This post is by Reverend Nelson N. Johnson, Executive Director of the Beloved Community Center in Greensboro, North Carolina. The text is an excerpt from a speech Nelson gave on January 17, 2011 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast in Kennett Square, Chester County, Pennsylvania.
On April 4, 1968, the date of Dr. King’s tragic assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, he was scheduled to speak at Trinity AME Zion Church in Greensboro to support the campaign of Dr. Reginald Hawkins, the first Black gubernatorial candidate in North Carolina since the reconstruction period. I was very much involved with that campaign. Although I had been in Dr. King’s presence, I had never had the opportunity to be in conversation with him. As a student leader in 1968, I was asked to meet Dr. King at the airport with a delegation of some 200 students and to cheer him into town.
It was my chance to explore with him the efficacy, the workability, if you please, of non-violent engagement as a tool and philosophy of social change. To be very honest I didn’t get it. I did not see how love and non-violence and “turning the other cheek” could be a liberating force.
As events grew tenser in Memphis, Dr. King sent a message to Greensboro and informed us that he would be unable to travel to our city because he faced urgent, unfinished business in Memphis. So instead of an opportunity to personally meet and, hopefully, have a meaningful conversation with Dr. King, I was deeply saddened and angered, as were many in the nation, by his tragic assassination, which itself grew out of a culture that devalued his beautiful life and life in general.
Let me emphasize that although in my students days I had questions about King’s approach and his underpinning philosophy of love and non-violent engagement, over the years I have grown to appreciate and revere the life, the work and the person of Dr. King. In fact, Dr. King’s teachings, more than any other person in the history of our nation, ground and guide my work.
We have named our organization in Greensboro The Beloved Community Center, a name popularized by Dr. King in the 1960’s. So, today we come to celebrate with you and together with you to remember, to reassess, and to recommit to the work that yet looms before us, the work of securing the dream.
So to secure the dream in 2011, Dr. King has something to say to us! Dr. King invited us to expand our understanding of the problem we are trying to solve. In his last presidential address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967 entitled, Where Do We Go from Here, Dr. King raised bold and disturbing questions about our economic order. He said, and I quote:
“I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about ‘Where Do We Go from Here’, that we honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’”
That’s the question that Dr. King asked in 1967. Dr. King went on to say, and again I quote:
“And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth … and I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask that question about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s market place. But one day we must come to see that the edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Dr. King has something to say to us about looking at the broader economy and more specifically the distribution of wealth. As we pan the economic landscape some forty-two years later, we find an economy sagging to the breaking point, loaded with a strange new language such as hedge funds, short sales, margin calls, derivatives and Ponzi schemes, a language that Dr. King would know nothing about.
But what Dr. King did know and what we all know is the pain and suffering of millions upon millions for whom the economic order is not working. What Dr. King knew was that there was a great erosion of morality and ethics at the top of our economic order, creating something of a “gangster culture.” This culture and the system it has spun must be changed.
Now, I know that some of my good friends would challenge my credentials to raise such questions, as I am not an economist. They would possibly argue that individuals must take more responsibility for their failing fortunes in life. I would be the first to counsel and strongly promote individual responsibility, as I do every day in our homeless hospitality work and in our efforts to leverage the stimulus funds to weatherize and retrofit homes in poor neighborhoods, providing much needed jobs for the unemployed young people in those neighborhoods.
But there is something deeply disturbing and fundamentally misleading about such counsel. Some years ago there was a saying that helped us unravel and better understand individual responsibility and its relationship to overarching social structures and systems. The saying was that if you went to a fishing pond and found three fish belly up, a serious examination of those three fish would possibly reveal the problem. However, if you went to that same pond and found 300 fish belly up then don’t spend much time bothering with the fish, you must examine the water.
➢ So I say to you this morning with more and more people dropping into the ranks of poverty, it is time to examine the water.
➢ When it is predicted that out of the 15 million currently “officially” unemployed, some six million of those will never return to full employment again in their lives, we must examine the water.
➢ When we find that our national debt is more than 14 trillion dollars with the government predicted to run out of money May or June of this year as the congress muddles along in a cloud of confusion, spinning “blame and counter-blame”, it’s time to examine the water.
➢ When in state after state and in city after city, we find whole sections of communities where people hang on to life by their fingernails with drugs often time as the main economy and prison or an early death as the main destiny of hundreds of thousands, it is time to set aside our prejudices, it is time to examine the water.
➢ When more and more people find themselves homeless, sleeping in cars, in abandoned buildings, and under bridges in cardboard boxes wrapped in tattered rags, while others wallow in the obscenity of unearned wealth, it is time to examine the water.
In order to secure the dream, we must find a way to invent an alternative subsistence economy even as we carry out radical surgery on our current economic system; that’s our challenge.
