What I’ve learned studying Dr. King

Last year, I wrote a post about how Dr. King’s dream has become more meaningful to me as my wife and I raise a family with a son of Korean descent. My first awareness of Dr. King was as a child of eleven years old growing up in North Carolina hearing my relatives talk about the fight in the Congress for the King holiday that we are observing today. The talk was often ugly and largely came from the Republican Senator from my home state of North Carolina, Jesse Helms. This story from the Washington Post in October of 1983 sets the scene pretty well. Apart from some uglier comments, Helms said, “[King’s] very name itself remains a source of tension, a deeply troubling symbol of divided society.” A leader clearly and powerfully calling out racism being labeled as divisive sounds familiar — but I’m not here to write about that. Instead, I wanted to write about what I’ve learned since way back then.

I’ve been studying Dr. King and his work on a deeper level over the past
several years. I am by no means an “expert” on his life and work, only an eager student.  I found so much more as I’ve studied beyond the Dr. King of that soaring “I have a mlkdream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Dr. King was a radical. King did do and say things that attacked the political, economic, and social order of the time. He was a man of dazzling intellect, an inspirational storyteller, a soaring orator, and a political pragmatist. I wanted to share a few things I’ve learned along with a few readings I don’t see quoted often (or only quoted superficially) to hopefully inspire others to learn more about Dr. King on this special holiday. This summer, I traced some of King’s footsteps in Memphis and it profoundly and movingly affected my understanding of the man and his true underlying mission.

1968: The Memphis sanitation workers’ strike and “dangerous unselfishness”

The Dr. King celebrated today is often the Dr. King of the March on Washington in 1963 lincolnmemorialwhere he gave his “I have a dream speech.” And it absolutely should be celebrated. This past November, I visited the Lincoln Memorial and I took a few moments to stand with my son there on the sacred ground where Dr. King delivered the speech. I looked out over the Mall with my arm around my son and tried to explain through tears what Dr. King had said that day and how the pursuit of that dream had made our family possible. In that moment, I felt Dr. King’s soaring spirit and felt a sense of loss but also deep gratitude for Dr. King’s words that day.

Like all of us, Dr. King changed with time. I wanted to know more about how Dr. King’s thinking evolved over the rest of his life. This past summer, I visited Memphis to re-trace Dr. King’s footsteps there in his final days. First, it’s important to note why King was in Memphis in 1968. He made multiple visits to support the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike and during those visits he often preached at the Mason Temple, where he delivered his extraordinary “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech on the last night of his life. In various difficult times in my life, I found myself listening to or reading this speech. This is a speech that I can’t even begin to excerpt, as every word of it is powerful (I beg you to read it and listen to it) — but the call to help each other in this passage always makes me pause:

Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school — be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.

Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.

Dangerous unselfishness. This phrase has such incredible power. Dr. King was himself practicing “dangerous unselfishness” in the very act of giving this amazing speech as I learned later in the story behind the mountaintop speech. A bone-tired, sick, and feverish Dr. King had asked his friend Ralph Abernathy to take his place. As the crowds gathered, Abernathy called Dr. King to tell him that the crowd was desperate to see him so King gathered what little remaining strength he had and made his way to the Mason Temple. He spoke for about 45 minutes. He gave direction, he inspired, he prophesied his own death, and comforted his followers that he had seen the Promised Land and they would get there with him or without him. It’s a stunning speech and words fail when trying to describe the power of it knowing what happened the next day. When the speech was over, he stumbled back into his seat, absolutely exhausted. If you read the speech or listen to the audio, it’s hard to imagine that Dr. King is so fatigued in that moment. But this is what leaders do and I’m profoundly moved by Dr. King’s display of power and strength in that moment, the last time we were all able to hear his voice.

