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Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Concert Keynote Address

This is a two-part video, thanks to Paul Johansen, capturing the keynote address our pastor Liz offered at a concert in commemoration of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Trinity Church, a joint presentation of Cantilena Chamber Choir of Lenox and Unitus Choir of Boston.

The manuscript of the talk is below.

My son, Tobias, was in 1st grade when Martin Luther King Day entered our life in a formal way. Ahead of the day off from school, his teacher spent time on this important historical figure, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Does anyone know anything about Dr. King?” she likely asked the class, or something like.

My son raised his hand and said, “He was a preacher, like my mom.”

Well, Tobias was right in one important regard. Rev. King was a preacher, a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ, something our wider society might sometimes forget.

King never did. On the contrary, this was primary to his self-understanding. He explained it once: “In the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher. This is my being and my heritage, for I am also the son of a Baptist preacher, the grandson of a Baptist preacher and the great-grandson of a Baptist preacher.” Elsewhere he said, “I have no other ambitions in life [than this]. I don’t plan for any political office. I don’t plan to do anything but to remain a preacher.”

It sounds like humility, right? This humble aim. Preachers are so commonplace. We’re in every pulpit in every sanctuary, of which there is practically one on every street corner, arguably too many across this mighty land.

On the other hand, there is hardly a higher aim than to stive that one’s words might manifest in a real way, one’s words might manifest loving action, which is what the preached word is to be endowed to do—that words become active, that words prove true. It’s the power of the divine.

You might have heard that Rosa Parks received her training on nonviolent resistance under the guidance of Dr. King. She was a parishioner at his church, after all, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. And it was here that the practice of nonviolent resistance came to serve for the sake of civil rights, racial justice.

But when it comes to Parks and King, it was actually the other way around.

Fred Gray, a Civil Rights activist, was born in 1930 in what he calls the ghettos of Montgomery. He speaks of a meeting he had with fellow activist Ms. Parks, prior to the boycott but following her arrest. He said their conversation was all about the activists’ need to convince people to get off the busses but moreover to stay off them “…till there's a nonsegregated basis.

“In order to do that,” Mr. Gray knew, “we need to get a spokesman - somebody who can speak, keep the people together and be able to communicate whatever our request is to the community and to the power structure in Montgomery. [Ms. Parks] said, ‘Well, Fred, I tell you who the spokesman need to be - my pastor.’ Martin Luther King Jr. hadn’t been in town long. He’d only been here a year, hadn’t been involved in any civil rights activities. ‘But one thing he can do,’ Ms. Parks said, ‘and that is he can move people with words. So that’s who we need.’”

He only had a small handful of sermons, as is the case with most preachers. Also, like most orators, he depended on “set pieces,” these which he could insert into any sermon or speech, to ground himself, to find his footing. As Homer used such phrases as “wine-dark sea,” and “clever Odysseus,” and “when young dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more….” Martin used such as these to land for a moment, to get his footing in the oration so he could take off again, a new conviction, a new direction. To describe the stars, “The swinging lanterns of eternity” and to evoke the Alabama State Police, “the iron feet of oppression.” To visualize the mission of the Civil Rights Movement, the “hewing out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope” and to mandate the means of the movement: “meeting physical force with soul force.”

He also made use of others’ phrasing—Howard Thurman’s recalling of slave life: “the rows of cotton, the sizzling heat, the riding overseer with his rawhide whip;” and countless Negro spirituals. He wove in words of Hebrew prophets, and of the psalms.

This touching down on a familiar refrain from which to take off again: you can see it in the film from that fateful day on the Washington Mall. You can see him with his manuscript: he’s got the sermon there, ready for delivery. Speaking it forth, he consults the manuscript, and then scans the enormous crowd. He consults it again, and says what he sees there.

But then, about eleven minutes in, he doesn’t look down at the podium, he looks within. He consults his own memory and his imagination and his hope, his own having been himself activated by a word, a true word. He considers his own soul, and then sees the solidarity of this gathered movement, and then he consults the sky, and what he speaks then is as plucked from above.

And all his practice comes to perfection.

Does it spoil something for you to imagine Martin as having practiced at this? Does it spoil something to imagine him coming up with a repertoire, tried out, tested? Does it spoil it that Rosa Parks had trained for her moment on the bus, had prepared with many others to land righteously in prison?

We like to believe in magic. We like to believe in spontaneous power, an arrival out of the blue on some lucky few (or unlucky, when you consider the consequences here. Imprisonment. Assassination.) We like the idea that some just have it.