As we plod along through the devastated wilderness of our economy, we find ourselves fighting two wars in what many see as a permanent war culture. Dr. King has something to say to us in 2011 about “Securing the Dream” under such circumstances.
Dr. King reminded us that war creates a false economy where production is for destruction instead of for the well being of all of God’s children. He said that the bombs that are dropped in Vietnam explode in the ghettos of America, in Harlem, and in Southside Chicago, in Watts, in Philadelphia and I’ve got a feeling that they exploded in the mushroom fields of Chester County.
On April 4, 1967, one year to the day before his death, Dr. King stood in the pulpit at the prestigious Riverside Church in New York City and gave what is arguably his most difficult speech. Not only did he oppose the Vietnam War, but also, with courage and penetrating insight, he linked the war tightly to the declining economy, in general, and the shameful conditions of the poor and inner city America, in particular.
In a compassionate, yet profound, criticism of then President Lyndon Johnson and the government, Dr. King spoke a deep and troubling truth. He said:
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
He went on to say:
“If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam.”
Dr. King has something to say to us in 2011 about how to secure the dream. And, if I might paraphrase his Riverside speech:
I say to you this morning, if America’s soul becomes more poisoned, part of the autopsy must read – permanent war culture, for it appears as if we have entered into such a culture.
Chris Hedges, who spent 15 years as a New York Times foreign correspondent argues persuasively in his new book, The Death of the Liberal Class that we are currently deep into a permanent war culture. In that book he sketches out the destructive effect of such a culture. Hedges says:
“Permanent war is the most effective mechanism used by the power elite to stifle reform and muzzle dissent. A state of war demands greater secrecy, constant vigilance and suspicion. It generates distrust and fear, especially in culture and art, often reducing it to silence or nationalist chants. It degrades and corrupts education and media. It wrecks the economy. It nullifies public opinion. And it forces liberal institutions to sacrifice their beliefs for a holy crusade, a kind of surrogate religion.”
Dr. King has something to say to us about this matter of war. Dr. King, in the face of cutting criticisms, and with unyielding conviction proclaimed that:
“A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, ‘this way of settling differences is not just. This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love….
America the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood,”
and I might add, a magnificent brotherhood and sisterhood.
Dr. King has something to say to us in 2011 about securing the dream. There is much that could be said about the trends of our time including the destruction of the environment, the consolidation of the mass media, the granting of permission to large corporate entities to give unlimited funds to their favored candidate or cause, making a mockery of one person, one vote, the treatment of our immigrant brothers and sisters and much, much more.
But in spite of an abundance of flaws and deficiencies, I want you to be encouraged this morning, for in the midst of a dry and desolate desert place, the prophets of old reminds us that new possibilities can “spring up like a root out of dry ground”.
I sense that across the length and breadth of this nation, there is a rumbling of deep discontent beneath the ground, as there is a shifting back and forth between the Republican and Democratic parties, a shifting from right to left and back again. I sense a profound confusion and yet a deep desire, though sometimes misguided, a desire to know the truth.
A community truth of integrity, as Dr. King suggests, is the major portion of that revolution of values. It is my abiding conviction that we must inject into all the local struggles around the nation a component of sincere truth seeking, with restorative justice and reconciliation. For without facing the truth of our journey as a nation, we will be unable to rise to the high ground of securing the dream, the dream that affirms the dignity and worth of all of God’s children; that is the most basic truth. It is this truth that makes straight the way for economic and social justice and justice in all its dimensions.
I know that the notion of a nation rising from the base of its people, yearning for deeper historical truths and wanting genuine reconciliation seems a distant dream.
But, I saw a little of it in Tucson last week as a beleaguered first Black President of these United States and his lovely wife, Michelle, joined with a native American praying professor, a Latino volunteer student, a Republican governor, a throng of 27,000 individuals of all races and nationalities to grieve the dead and stand with the wounded, including that courageous Jewish congressman woman, Gabrielle Giffords; I saw this president call our nation to its higher self. It was a magnificent moment, a glimpse of a possible future. It was just a spark, but it echoed the dream.
I heard the dream echoed in that great Black Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes and I believe it still resonates in the souls of millions, when he says:
I say it plain
American never was America to me
And yet I swear this oath
America will be
I hear the dream in the eloquent words lifted up by Dr. King proclaiming that the “Arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice”.
I hear the dream growing out of the dark night of slavery in the groaning of an old black spiritual that called upon us to:
Walk together children and don’t you get weary
Walk together children and don’t you get weary.
Walk together children, because there is light on the other side of darkness
There is hope on the far side of hopelessness
There is a great camp meeting in the promise land!
And so let us walk together;
Let us learn together;
Let us continuing to dream together that seemingly impossible dreams;
Let us work together to secure that blessed dream for us, for our posterity, and for all of human kind.
God bless you.