I wanted to see where Dr. King gave that speech with my own eyes and that journey turned into a profound experience in a way that I didn’t expect. I punched the address for the Mason Temple into my phone and drove over with my family. I thought about getting to my destination but not what I masontemplewould see on the journey. On the short drive from downtown Memphis to the Mason Temple, I saw intense poverty all around. I learned later that by some measures, present-day Memphis is the poorest metro area in the country, with a child poverty rate of 44.7%. Dr. King was focusing increasingly on the Poor People’s Campaign in his later days and my drive to the Mason Temple unexpectedly brought the urgency of that work into sharp relief. I have paid more attention to this section of his mountaintop speech ever since:

It’s all right to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.

The dream of Dr. King has not yet been realized in 2018 and the work continues in the modern-day Poor People’s Campaign led by Rev. William Barber from my home state of North Carolina. The work isn’t over.

As I looked around me on that drive that day, I thought of Dr. King’s decision after finishing his studies in Boston when he decided that he needed to go back South and his wife and partner in the movement Coretta later recalled him saying (as noted in this excellent Harvard Business School case study), “I am going back South. I am going to live in the South because this is where I’m needed.” I thought of Dr. King in April 1968, a moment where he was focusing his energy on the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike as part of the Poor People’s Campaign. He was going where he was needed again.

Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

Dr. King’s final book is urgently entitled Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?  The book is profound on a number of levels and my print copy is packed with underlines and notes in the margin (high-level summary). The incisive commentary on the role of white liberals in the larger movement is something that I’m still thinking about (see pages 93-107). An over-arching message in the book is the common cause of all people. The “we” in the title is not just all Americans but everyone around the world. In the foreword, his widow Coretta Scott King writes just weeks after his assassination:

In this work Martin Luther King Jr. stresses the common cause of all the disinherited, white and black, laying the basis for the contemporary struggles now unfolding around economic issues. He spoke out sharply for all the poor in all their hues, for he knew if color made them different, misery and oppression made them the same.

This is reflected in Dr. King’s words in the book: “There are, in fact, more poor white Americans than there are Negro. Their need for a war on poverty is no less desperate than the Negro’s.” (page 53 and a deeper discussion starting on page 170 in which “guaranteed income” is discussed as a remedy)

The first chapter of the book opens with the scene around the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Later in the book (page 87), Dr. King notes: “Their is a tragic gulf between civil rights laws passed and civil rights laws implemented.” In this first chapter, Dr. King lays out the landscape that remained one year after the bill was signed — one that sounds disturbingly contemporary:

A year later, the white backlash had become an emotional electoral issue in California, Maryland, and elsewhere. In several Southern states men long regarded as political clowns had become governors or only narrowly missed election, their magic achieved with a “witches” brew of bigotry, prejudice, half-truths, and whole lies. (page 2)

This is voice of the “radical” Dr. King that I use in the most positive sense, the man that Jesse Helms spoke of who hasn’t really gotten what he wants and isn’t willing to go quietly. Dr. King is urgent and unsparing in the rest of the book, with one example being his strong critique of the laggard North (King was living and working in Chicago until he left to start writing the book):

The civil rights revolution appeared to drain energy from the North, energy that flowed South to transform life there while stagnation blanketed Northern Negro communities.

This was a decade of role reversal. The North, heretofore vital, languished, while the traditionally passive South burst with dynamic vigor. The North at best stood still as the South caught up. (pages 19-20)

At the time, Dr. King was also facing opposition among allies who wanted to take a more violent approach to change. He discusses the Black Power movement at length and defends the critique of his non-violent philosophy in very clear, pragmatic, and urgent terms:

Anyone leading a violent rebellion must be willing to make an honest assessment regarding the possible casualties to a minority population confronting a well-armed, wealthy majority with a fanatical right wing that would delight in exterminating thousands of black men, women, and children.

