Chicago Diarist: Happy Birthday to Ya

(Note: I wrote this for my blog in January, 2008)

Yesterday we celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. at church. The pastor switched the appointed Gospel reading with a passage from the Sermon on the Mount and, between the readings and the children’s sermon, we listened to an excerpt from one of King’s later speeches. It was about discouragement and distress and the need to persevere despite it. It was a surprisingly personal passage to use, less grandiose than the famous Washington speech and less thrillingly urgent than many others (in fact it reminded me of Luther’s indignant insistence to Erasmus in The Bondage of the Will that he, too, was moved by the violence of the times and that he could never be assured of his safety, much less his popularity). Afterwards we heard Stevie Wonder’s 1980 song “Happy Birthday,” and it was a remarkable moment. The older folks in the congregation almost to a one quietly sang along with the song, and it occurred to me in a way that it never had before that those singing don’t just share a racial identity with MLK (the young folks weren’t singing as much); they are his contemporaries. They grew up in his world–the world he found and the world he changed. They remember where they were when they heard that he’d been killed. They probably had all kinds of opinions about him, but he was theirs in a way that no generation raised on the plaster-saint images could ever understand. It was an overwhelming few minutes, not so much at the thought of the leader himself, so hatefully wrenched from the world in the prime of life, but at the thought of his whole generation who had seen the struggle and bore witness to it along with Stevie Wonder, momentarily putting aside all kinds of things that divide them.

Then I had to go up and do the children’s sermon–a bit of a scary thing for a white guy who was born eleven years after King’s death. I quizzed the kids about some facts of his life and then got them to participate in my reading of the end of his great 1965 speech at the capitol steps in Montgomery, answering “Not long!” when I asked “How long?”:

“We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. That will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man. I know you are asking today, ‘how long will it take?’ I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again.

How long?”

“Not long!” the congregation roared.

“Because no lie can live forever. How long?”

“Not long!”

“Because you still reap what you sow. How long?”

“Not long!”

“Because mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword. His truth is marching on. He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat. He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgment seat. Be swift, my soul, to answer him, be jubilant my feet. Our God is marching on.”

As the service went on, and I meditated on the sermon (about MLK as a God Moment that has a certain analogue in our own time), somehow Lincoln’s Gettysburg address came to mind:

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate–we can not consecrate–we can not hallow–this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain–that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom–and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Not just King, but Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, James Reeb, the four girls in Birmingham and, if you want to be serious about it, Lincoln himself and all those who died in the emancipation: all of these honored dead have consecrated the ground of our nation and all, far from being museum pieces or heroic civic saints, are beside us still insofar as we seek to carry on their work and shape the world they bequeathed to us. We must all, somehow, some day, be called to account as Lincoln and King insist. We are still responsible for taking up our place in that procession and play our part, however seemingly insignificant. It’s not even about black grievance or white guilt and good works; it’s about a social transformation that will reform both black and white until none of us are imprisoned even in our own privilege.

As we processed out, the choir and congregation joined in “We Shall Overcome.” This song, which Malcolm X was skewering back in 1964, has the cultural shroud of a period piece, but it really is not. It’s about hope and it needs to be sung among hopeful people in order to be understood. If it was true then, it must–we pray–be true now. We shall overcome. We’ll walk hand in hand. We will live in peace. We are not afraid. God is on our side. Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day.

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