Monday is the Martin Luther King, Jr. federal holiday. On Wednesday, January 15, Dr. King would have celebrated his 91st birthday. Dr. King was a minister, activist, and outspoken leader in the American Civil Rights Movement through the 1950’s and 1960’s until his assassination on April 4, 1968. During his lifetime, Dr. King was the most visible of those leading the struggle for equal and fair treatment for African-Americans, and he repeatedly called on Americans to live up to the promise of our democracy. Since his death, Dr. King has become an iconic symbol for all those who seek a just society, free from racism and prejudice.
He was known as Rev. before he was known as Dr. In addition to his effective leadership in non-violent marches and protests—and in the meetings in which he sat down with other ministers, community leaders, politicians, and world leaders to argue for civil rights for all—Dr. King most often found his most powerful voice in sermons preached in the pulpits of American churches.
Just four days before he was assassinated, on March 31, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached at the National Cathedral right here in Washington, DC. He titled his sermon “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” It is an adaptation of one of his standard sermons that he had returned to throughout his ministry. Standing in the ornate and imposing Canterbury Pulpit of the National Cathedral, he eloquently addressed themes that were the focus of his life and work. He grappled with the complexity of the struggle for freedom and justice with ideas and pointed assertions that still resonate with truth and authenticity 50+ years later. (The links below will take you to both audio and text versions of the whole sermon.) Here are two paragraphs from that sermon:
“Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured….
“Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. 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.”
(Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” Washington, DC, March 31, 1968.)
As we celebrate his life and work, and the holiday that carries his name, may we accept his challenge to remain awake in the cause of justice and equality that is the heart of America.
(Full text of the sermon:. Excellent quality audio recording of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sermon at the National Cathedral on March 31, 1968).