy. When they spoke, people listened.
On this occasion, they used their voice to call King's demonstrations "unwise and untimely." The statement went on to make a fallacy of false equivalence between nonviolent protesters and the forces of violence that sought to suppress dissent. They stated, "Just as we pointed out that hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political traditions, we also point out that such actions that incite hatred and violence have not contributed to local problems."
The statement goes on to commend law enforcement on their "calm and restraint," and for "protecting our city from violence." It ends with a puerile and patronizing conclusion, "We appeal to both our white and Negro...
I cite this statement today not to elaborate on the moral clarity, consistency, and intellectual acumen demonstrated in King's famous response, "A Letter from a Birmingham City Jail." But rather I read this public statement as a harbinger of our contemporary moment.
Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr's assassination, we continue to confuse appeals to "law and order" with justice. Fifty years later we continue to frame institutional challenge from people of color as inherently violent while commending militarized police forces, the prison industrial complex, and other forms of state suppression as "keepers of the peace." And fifty years after a bullet severed King's spine, we continue to frame those who condemn this nation's love affair with weaponry as "unwise and untimely."
Sure, we've incorporated Martin Luther King into our ideological talking points. He is now part of the pantheon of American civic gods--we've encased him for mass consumption as MLK, the innocuous color-blind dreamer--a veritable tooth fairy of racial harmony. And we appeal to him as a moral paragon of peace every time citizen protest exposes the hypocrisy of democracy for those living on the underside of the American empire. Yet this nation refuses to wrestle with the implications of his moral thought and political philosophy in the contemporary moment. It seems that it’s easier to deify a dead dreamer than heed the words of a living prophet.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at Memorial Church during his visit to Harvard in 1965. Photo courtesy of the Harvard University Archives.
Unfortunately, this would mean that you and I must own our own complicity in extending the tentacles of injustice at home and abroad. Maybe this is why, like those eight religious leaders, too many of us appeal to "common sense" and "calm" to mask our moral cowardice. We appeal to peaceful solutions when it comes to those terrorized by inadequate housing, underfunded schools, and low-wage employment.
But King could see. His clarity of moral vision reminded us then and reminds us now that we do not have to make this difficult.
It's not that difficult.
It's not difficult to see that there is a problem with a nation that defends the right to bear arms with greater fervor than it does the right to vote. It's not difficult.
It's not difficult to see that there is a problem with a nation that allows some states to spend more per year to house prisoners than it does per pupil for public education.
And it’s not difficult to see that any nation that sticks with a system of taxation that has exacerbated economic inequality over the past forty years is heading for collapse.
Dr. King told us from the pulpit of the Riverside Church in New York that this country needs a revolution of values. We must move from a thing-oriented society to a love-oriented society. Not a sentimental love, but a love that rebalances the scales of power. A revolution that places people over profits, and the common good of all over the individual acquisition of a few. And when we do this, we might begin to understand the Hebrew prophet Amos: justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.