“Why America May Go To Hell”: Reflections on MLK Jr. Day 2017

To many (particularly white people) MLK Jr. Day is no more than another day off. And even to those who recognize the value of the day, the MLK Jr. they think of today, if on no other day, is frankly no more than a fantasy that was created in the white imagination. And to be clear, that was fantasy that only emerged fully once MLK Jr. Day itself became a reality, for though we often fail to discuss it, as those of us who know our history know all too well, the fight to commemorate King was a bitter one. It took 15 years for the creation of the federal holiday and another 17 years for all states to unambiguously recognize it with the tortured thirty-odd year process offering yet another glimpse into the white supremacist logic that lies deep in the marrow of the America.

So what am I doing and thinking about this MLK Jr. Day? First, I will confess I am not volunteering, nor am I so sure that generic volunteering is exactly in the spirit of the actual MLK Jr.. Instead I am spending the day in contemplation of Dr. King’s legacy and the longer history of civil rights activism in America. And though I expect most others contemplating King’s legacy today are turning to those powerful speeches and sermons he gave, like his speech at the March on Washington or his prophetic final speech “I’ve Been to The Mountaintop,” as I have also done in the past, this year I find myself thinking about the sermon he never gave: “Why America May Go To Hell.” On the morning of the day he was assassinated, April 4, 1968, King had phoned his home church, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta, with that title for the sermon he planned to give the coming Sunday, April 7. And though in the wake of his assassination, King Jr.’s brother A.D. Williams King would give a sermon that Sunday at Ebenezer with that same title and topic, these days I find myself wonder about the sermon King himself might have given.

The best informed guess we can make about that never-delivered sermon is that it might have expanded upon the following comment he made after recounting the biblical parable of Lazarus and Dives in a powerful address to strikers in Memphis a few weeks prior to his assassination:

And I come by here to say that America, too, is going to hell if she doesn’t use her wealth. If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she, too, will go to hell. And I will hear America through her historians, years and generations to come, saying, “We built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies. We built gargantuan bridges to span the seas. Through our spaceships we were able to carve highways through the stratosphere. Through our airplanes we are able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. Through our submarines we were able to penetrate oceanic depths.”

It seems that I can hear the God of the universe saying, “Even though you have done all of that, I was hungry and you fed me not, I was naked and you clothed me not. The children of my sons and daughters were in need of economic security and you didn’t provided it for them. And so you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness.” This may well be the indictment on America.

(For the full text of this speech see p. 245-253 of The Radical King).

In the context of 2017, the words above, and those King might have spoken that Sunday expounding further upon that theme, seem to resonate more loudly than ever as both a judgement on our continued failings as a nation and as a call to arms for us to do better and be better. For as bitter as I admittedly continue to be at the moment over the recent turns of event in the country I call home, I can’t help but notice that King’s title is not “Why America Will Go To Hell” but rather “Why America May Go To Hell,” leaving open the possibility that America’s future is not yet foreclosed.

And though I am sure that Dr. King would be aghast at the continued state of racial and economic inequality today, I also can’t help but think that he would not take that as a sign that his work had failed, but rather merely that it was far from finished. So in that spirit, and in full recognition of the unsavory history that marked and continues to mark our nation’s engagement with race and equality, I am dedicating the rest of the day to finishing up a blog post I have been working on for Atlanta Studies about a striking event that occurred in MLK Jr.’s home state around the second MLK Jr. day and which illustrated the uneven results of the Civil Rights Movement: the Brotherhood March in Forsyth County 1987, which happened exactly thirty years ago tomorrow. And going forward from today, I am striving over the next year to cultivate that “kind of dangerous unselfishness” King once spoke of, and which I believe might be the best way on an individual level for us to move towards that dream of a society marked by both radical equality and radical equity for all.

 

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