Easter’s threat, King’s dream, and national pretension

by Ken Sehested

Invocation. “Hatred had me bound, had me tied down / Had me turned around, couldn’t find my way / Then you walked with me and You set my spirit free / To me and my family down that long highway / Free at last, free at last / Free from the world and all it’s sins / Free at last, free at last / I’ve been to the top of the mountain.” —Joan Baez, “Free At Last

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Given the lunar calculus of setting Easter’s date, the occasion moves around on our solar calendar, landing anywhere between late March to late April. Every year, therefore, the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination on 4 April 1968 occurs within that span. This coincidence is an interpretive matrix in my faith formation.

Among our stubborn human tendencies is to create sentimental memories of times past that actually were turbulent, conflicted, even dangerous. Nowadays, Easter bunnies substitute for Jerusalem’s colonizing Roman soldiers. Clothiers and chocolate makers alike look forward to the day as much as any cleric.

Choirs perform new jubilant anthems. Well appointed sanctuaries feature brass ensembles. (And I confess, I do love such music.)

The Sunday leading up to Easter, children process with palms, ancient symbol of peace and prosperity, historically associated with military prowess. These days you can purchase plastic Easter eggs painted in military patterned camouflage, each with a toy soldier inside.

Jesus overturns no tables in modern Holy Week reenactments. Few feet are washed.

You would think that Jesus was executed for preaching the Golden Rule.

Our recollections of Dr. King and the troublesome movement he represented have also been acclimatized. Military bands are often featured in Atlanta’s ML King Day parade. His “I Have a Dream” speech gets a little dreamier each passing year. Alabama and Mississippi’s ML King birthday holiday is a “King-Lee” day, splicing the occasion to also remember Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the “Lost Cause” mythology.

A few years ago the makers of Dodge Ram pickups ponied up $5 million for a Super Bowl ad—an homage to patriotism and “service”—featuring a brief line from one of Dr. King’s sermons.

We forgot long ago how polarizing Dr. King was. The Federal Bureau of Investigation referred to him as “the most dangerous Negro” in the country. They along with two other intelligence agencies (we have 17 of them, in case you were curious) illegally spied not only on Dr. King but numerous other activists.

King’s favorability ratings plummeted after his historic 4 April 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York City (exactly one year prior to his assassination), where he vigorously condemned the war in Vietnam and referred to the US as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”

He had long since understood the Beloved Community went well beyond bus seating, water fountains, and lunch counters. Less than a month after his soaring “I Have a Dream” speech, he was presiding at the funerals of the girls killed by a terrorist bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Nowadays, a number of state legislatures have approved, or are considering, laws making it illegal for teachers to present material that might make a student feel uncomfortable. Even after a “war on poverty,” the median wealth of white households is ten times that of African Americans.

But of course, I never heard that when our country’s Declaration of Independence insisted that “all men are created equal,” it literally meant men. Not just men. White men. And not just white men but property-owning white men. It would take nearly three-and-a-half centuries between the first arrival of chattel slaves from Africa and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And those rights are now eroding in many parts of the country.

It’s not the case that we are, merely as individuals, suffering memory loss as to Easter’s threat and Dr. King’s critique. There are potent economic, cultural and political interests collaborating in the work of dis-remembering and sugar-coating our history.

There are also powerful forces at work disguising the ambiguous character of our nation’s aspirations regarding foreign policy.

In my high school senior year. the last six weeks of our world history class was devoted to studying J. Edgar Hoover’s book, Masters of Deceit, that propagandizing screed which encouraged citizens to see a communist behind every bush. And if you didn’t pass that one six-week period of one course, you could not graduate.

There is, to be sure, a legacy of foreign policy—not to mention a host of foreign service personnel—nobly championing the pursuit of human dignity and democratic aspirations. What we fail to see over the course of our history is that when human rights and economic gain are in conflict, the latter are more likely to govern our action.

One document in particular, written in the years after World War II gave way to the Cold War, that articulates the “political realism” of this principle.

George Kennan, then US ambassador to the Soviet Union (later named “the most influential diplomat of the 20th century”), wrote a lengthy secret memo, later declassified, advocating for a bare-knuckled game plan for our nation’s foreign policy. This long excerpt is worth needed attention:

“We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. . . . In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. . . .

“We should dispense with the aspiration to ‘be liked’ or to be regarded as the repository of a high-minded international altruism. We should stop putting ourselves in the position of being our brother’s keeper and refrain from offering moral and ideological advice. We should cease to talk about vague and . . . unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.” (You can read the full proposal here.)

Among our most urgent tasks as people of The Way is recovery of memory. Beginning with comprehending the threat that saturated the first Holy Week.

In his book The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God, Lee Griffith wrote, “It is the resurrection which is the terror of God to all who believe that death should have the final word.”

Add to that, regarding the legacy not just of Dr. King but of the countless others, a few named, most unnamed, who put their security on the line in service to the Beloved Community. The urgent question for us is: How has it become so common to respect the man but relinquish the mission? To revere the dreamer but renege on the dream?

Movements have a tendency to become museums.

Finally, it is imperative that we do the excavation needed for an honest reading of our nation’s history.

In commentary on a news channel, Dr. Eddie Glaude, professor of African American Studies at Princeton, commented: “America is not unique in its sins as a country. We’re not unique in our evils. . . . Where we may be singular is our refusal to acknowledge them. And the legends and myths we tell about our inherent goodness, to hide and cover and conceal, so that we can maintain a kind of willful ignorance that protects our innocence.”

Because our virtues as a nation are considerable, we tend to think our vices unremarkable. Such is not the case. And if we are to rightly interpret our condition, to expose our pretension, we simply must take seriously the whole story.

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Benediction. Listen to Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech—“I’ve been to the mountaintop”—on 3 April 1968, the night before his assassination. Here’s is a brief (1:13) excerpt. You can view the entire speech (43:14 video) here.

        Background to the speech. There was a terrible storm that night in Memphis. King was tired. The initial march in support of sanitation workers had attracted provocateurs who smashed windows along the march route. King was deeply discouraged. His staff was very unhappy that he chose to be in Memphis when so much work was needed on the upcoming “Poor Peoples’ March” in Washington, DC. Memphis seemed like a distraction.

Given the bad weather the night of the rally, given his tired and disappointed disposition, he didn’t want to go. “Ralph, you can take care of it.” But an overflow crowd showed up. And they wanted to hear King. So Abernathy called him and said “Martin, the people want to hear from you.” So he went and spoke extemporaneously, going on that famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” riff, but then going on to say “I may not get there with you.” Almost a premonition of what happened the next day. He was 39 years old when the sniper’s bullet arrived.