What Would Dr. King Do?

WHAT WOULD DR. KING DO?  A service of readings and reflections

Reader:  Booker Bush

             From Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Let me make the songs for the people,
   Songs for the old and young;
Songs to stir like a battle-cry
   Wherever they are sung.

Not for the clashing of sabres,
   Nor carnage nor for strife;
But songs to thrill all hearts
   With more abundant life.

Our world, so worn and weary,
   Needs music, pure and strong,
To hush the jangle and discords
   Of sorrow, pain, and wrong.

Music to soothe all its sorrow,
   Till war and crime shall cease;
And all our hearts grown tender
   Girdle the world with peace.

REMARKS             Re: “Beyond Vietnam,” Riverside Church, New York City, April 4, 1967

It is early spring, 1967.  “Stay in your lane.”  “Attacking the Vietnam War is tantamount to attacking President Johnson.” “You helped push through two of the most important pieces of legislation in our history – the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Only a fool would now oppose the president who so aggressively championed our cause.”[i]  The arguments echo in his head.

Martin Luther King Jr. has been invited to address a convocation of Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, at the Riverside Church in New York City.   The anti-war group’s founders included the Reverend William Sloane Coffin and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, both personal friends of King’s and active supporters of the civil rights movement.  Against the advice of most of his closest associates, King decides to address the gathering in a very public and tightly reasoned avowal of his opposition to the war.  The date is April 4, 1967, exactly a year before he will be assassinated in Memphis.  Here are excerpts from that speech.

SPEECH EXCERPTS from “Beyond Vietnam,” April 4, 1967, Riverside Church NYC

I come to this great magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice….

… Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. ……We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. …

…. It became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home.  It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.

(Another) reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness. … As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems.  … But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?”

….They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems… Their questions hit home.   … For the sake of those boys, … I cannot be silent.

Surely this madness must cease.  …  I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam.  I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed…  I speak for the poor in America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and are dealt death and corruption in Vietnam.

… We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. …  When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

HYMN   Down By the Riverside (Ain't Gonna Study War no More)

REMARKS:  “The Drum Major Instinct,” Ebeneezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, February 4, 1968

The media response to King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech was disastrous.  The New York Times editorial next day carried the title, “Dr. King’s Error.”  The Washington Post said that King “has done a grave injury  … He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people.” 

The days and months that followed would bring more conflict, personal struggle, and pain.  In his 2014 book, Death of a King, Tavis Smiley and his co-writer David Ritz chronicle the last year of Dr. King’s life.  It’s an intimate account – based on speeches and letters as well as on interviews that Smiley had with people who had been there – people like John Lewis, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, and Ralph Abernathy’s wife Juanita.[ii]  The stories here come from that account.

Smiley and Ritz describe the opposition King faced from rising black leaders outside his own organization.  They challenged his relevance, his effectiveness, and his tactics, especially his commitment to non violence.

Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff were also at odds with one another, and with Dr King.  The SCLC’s finances were precarious. FBI harassment continued.  An appearance on the Merv Griffin show was a flop.  King was frequently despondent and depressed; he suffered from respiratory infections and exhaustion.  Over the summer of 1967 the SCLC tried to intervene when riots broke out in Detroit.  Its leadership was viewed, by the media and by many blacks who had been earlier supporters, as ineffective and out of touch.

King and others in the civil rights movement had contested a 1963 contempt-of-court conviction connected with their protests in Birmingham.  In October 1967, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction – in late October they went to jail in Alabama for four days.[iii]

And yet Dr. King pressed on, speaking, cajoling, seeking opportunities to listen to those who opposed him.  Driving through Cleveland, he was jeered by a group of prostitutes.  He made the driver turn around, invited them to meet him in his hotel the next day, and spent an hour listening to their concerns.  He would later seek out the vocal militant Leroi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) at Baraka’s home in New York.

For King, non-violence was the only moral path.  He reaffirmed that commitment in a speech to black Olympic athletes, early in 1968.[iv]  American imperialism, racism and economic injustice were all connected.  His deep faith and convictions led him forward. 

On November 27 King announced the formation by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of a Poor People’s Campaign.  Its aim was to bear witness to and protest the problems of poor blacks and poor whites. 

Many SCLC staff were opposed to the campaign.  King’s health was precarious.  Friends worried about his lack of sleep and his bouts of depression.  He succumbed to years of remorse and guilt and told his wife about his extramarital affairs.  And he kept up a relentless pace of travel.  Everywhere he went there were death threats.  When he could, he would return home to Atlanta, to his home pulpit at the Ebeneezer Baptist Church. 

Preachers are sometimes told to preach the sermon they need to hear. 

These are excerpts from “The Drum Major Instinct,” delivered in Atlanta on February 4, 1968.

SPEECH EXCERPTS (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

….Deep down within all of us is an instinct. It's a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. …

… And it's really a quest for attention and recognition and importance. …

The presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. …I got a letter the other day, a new magazine was coming out.  The letter said, "Dear Dr. King: …You are on many mailing lists. You are categorized as highly intelligent, progressive, a lover of the arts and the sciences, and I know you will want to read what I have to say." Of course I did. After you said all of that …, of course I wanted to read their magazine.

