Why Observe MLK Day?

“That Our Living Will Not Be in Vain”: 

Why Observing Dr. Martin Luther King Day Is Important for All Americans

By J. David Waugh                                  January 18, 2015

 During the January 18, 2015 broadcast of Meet the Press, Chuck Todd quickly reviewed multiple political changes which have occurred in our nation as the direct result of the civil rights movement of the 60’s and its leadership by persons such as Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. and his associates. While Mr. Todd was correct to remind the show’s listeners of the roots of the seismic shift on the American political scene which grew out of the civil rights movement; the importance of the annual observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Day is that it is the one national holiday which calls us to embrace the challenge of living into beloved community—a community which extends beyond race, age, gender, orientation, religion and nation.

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King declared, ““I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.  I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up.  I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive goodwill will proclaim the rule of the land.  ‘And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.’  I still believe that we shall overcome.”  (Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, December, 1964)

Yet, it has been fifty years since those words were uttered. Yes, Mr. Todd the movement radically changed the American political landscape and yes, the social landscape has seen movement for the better but across our nation and within our local community the hydra-head of racism continues to rise from beneath the layers of privilege. As the more obvious vestiges of white privilege (and yes, supremacy) have been toppled, good people have remained silent in the effort to challenge the more subtle and perhaps more insidious grievances of racial injustice in our society. As Dr. King wrote in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail:  “More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have people of good will.  We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the fateful words and actions of bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

Perhaps it is time for a renewed radicalization of the civil rights movement, a radicalization committed to living with one another in community as though the Beloved Community, the Dream of Dr. King and of the biblical prophets, has been realized in the midst of us. Once again,

Dr. King wrote:  “I must admit that I was initially disappointed in being so categorized [as an extremist].  But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist.  Was not Jesus an extremist in love?  ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.’  Was not Amos an extremist for justice?  ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’  Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ?  ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ Was not Martin Luther an extremist?  ‘Here I stand; I can do none other so help me God.’ “So the question is not whether we will be extremists but what kind of extremists will we be.  Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love?  Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice—or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”

But what of us?  Martin Luther King Jr.’s contemporaries are now old men and women.  Those of us who recall being a part of the student protests, the marches for racial equality in society, the agitators for the church to be change agents for peace and justice, are now over fifty.  Do we still dream? Do we choose to live into the reality of “The” Dream? Observing this annual holiday calls our nation to remember that we are bigger than any one of us. We are reminded that we are community and are called to live as beloved community. It calls us beyond the hateful and vengeful rhetoric which has so dominated our news cycles and social media over recent weeks and months.

A number of years ago, while serving as a hospital chaplain, I entered into a conversation with an elderly African-American woman about this very subject–one which is theologically defined as faithful citizenship within the Kingdom of God but which she defined as Biblical common sense.  Her comment was, “Lawsy honey, I ain’t afraid of falling out of de Lawd’s hand, I am his hand!”

Just two months prior to his assassination Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a sermon to his congregation at Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta following his birthday entitled Then My Living Will Not Be in Vain, in which he stated:

I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others.  I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody.

I want you to say that I tried to be right on the war question.

I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.

I want you to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.

I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.  And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

And that is all I want to say.

If I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a song, if I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong, then my living will not be in vain.

That legacy has been given to us!  The problem that we soon discover with responding to the call to community is that while there is grace and peace aplenty, there is also that which sometimes can be uncomfortable because the Dream is in the business of destroying all those things which would ensnare, enslave or defeat any and all of God’s creation.

Paul Scherer, a contemporary of Dr. King, illustrated one of his sermons with the story of a young girl who was attending a week-end party at the home of a famous artist.  The young lady was discovered in the garden by the artist one morning in deep distress, and the man asked what the matter was.  “Somebody,” she moaned, pointing to the bushes lining the garden path, and brushing tears from her eyes, “Somebody has gone and set traps out there for the birds.”  “And what have you done about it?” asked the artist.  “I have prayed about it,” she answered.  “I prayed that none of the birds would go near the traps!”  Then a long pause, and a sob.  “And I prayed that if any did, that the traps would not work!”  Another long pause and sob.  “And if one did work and a bird got caught, then it would find a way out.”  Another pause as the artist watched the youngster compose herself, another sob came, not so bitter.  “And just a few minutes ago,” she went on, looking up at her host and smiling, “I went out there and kicked the traps to pieces!”

We are called to be busting out of sanitized piety and religious or social pontification to getting down and dirty with the Beloved Dream as it challenges individual ethics, public policy, corporate conceit and political power with ethical righteousness and moral transformation. It is a personal call with a public prophetic face. Martin L. King, Jr., heard, then claimed and then acted upon what he understood as God’s call on his life and all those dwelling on this magnificent orb in the heavens.  Going from Birmingham to Memphis to link arms with the garbage collectors.  The man with the dream closed his last speech with the words of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic”:  “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Later in Memphis, on the balcony of his hotel with Jesse Jackson and Ben Branch who was to be the worship leader for the evening rally, King is reported to have asked Branch if at the meeting that night he would play and lead, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”  As the words left his lips, a shot rang out, and moments later, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Apostle of Non-Violence, was dead and ushered to glory.  He had answered his call.  He had shared the good news of the Dream as he understood it.  He had busted some traps that would enslave the poor.  He had placed his hand in the hand of the One who called him, equipped him and led him into mission.  This day of observance calls us to do no less.

Over recent weeks the images of racial violence have been thrust before our eyes over and over again. Some have attempted to distance themselves from the emotions which have sought to rise up within them. Others have looked for “the other” against whom they could lash out in anger. Some have struggled with the contradictory urges for vengeance and mercy. Others have sought peace. Some have rallied for war. Yet others have rallied to provide relief. Many have sat helpless feeling overwhelmed by the immensity of the destruction. All have grieved and sought to find their own places of understanding and healing. We have wanted to know if tomorrow will be. We have asked, “Is it too late to even hope for peace in our world?” “Is it too late to overcome the vestiges of racism, colonialism, and ultra-nationalism?” We have asked, “Is it too late to work toward community?” “Has the Dream died?” We continue to ask.

In his book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote:

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men (humanity)” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…” We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. This may well be mankind’s (humankind’s) last chance to choose between chaos and community.

But we still have that chance. We owe it to ourselves and our co-inhabitants of this planet earth to learn to love. Is it too late? While it is today, it is never too late! We simply must learn what it is that we owe one another and what the world owes us.

J. David Waugh, DMin, has served pastorates in VT, RI, NY and MS as well as serving as founding director of Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries in NYC. Along the way he has served as an adjunct professor at the Divinity School of Wake Forest University and taught courses for the Baptist Bible Institute of Belize. He now lives in Jackson, MS, where he worked for Professional Staffing Group and served as president of the Fondren Association of Businesses. He recently retired and dabbles in property management. He serves as Co-Chair of Jackson 2000.