Here's what I said:
My parents always remembered clearly where they had been when they heard the news from Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12, 1945, that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died. And like most people my own age, I remember where I was—in my fifth-grade teacher’s classroom—when we learned that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. I don’t, however, remember where I was on Thursday night, April 4th, 1968; it was a school night, so at a few minutes after seven I was probably at home, and I suppose we would have heard of Dr. King’s death later that evening from Walter Cronkite, as we were not a Huntley-Brinkley family. Nor do I remember hearing Bobby Kennedy’s speech about Dr. King’s death, delivered that night in our own state capital of Indianapolis.
I do, however, remember going to school the next morning, Friday, at Culver Military Academy, the excellent private school in my home town, and discovering that Mr. Gordon Hough, our freshman English teacher, was still so shattered by the loss that he couldn’t pull himself together to do anything, but just sat there on his desk, and quietly sent us away.
I had a colleague once, though, who impressed me with a different memory of that week. He had been a choirboy at the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul—the National Cathedral, in Washington, D.C.—and he remembered hearing Dr. King’s last sermon, delivered there on Sunday, March 31. The sermon was entitled, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution," and Dr. King took as his text, from the 16th Chapter of the Book of Revelation, "Behold I make all things new; former things are passed away." This was the sermon which Dr. King closed with the words that are now inscribed on his memorial in Washington, his declaration that “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair the stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
At the center of the sermon, it seems to me, at the heart of it, Dr. King talks about why he happened to be in Washington that Sunday in the first place. He was, of course, happy to preach in the great Cathedral: but Washington was very much on his mind at the time because, ever since the previous fall, he had been devoting his energies, and those of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to a major new project scheduled to begin in the spring of 1968. He called it the Poor People’s Campaign. If you will allow me a rather long quotation, this is what he said to the cathedral congregation on that last Sunday morning of this life,
In a few weeks some of us are coming to Washington to see if the will is still alive or if it is alive in this nation. We are coming to Washington in a Poor People’s Campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. We are going to bring those who have known long years of hurt and neglect. We are going to bring those who have come to feel that life is a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs. We are going to bring children and adults and old people, people who have never seen a doctor or a dentist in their lives.
We are not coming to engage in any histrionic gesture. We are not coming to tear up Washington. We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty. We read one day, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.
We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that it signed years ago. And we are coming to engage in dramatic nonviolent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible.
Why do we do it this way? We do it this way because it is our experience that the nation doesn’t move around questions of genuine equality for the poor and for black people until it is confronted massively, dramatically in terms of direct action.
Many of Dr. King’s friends and allies in 1968 thought the Poor People’s Campaign was a mistake, that he was losing his focus. Desegregation, voting rights, fair jury trials and similar issues had been Dr. King’s specialty and the main thrust of the SCLC; but on April 4, 1967, King had, in another powerful sermon at the equally famous Riverside Church in New York City, come out against the war in Vietnam, finding a connection between the Civil Rights movement and the Peace Movement that many other people just did not see. So when he began adding poverty to the mix in the fall of 1967, as the idea of the Poor People’s Campaign began to grow, people told him that he was dividing his energies among three causes, and thereby weakening his support of all of them.
Dr. King was convinced, though, that these three causes were deeply and intrinsically related. Indeed, the National Cathedral sermon not only talks about the Poor People’s Campaign but also firmly denounces the war in closely related terms, saying “It has strengthened the military-industrial complex; it has strengthened the forces of reaction in our nation. It has put us against the self-determination of a vast majority of the Vietnamese people, and put us in the position of protecting a corrupt regime that is stacked against the poor.” And, in searing language that could have been written yesterday as easily as fifty years ago, he condemned racism that day as strongly as he ever had: again, quoting--
We are challenged to eradicate the last vestiges of racial injustice from our nation. I must say this morning that racial injustice is still the black man’s burden and the white man’s shame.
It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle—the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly—to get rid of the disease of racism.
Something positive must be done. Everyone must share in the guilt as individuals and as institutions. The government must certainly share the guilt; individuals must share the guilt; even the church must share the guilt.So, then, whatever others may have thought, Dr. King on that last Sunday certainly felt that poverty and peace and racism were all parts of the same puzzle, all parts of the same fundamental challenge to America and indeed to the world.
Dr. King argues that poverty is a violation of human rights by appealing to the grand language of Mr. Jefferson’s declaration, that sweeping assertion of self-evident truths about unalienable rights that belong to individuals not as principles of government but as gifts of their Creator: “if a man doesn’t have a job or an income,” King says, “he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.” And, as far as it goes, Dr. King’s interpretation is perfectly sound. But it does seem to me that he is ignoring another part of Mr. Jefferson’s thought, a part of Jefferson’s thought that shaped America far more profoundly than the soaring language of the Declaration—which is, after all, just a declaration and not the constitution or a law.
