A few days before he was assassinated, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a sermon at Washington National Cathedral that he called “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” Fresh, urgent, and profoundly patriotic, King’s words are helpful as we reflect on his legacy while bracing for a political year unlike any other.
“I say to you that our goal is freedom,” he said, “and I believe we are going to get there because however much she strays away from it, the goal of America is freedom.” If we construe freedom as access to the franchise, by the time King died, our country had been fully free just three years, since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended nearly a century of apartheid in the deep south. That’s when our great revolution of pluralistic democracy actually began. That’s when people of African descent in the south finally flexed their political muscle and transformed our politics.
King’s critics said he took a radical turn in the years between his “I have a dream” speech in 1963 and his murder in Memphis on April 4, 1968. I just don’t see it. I hear nothing but a stirring summons to greatness. His last Sunday sermon was a classic civics lesson, calling on the United States to honor its founding covenants, especially for the sake of struggling descendants of the enslaved, but also for all our people.
The year before this speech, advisors had tried to discourage him from coming out against the Vietnam war. They feared more racist backlash plus the loss of support of moderates who would fret about how the vehemence of a powerful Black man would play. By late March 1968, his views were rooted in the mainstream. The towering irony is that, these days, nobody’s calling Trump, Carlson, and Bannon a cabal of leftwingers because they’re rooting for Putin against the freedom-fighting Ukrainians.
So King’s antiwar radicalism was a bum rap. His call for economic justice, which also induced panic among the pundits, was firmly rooted in Christian witness. “Because our expressways carry us from the ghetto,” he said, “we don’t see the poor.” Invoking Jesus’s parable of the rich man who went to hell for ignoring the poor man Lazarus, King sounds no more radical than Charles Dickens in “A Christmas Carol.” “America [is] the richest nation in the world, “he said. “And nothing’s wrong with that — this is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots.”
These days especially, it may well take a person of faith to construe a nation’s obligation to those being left behind as an opportunity, something we should want to do as an expression of thanksgiving for our blessings. Those who say individuals and not nations are required to be decent should check back with the prophets and indeed with Dickens. On Christmas Eve, during the visit of Marley’s ghost, Scrooge sees more spirits in the street outside his rooms, vainly trying to help the poor. “Some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together,” Dickens wrote.
But this isn’t Russia, at least not yet. Everyone should get to decide together. Our civic faith, linked together with the gospel faith, is that free people have the divine right and moral capacity to make decisions about what their government does. The more who vote, the better the decision. This was the ideal King proclaimed and for which he gave his life. So it turns out that King’s most radical notion was American democracy itself. And show me one that looks like ours, a truly free country with such vast diversity, formed of so many races and ethnicities, faiths and creeds. We are plowing new ground for all humanity.
And not everyone thinks it’s a great idea. Along the furrows of the fields of freedom, we’re dragging ponderous invisible chains. One is our federalist system, including the Electoral College, which insulates us from the will of the majority for the sake of protecting regional and state prerogatives — understandable when it comes to federal funding for dams and bridges, less so when small states get disproportionate power deciding about basic human rights. Trump has also wrapped us in the chains of his epic lies about 2020. His childish ego, the ghost of his cruel father whispering he’s a loser, his sheer meanness — whatever the reason, according to a new poll, he’s helped convince a third of adults in our country that they deserve retribution and vengeance for a not-stolen election. It’s one thing if they really believe it. It’s another if their belief is opportunistic, expressing their fear that they can’t trust freedom and the universal franchise as general notions.
Remember that we’re fewer than 60 years into our pluralistic experiment. As happened between 1789 and 1861, powerful forces tear at the bonds of union. Many years ago in Orange County, I had long conversations with a soft-spoken libertarian-leaning friend who told me that he feared democracy was rigged in favor of the super-state and that we were doomed without a budget-balancing amendment and other constitutional fixes. My friend didn’t even live to see $34 trillion in national debt. It would be one thing if intellectuals like my friend were the only ones tempted to opt out of democracy. But they’re not. White working people, especially those without college educations, are especially prone to election lies, demagoguery, and nativist and racist appeals. With all working people, especially our siblings of color, they are also right to ask where their livelihoods and their hope will come from in an information-driven economy that favors coastal elites.
If it’s possible to say that Trump conferred a blessing, it is that we realize that we can no longer take our civic blessings for granted. That we have to work harder to cherish and nurture them and I daresay one another. Though we fixed many of the systemic flaws that he and his co-seditionists exploited, we have also realized (as much of the rest of the world has always known) that no constitution can stand unless powerful people abide by it for the sake of the common good. Also thanks to Trump, our diversity of perspectives has waxed from healthy to poisonous. This was bound to happen. Blame Trump for spreading the toxin but not formulating it. Trump didn’t make us grow incurious about and eventually despise our fellow Americans, whoever they are. He just gave permission.
Funny that “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” was sometimes spurned as patriotic cant. Because today, it shimmers on the horizon as the realm on which Dr. King’s sights were always set. A place that preachers sometimes talked about better than politicians. A place the church of the Risen One would have to help humanity find. He warned us how hard it would be to get there. He said that he might not get there with us. Reading his words today, one wonders if he had imagined someone like Trump coming along to lure us back to a savage past, the time before humanity realized that nothing decent was possible without freedom and the franchise. Back to the millennia of history before the great freedom revolution began.
“Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability,” Dr. King said that morning at the cathedral. “It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”