There comes a time that the drum major instinct can become destructive. … It causes you to lie about who you know sometimes, distorts the personality …

And the final great tragedy of the distorted personality is the fact that when one fails to harness this instinct, he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up.  …

The drum major instinct can lead to exclusivism in one's thinking … and it can lead to tragic—and we've seen it happen so often—tragic race prejudice. …

A need that some people have to feel superior. A need that some people have to feel that they are first, and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first. …

I always try to do a little converting when I'm in jail. And when we were in jail in Birmingham recently, the white wardens and all enjoyed coming around the cell to talk about the race problem. And they were showing us where we were so wrong demonstrating. And they were showing us where segregation was so right. And they were showing us where intermarriage was so wrong.

So I would get to preaching, and we would get to talking—calmly…. And then we got down one day to the point—that was the second or third day—to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning.

And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, "Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us.  You're just as poor as Negroes." And I said,

"You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people.  And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. … You ought to be out here marching with every one of us, every time we have a march."

SONG    Go Down Moses    
REMARKS on Excerpts from “I’ve Been to the Mountain,”  April 3, 1968, Memphis

Early in 1968 Dr. King became aware of the plight of sanitation workers in Memphis, after two men were killed in an unexcusable accident.[v]  Again his aides and colleagues urged him to stay in his lane, to focus on black civil rights.  But King persisted.  On April 3, a few days before a scheduled demonstration, he and his team were in Memphis.  A prayer meeting had been planned, but the weather was wild – thunderstorms, and tornadoes in the next county.  King was exhausted.  People wouldn’t be crazy enough to come out in this weather.  He deputized Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson to speak in his stead. 

But people were that crazy.  They had come out in force, and they had come to hear Dr. King.  When Abernathy got to the church he saw the huge crowd and quickly found a pay phone.  King pulled himself out of bed. 

The next day, just before dinner, he was standing on his balcony at the Lorraine Motel.  Jesse Jackson and a member of the band Jackson had assembled to play at a function that night were in the courtyard below.  King called out to them.  “Make sure you play ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand.’  Play it sweetly.”  Minutes later, the rifle shot rang out.

Here are excerpts from Dr. King’s last speech, delivered April 3, 1968, in Memphis.

SPEECH EXCERPTS – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Something is happening in Memphis, something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?" I would take my mental flight by many ages and places….

And strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty and say, "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy."

Now that's a strange statement to make because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick, trouble is in the land, confusion all around. …  But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. …

One reason I'm happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history…

…When the slaves get together, that's the beginning of getting out of slavery. 

Now let us maintain unity.  Secondly, let us keep the issues where they are.  The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. ….

One day a man came to Jesus and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus … But Jesus … talked about a certain man who fell among thieves.  You remember that a Levite  and a priest passed by on the other side; they didn't stop to help him.

Finally, a man of another race came by. …. He got down, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying this was the good man, this was the great man because he had the capacity to project the "I" into the "Thou," and to be concerned about his brother.

Now, you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn't stop. …..   Every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jericho to organize a Jericho Road Improvement Association.  That's a possibility. …

But I'm going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It's possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho Road is a dangerous road.  I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho.  And as soon as we got on that road I said to my wife, "I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable." It's a winding, meandering road.  It's really conducive for ambushing. …

It's possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around.  Or it's possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking … in order ….to lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?"

But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?" That's the question before you tonight.

Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be.

INTERLUDE   Precious Lord


Some of the details in Smiley and Ritz’s account of Dr. King’s last year were new to me – the level of discord and disarray within the SCLC, his personal troubles – physical, psychic and spiritual – the horrific pace of his travel and speaking schedule.  What struck me most was his sense of an America gone terribly wrong, with a deep grasp of how powerfully interconnected the issues were.  He proclaims that the evils of racism, economic oppression and militarism are inextricably linked.  He insists on how much poor whites and poor blacks have in common.  Dr. King had a way of engaging with people so that they felt heard, and understood.  Perhaps, had he lived, he might have led movements for reform in new directions.

But he did not.  Many still criticize the direction he took in the last few years of his ministry – saying that he should have kept his focus, should have stuck to shoring up the gains made in civil rights for blacks in the south. 

The FBI began tracking and harassing King in 1955, and in 1963 Robert Kennedy, then Attorney General, authorized wiretapping and ‘round the clock surveillance.  Under a 1977 court order, the transcripts of those tapes were sealed for 50 years.  2027 will open a treasure-trove for researchers – I wonder what new insights will be gained.

Martin Luther King Jr. was 39 years old when he was gunned down.  Had he lived, he would be turning 90 on January 15, this coming Tuesday.  How would he advise visionaries and reformers?  What would he say to people of color young and old?  What would he say to 12 million undocumented immigrants?  What would he say about climate change?  I think he might remind us that all of these injustices are connected.  I believe that he would also sign on to the motto of our partners at the Pioneer Valley Workers Center:  otro mundo es posible – another world is possible.  He could give much of the same sermon he gave in Memphis a little over 50 years ago.

“It’s only when it’s dark enough that you can see the stars.”

We are responsible to and for one another.

And so, let us, too, rise up with a greater readiness, and stand with a greater determination.   Let us move on in these days of challenge, to make our communities, our country, our planet, what it ought to be.


 “I have seen the promised land.  I may not get there with you, but I know we’ll get there one day.” 

Janet:  Deep in our hearts, may we believe it to be so.  Deep in our hearts, may we find the will and courage to join the journey, and work towards that day.

HYMN                        We Shall Overcome


[i] Tavis Smiley and David Ritz, Chapter 1, “Vocation of Agony,” in Death of a King, 2014.

[ii] Smiley and Ritz, Introduction

[iii] Smiley and Ritz, Chapter 10

[iv] Smiley and Ritz, Chapter 11

[v] Smiley and Ritz, Chapter 14