“Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” –Martin Luther King, Jr. April 3, 1968
This week many Americans solemnly marked the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. While we recall his life of nonviolence in the struggle for justice and equality, it’s equally important to remember the institutional and societal challenges that plagued our nation in those days.
King sought unity, to bring equality to all, but the disciple of nonviolence met a violent end on April 4, 1968.
That night Sen. Robert Kennedy was traveling to a rally in inner-city Indianapolis. In the days before smartphones or 24-hour cable news, many in the crowd had yet to learn the terrible news. After he informed them of the tragic news, he spoke of love over hatred and peace over violence. As cities around America burned, Indianapolis remained calm.
The next day in Cleveland he made a speech titled “The Mindless Menace of Violence.” That speech in 1968 was sparked by an assassination, and by an era of violent demonstrations in cities and on campuses about racial strife and Vietnam. In modern America mass shootings are the “assassination events” of our time.
But 50 years after King spoke of the mountaintop, many sense renewed and growing divisions and institutional bias. In 2018 even a perceived bias is granted the aura of truth as we are armed with what we all believe is “our truth” and “our facts.” So we draw the dividing lines.
One of the truths of human nature is the value in studying the lessons and words of the past. As Kennedy had grown to respect King’s vision for America as reflected in that speech, it marked a moment of deep reflection.
“Yet we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike. We calmly accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far off lands. We glorify killing on movie and television screens and we call it entertainment. We make it easier for men of all shades of sanity to acquire weapons and ammunition that they desire. Too often we honor swagger and bluster and the wielders of force.
“Some look for scapegoats; others look for conspiracies. But this much is clear: violence breeds violence; repression breeds retaliation; and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our souls.
“For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions -- indifference, inaction, and decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books, and homes without heat in the winter. This is the breaking of a man's spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man amongst other men.
“And this too afflicts us all. For when you teach a man to hate and to fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies that he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your home or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies -- to be met not with cooperation but with conquest.”
Fifty years after King’s march to the mountaintop was ended, the words Kennedy spoke seem just as true and relevant to describe America in 2018. He addressed aloud the thoughts many held but either elected not to express or could not articulate themselves.
But who in America will speak these words now? Who is willing to acknowledge a problem and address the grievances of all sides, and then challenge us to find common ground?
Kennedy honored King by espousing nonviolence, healing and unity over division. He spoke about the violence in our nation and the wedges driven between our faiths, races and classes. But two months later, violence once again took a voice for nonviolence as Robert Kennedy, too, was killed by an assassin’s bullet.
So the question for the living remains how far have we come in those five decades? What have we learned from our history? The dream of the mountaintop still eludes us. Maybe we got there only to retreat in a world made harsher by agenda-driven division and coarser discourse. Maybe we never truly made the summit at all.
But as we mark the events of a tragic week a half a century ago, the words of King, Kennedy and leaders across the centuries should still thunder in our souls, calling us to claim the mountaintop of a more perfect union.