As the great American historian Edmund S. Morgan pointed out in his ground-breaking book American Slavery, American Freedom, back in 1975, Jefferson was, like so many of the Founding Fathers, a great student of ancient Rome, and the message, above all messages, that they took from that study was that Rome fell into tyranny because of the political power of the common people, the political power of the huge mob of Romans who had to be kept satisfied with bribes of cheap food and free entertainment—with bread and circuses, as the Romans would have said. Jefferson, Adams, Madison—the whole pack of them thought that poor people are, by their very nature, the enemies of the state, and they quite literally and specifically designed America to deny power to the poor. America is a republic, not a democracy, founded from the beginning on a deep fear of the poor and on an absolute terror of the enslaved—and all of this nation’s undemocratic features, and the cultural attitudes that result from them, are fundamental parts of the original plan to keep those groups in their place. Dr. King’s expansive reading of the declaration may make sense to us, but Jefferson would have rejected with horror the implication that the government should do something about poverty. Once a nation starts giving bread to its poor people, the Founding Fathers would have told us, the end is near.
So part of what I am saying is that Dr. King’s struggle continues today, fifty years later, because it is a struggle against ideas and attitudes that are more American than apple pie. I heard on the radio on Friday evening the honorable governor of Utah talking about imposing a work requirement for various sorts of poor relief, because people shouldn’t be “on the dole”—if you just take handouts, he said, you lose your self-respect. But this is nonsense. I stand here this afternoon with degrees from some of the best universities in this country, including both Harvard and Yale, and someplace in my attic I have the receipts to prove that whatever work I did to help pay for that education, and whatever loans I took out, were only teaspoons in the ocean compared to what it actually cost. And I don’t feel that all those scholarships reduced my self-respect. Not do I feel my self-respect slipping away when I drive on a free interstate highway or visit a free national park. And after shelling out a chunk of change for medical deductibles this week, I am certainly not going to lose any self-respect when I sign up for Medicare next June, assuming it’s still around by then. Nor, I think, do any major corporations lose self-respect when they line up for tax breaks and handouts at the public trough. What people like the honorable Governor really mean, though they may not even realize it themselves, is that “people who are not respectable in the first place lose self-respect if you give them free help.” And that’s what Jefferson would want the governor to think, because if we think like that we are less likely to give those people the help, the bread and circuses, that will, in the opinion of the Founders, undermine the Republic.So, then, part of what I am laying out here is a quibble with Dr. King about America’s deepest values, as represented by Jefferson and his colleagues, great men though they were; following Professor Morgan, I think Dr. King’s reading of their work is entirely too optimistic. But the other part of what I want to say is that Dr. King is surely, ultimately, right about the values to which he calls us. And to make that point, let me go back further in American history than Dr. King did, back almost another 150 years, back to the ship Arbella, which sailed from England on April 8, 1630, arriving in Massachusetts on June 12. The Puritan passengers of Arbella and its companion ships were to be the founders of the Massachusetts Bay colony, and their Governor was John Winthrop, who preached, while they were still at sea, a sermon called “A Model of Christian Charity.” Presidents and politicians have often quoted the last lines of this sermon, where Winthrop applies to his new colony the words Jesus used to refer to the Church, “You shall be as a city set upon a hill.” But what the Presidents and the politicians leave out is the reason why: Winthrop doesn’t think the colonists will attract the attention of the world just because they have started a new colony. Not at all: they will attract attention because of the covenant they have made with themselves and with God. The message of the sermon is that the colony, like any place else, will certainly end up with both rich people and poor people: but unlike other places, the rich people of this colony will remember their covenant and will understand that it is their obligation to help the poor. Winthrop says “If thy brother be in want and thou canst help him, thou needst not make doubt of what thou shouldst do; if thou lovest God thou must help him.” Notice that there is no quibbling here about losing self-respect: Winthrop is brutally straightforward: “If your brother or sister needs help, and you can help, if you love God then you must help.” Speaking as he is to a Christian audience, Winthrop appeals to the idea of the Body of Christ, but as we have heard in this afternoon’s lessons, he could make equally good arguments from Jewish or from Muslim principles as well. This new colony, he says, has entered into a covenant with God, and one element of that covenant is that “We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities.” What the world will marvel at, in Winthrop’s opinion, is not the mere fact of a new colony, but the fact of a colony which dares to take seriously “the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God.” America is not a city set upon a hill because Jefferson’s and Madison’s republic continues to creak undemocratically along: rather, it is a city set upon a hill because, and if, and when, and to the extent that, we see it as the basic covenant of our society that we are willing to abridge ourselves for the supply of others. If, fifty years after the death of Dr. King, and fifty years after Bobby Kennedy’s funeral procession passed through the People’s Campaign’s “Resurrection City” in Washington, D.C.; if now, at last, in defiance of President Jefferson and the governor of Utah, we can truly become a nation that, as a result of its fundamental covenant, sees the needy, sees its own immense wealth, and concludes that its duty is therefore to help the needy, then truly “we shall be as a city upon a hill, and the eyes of all people will be upon us.”