And some don’t. Most don’t.

I think we like believing this because it frees us up from doing what we must, it frees us up from joining in with the sorts of disciplines that resist the tides of history, resist the riptides of the inevitable, which are disciplines and practices that make life better and also might cost us dear. It frees up especially people like me who don’t really need our lives made better: they’re pretty good as they are. Or so it seems, though Martin was wiser on this point: he knew that our lives are bound up in one another’s such that your wellbeing is my wellbeing.

I’m from New Hampshire. This was the last state in the union to approve Rev. King’s birthday as a holiday. The realist in my supposes that refusal was about racism. A slightly more charitable reading is that the state’s storied libertarianism has us initially say “No,” to any collective endeavor. “Live free or die,” amiright?

I will admit, though, a sympathy with this reluctance, but for a third reason. A holiday in memory of Rev. King tempts us to fancy ourselves more courageous than we are. The fact is, most of America became comfortable with Martin only once he was history, as he always has been in my life, killed two years before I was born. And they say that once the historians arrive on a scene to tell its story, the scene could well be dead. 

How I do hope that the Civil Rights Movement is not dead—this which we need now as much as ever.

How I do hope that our setting aside this day of commemoration isn’t the death knell of the promise that Martin labored to see fulfilled but, like Moses, died before crossing over into that Promised Land. 

How I do hope that this wave of transformation that was washing over this nation—that began in the baptismal waters of the Baptist Churches of Montgomery and then gained momentum in the rushing waters of fire hoses turned on civil disobeyers, and at last gathered to overwhelm the shores of Washington’s reflection pool, promising as it went to make not only of Mississippi, that “desert state, sweltering in the heat of injustice and oppression,” but of all America an oasis of freedom and justice—hasn’t subsided back to a sea of contentment especially among folks like me.

This, while others of White America enjoy a bitter resentment, an increasingly dangerous resentment.

He knew this was a possibility, Martin did, by the way. In his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community, he considered a likely new wave of White resistance. He wrote that “The segregationist goal is the total reversal of all reforms with the reestablishment of naked oppression and, if need be, a native form of fascism.”

He knew.

How I do urgently hope that enough of us are still unsatisfied, but creatively, hopefully unsatisfied, as Martin was unsatisfied when Negroes couldn’t gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities, and when a Black person’s basic mobility was from a smaller ghetto to a larger one, and when an African-American in Mississippi could not vote and one in New York believed he had nothing for which to vote. For while some of these injustices have been rectified, others seem only to have gotten worse or, more likely, gotten more visible to people like me for whom it’s time to wake up! From the fact that White America has ten times the wealth of Black America though it can hardly be White labor has been 10 times more important in building the wealth of this nation than Black labor, to the fact that Black Americans have shorter life expectancies than White Americans due largely to the stress simply of being Black, we have every reason yet to be unsatisfied.

If indeed our aim is that justice might roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream, if indeed our aim is all to stand together that we might see our salvation, by which we might be our salvation, if indeed we yearn to live amidst a beloved community and for cause to join in that glorious refrain, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last,” then we have reason yet to be unsatisfied.

The music you’re hearing today is an honor to sing. That’s usually the case for me as a choral singer: it’s nearly always an honor to interact with music in this way.  

This music, though: this afternoon’s music: it bears urgent truth.

I’ll tell you my favorite: Margaret Bonds’s CREDO, which you’ll hear toward the end of the program. A musical setting of something W.E.B DuBois wrote, it was a particular wonder to prepare it here, in the sanctuary of Trinity Church in Lenox—where DuBois himself might have idled away some hours during his early summers.

DuBois would pal around with James Van DerZee, famed photographer of the Harlem Renaissance and native son of Lenox. Van DerZee’s father was the sexton at this church and at the one where I serve as pastor, the congregational church up the hill. In a biography about Van DerZee, it’s said James would help out with the sexton’s many duties. It also says DuBois would come to Lenox from Great Barrington to hang out especially during the summer months.

So, is it a stretch to suppose this text is sung here as a distant echo of ideas born in this very place? Two Black boys minding this sacred space, this space which is devoted to the crucified one, crucified by a brutal world, though now raised as beloved, the beloved one of God, minding this sacred space and getting ideas about themselves, their irrepressible belovedness, and this brutal, beautiful, full-of-promise world.

I don’t know. Maybe. Why not?

I can only hope ever to be a preacher like Martin, someone who could move people with words. This afternoon, with this program, with these musicians, I might actually come close.

Please enjoy. And then please enact

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