A Letter to Dr. King: Our Debt, Our Promise
By Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush
“We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — April 3, 1968.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered 50 years ago, on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had come to show support for a strike by sanitation workers. On April 3, King gave one of his most famous speeches known as “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” in which he foresaw his own death, explaining to the congregation: “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 so 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 video of his final speech stuns us when viewed with the knowledge of what would happen the next day. Dr. King did reach a spiritual mountaintop on April 3rd, 1968. From there, the spiritual giant reached out across time and space to offer his final gifts of spiritual sustenance: a vision for the future, hope for our journey, faith that the work of justice will not be in vain.
Observing the somber remembrance of the 50th anniversary of his assassination, we take the time to name what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. means to we people of faith who continue working for justice, to remember the spiritual and strategic brilliance he embodied, and to give thanks for his life and his legacy.
We thank you, Dr. King, for teaching what it means to be curious and open as a religious leader in a multifaith movement for justice. You taught us how to seek and learn from within your own tradition, from people like Howard Thurman, the great mystic and justice visionary, as well as from people like Mahatma Gandhi and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who came from a different traditions but whose wisdom you recognized, respected and incorporated into your own thinking.
We thank you, Dr. King, for your ability to name hard truths with clear, evocative, and inspired language. In Letter from A Birmingham Jail, you taught us to lay out clear claims and to be as fair to your white Christian audience while offering a Gospel-centered, devastating critique of the racism and injustice you saw and experienced.
We thank you, Dr. King, for your dedication to non-violence which you lived out and articulated for your generation and generations to come. “In any nonviolent campaign, there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.” Each one of these steps is grounded in deep spiritual principles – facts, negotiation, purification, action – and they give us faithful markers on a pilgrimage that merges justice with peace. Your commitment to nonviolence show us the possibilities of radical revolution without losing our souls.
We thank you, Dr. King, for your love – which is the same love that God conveyed to you, and which feels palpable to us even from this distance of time and space. Your commitment to love in the face of the appalling racism, degradation, violence, and threats that you experienced is a lesson to each one of us. You told us that you are committed to love because to hate is too great a burden. We have to remember that lesson again and again as the temptation of the sin of hate grows as our sense of the violations and oppressions we are facing becomes plain. It does not mean we cannot be angry. Like the prophets before us, we must be angry at injustice. Yet your way, like the way of Jesus, is a Way of love.
We thank you, Dr. King, for your faithful witness to God and to Jesus and to the Gospels. In our time, like yours, there are too many white wolves who don sheep clothing, using Christian language and positions to uphold white supremacy, subjugate, harm and gain power. You will forever offer a counter example, a witness to a Jesus as a savior in solidarity with the oppressed, for the marginalized, for those reaching for justice, for grace, for forgiveness. Your deep commitment to your faith, which shows in every prayer, every writing, every step, is the greatest gift to ministers like me, who constantly wonder if the Church itself might be redeemed.
We thank You, Dr. King, for your understanding that the interconnected nature of inequality. You saw how racism relates to war, to poverty, and to capitalism. In your insistence of speaking out against the Vietnam War you lost many of your supporters. In thePoor People’s Campaign, you may have lost the ‘respectable’ middle classes, but you had what we would today call an ‘intersectional’ critique to the oppression you saw. You knew that a solution would take the widest of coalitions of people of all races and religious backgrounds who wanted to come together under the banner of justice.
We thank you, Dr. King, for your role as a husband and a father. You felt the weight of the threats as you prayed at your kitchen table, yet you were not to be intimidated. Thank you for your bravery and for the bravery of your wife Coretta Scott King and your children whose hearts have been scarred over these last fifty years.
On this 50th anniversary, we hear once again your call on our lives in the words you said in Memphis 50 years ago: “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis.”
Dr. King, we lament your death, yet the movement for justice did not stop in Memphis on that terrible day when you were murdered. So many people and communities across the country and the world are living out your legacy every day. Even now, a new Poor People’s Campaign is rising, as well as other struggles for liberation, equality, and peace led by a new generation of leaders – Black Lives Matter, Women’s March, LGBT Equality, Immigrant Justice – who may sound different but who carry your spirit.
Our promise is that we will do whatever power we have to bring all of us closer to the Promised Land. We pray that we too might be unafraid, and happy, and see with our own eyes, in our own ways the Glory of the Coming of the Lord and the Beloved Community, lived on Earth as in Heaven.