How I’m remembering Dr. King today

When I think of Dr. King today on this special holiday, I’m not thinking about the man who stood at the Lincoln Memorial that day in 1963 but the man who went to the Mason Temple the night of April 3, 1968. I’m thinking of the weary leader who had just finished a book packed with urgent messages, fought tough battles in Chicago, was seeing splintering in his own movement, and had come to Memphis to stand with poor sanitation workers, workers who held signs that simply asserted their humanity: “I AM A MAN.” I think of the tired Dr. King making his way from the Lorraine Motel out to the Mason Temple after he got the call from Ralph Abernathy, looking out the car window and seeing again the urgency of the poverty along the route to a place where he had spoken many times, building his resolve and summoning the strength to take the podium that night. I think of the Dr. King who had spoken out against the Vietnam War and paid the price with both his allies and his enemies.  I think of him barely able to stand upright from his weariness, getting the call that the people wanted to see him, and raising his weary body off the bed to make that last incredible speech at the Mason Temple. I think of how he consistently modeled leadership and went where he was needed.

“A tough mind and a tender heart” / Power and love

Dr. King’s power as a leader came in part from the successful integration of seeming opposites and he stated better than anyone how these opposing forces not only co-exist but are necessary. In 1959, he gave a sermon entitled “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart.” It’s my favorite sermon of his and worth reading in its entirety but the opening is a good start:

A French philosopher said, “No man is strong unless he bears within his character antitheses strongly marked.”  The strong man holds in a living blend strongly marked opposites.   Not ordinarily do men achieve this balance of opposites.  The idealists are not usually realistic, and the realists are not usually idealistic.  The militant are not generally known to be passive, nor the passive to be militant.  Seldom are the humble self-assertive, or the self-assertive humble.  But life at its best is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony.  The philosopher Hegel said that truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis that reconciles the two.

Jesus recognized the need for blending opposites.  He knew that his disciples would face a difficult and hostile world, where they would confront the recalcitrance of political officials and the intransigence of the protectors of the old order.  He knew that they would meet cold and arrogant men whose hearts had been hardened by the long winter of traditionalism.  So he said to them, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the mist of wolves.”  And he gave them a formula for action, “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”  It is pretty difficult to imagine a single person having, simultaneously, the characteristics of the serpent and the dove, but this is what Jesus expects.  We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.

King lived in this world of “antitheses strongly marked.” In Where Do We Go From Here?, he writes:

Power, properly understood, is the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, or economic changes. In this sense, power is not only desirable but necessary in order to implement the demands of love and justice. One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love. It was this misinterpretation that caused Nietzsche, the philosopher of “will to power,” to reject the Christian concept of love. It was the same misinterpretation which induced Christian theologians to reject Nietzsche’s philosophy fo the “will to power” in the name of the Christian idea of love. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting against everything that stands against love. (pages 37-38)

These are principles to live by: tough mind/tender heart. Power/love. To me, this is what humane leadership is all about and we can all learn from Dr. King’s powerful witness to these concepts.

Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel

The day after we drove to the Mason Temple, I went to the National Civil Rights Museum at the site of the Lorraine Motel. I can’t begin to describe how profound the museum is, but I’ll say for now that it should be considered a mandatory visit for every American. I am still following up on what I learned there and it will take years if not decades. Going in, if you’ve read or heard anything about the museum, you know that the final exhibit is a view into Dr. King’s hotel room, Room 306, which has been preserved as it was on that fateful day when he stepped out out on the balcony and lost his life. But it’s still startling when you come to that place. What struck me looking into this now-sacred space was the ordinary-ness of Dr. King. The room was incredibly modest. A simple bed. A newspaper. The effects of a man with few worldly possessions. A man who was deeply tired but committed to going where he was needed. All of my prior conceptions of Dr. King disappeared in that moment and as I looked into the place where he took some of his final breaths, I wept for the man we lost.

Today, I will try to remember and honor the fullness of Dr. King, the dream that is still not realized, and the ongoing lessons of studying and learning from his work. The piercing question he asked in the title of his book — where do we go from here: chaos or community? — is still one we need to answer today.

Readings

Other quotes from Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?:

  • When scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men. (page 183)
  • There is the convenient temptation to attribute the current turmoil and bitterness throughout the world to the presence of a Communist conspiracy to undermine Europe and America but the potential explosiveness of our world situation is much more attributable to disillusionment with the promises of Christianity and technology! (page 185)
  • We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing”-oriented society to a “person”-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A civilization can flounder as readily in the face of moral and spiritual bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy. (page 196-197)