Today we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. By now, he's become a national hero; we often forget how radical he was, how long were the odds that he would succeed.
I've written about King in many places, in many contexts. Here's my favorite MLK blog post from this blog where I talk about my students who think I marched with Dr. Martin Luther King. Even when I explain I was born in 1965, they still don't understand--they don't know that in 1968, when King was killed, I was barely walking, much less marching. I tell myself that when I was young, I had gaps in my education too. But I read a lot, so I didn't have the kind of history gaps that many students do.
That post includes a chunk of poem yet to be written about marching with Martin Luther King in Sunday best clothes. We also forget how much the Civil Rights Movement knew how to use the new medium that was television. Some baby boomers like to brag about how they brought the Vietnam War to a close earlier than would have happened without their protests. I say that they'd have been even more effective if they hadn't looked so scruffy, so in need of a bath, when those nice, suburban people turned on their televisions. The Civil Rights marchers in their dresses, suits, and dress shoes--seeing those people attacked by vicious dogs and fire hoses prompted a much more sympathetic response.
I think we also forget how rooted the Civil Rights Movement was in the Christian tradition, especially the parts of that tradition that encourage us to resist evil. I've written about that aspect here for a post on the Living Lutheran website today. And here's a post from my theology blog that's full of quotes from MLK, and a link to a great interview where Tavis Smiley reminds us that King's life was about 3 things: "justice for everybody, service to others and love that liberates."
Here is my favorite Martin Luther King quote: "The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice." It inspired the following poem, written around 1996. It was first published in The Evening Reader, a small periodical based in Newberry, South Carolina.
Arcing Towards Justice
Martin Luther King said that the arc
of history is towards justice,
and I must arc
towards justice as well:
ignore the politicians who would leave
children to starve
and adults to rot in prisons.
Some days I slump towards despair;
I don’t believe I can even save
myself, much less others.
Like Harriet Tubman, I cannot tarry
long in the swamps of despair.
I must go back, stretch out my arms, ferry
others to safety:
teach them to write, to analyze,
to dream the world they would want to inhabit.
I must teach them not to suckle
on the hatred spewed
by scared, old, white men
who are losing power, and so spurt poison.
I can build an ark of activism
for the diaspora of the dispossessed,
a sanctuary where we wait
for the old, white men to choke
on their own vituperative, vindictive vitriol.
We won’t even have to remove the mantle
of authority from their cold corpses.
It has been ours all along, from the moment
we claimed it as our own,
decorated it with our own bright threads,
chose our own best ways to wear our multi-hued
mantles, beacons to gleam and glitter
in the dark days of exile,
like comets arcing through the skies,
lighting the way home,
as a legacy of hatred burns
into harmless, intergalactic dust.
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