Fifty years ago this week, Martin Luther King Jr bellowed a dream from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. His was a voice between that still guides mine.
The White Racist Voice
All Martin’s life he’d been told he was worthless. Worth less. Unworthy to drink from their fountains, sit alongside them on the bus, learn from the same teacher. All of society, with every abusive action and passive inaction, told him he wasn’t worth as much as whites.
The Black Militant Voice
Huey Newton founded the Black Panthers upon a philosophy of revolution he called “armed self-defense,” explaining…
…when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. …Sometimes if you want to get ride of the gun you have to pick the gun up.
Newton, Seale, Malcolm X and other leaders told the black community that black violence was the only way to end white violence. Their reasoning put a higher value on the life of an innocent person than it did on a guilty one. A violent racist deserved to die.
A Voice Between
I was a middle-schooler in East Texas when Mrs. Griffin, my history teacher, told me “If you want to become a great man, read about the lives of great men.” I read about Martin Luther King Jr, a man who lived between two voices. One voice told Martin to sit in the back and the other told him to fight back. He did neither.
Instead, Reverend King looked to Jesus to learn how to persevere through oppression and respond to hatred. He declared the worth of every person created by God – black and white, just and unjust. He held fast to the belief that love and creativity were more Christlike than hate and violence.
Fifty years ago this week Reverend King spoke these words to those who hated him…
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
And he had words for those who, impatient with words and symbolic actions, advocated violence against white Americans instead:
But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.
I want to be a great man who speaks between the prevailing voices at the extremes, who is able to simultaneously and creatively stand up for all while loving all as Christ has loved us all.