Rev. Douglas Taylor
My mother’s father’s name was Ashley Walter Strong. You don’t know him, but you know me and that is close enough. He died when I was seven or eight years old, and my middle name, Ashley (which is also Keenan’s middle name) is for him. I know him mostly through the stories my mother has told me. He was a gentle man, always thinking of others. He was a member of the Old Stone Universalist Church in Schuylur Lake, NY where his wife, Marie, played the organ and was Superintendent of the Church School, and where his daughter, my mother Elizabeth, grew up and was teaching in the Sunday school as early as eighth grade. Grandpa Strong served as Moderator and then President of the New York Convention of Universalists in the mid 1950’s. It was in that role that he met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1956 Ashley was moderator of the State Convention which was meeting in Cortland that year. Dr. King was the featured speaker and as the moderator it was my grandfather’s responsibility to introduce him.
By this time, young Dr. King had successfully navigated the Montgomery bus boycott resulting in a U.S. district court decision that segregation of municipal buses is unconstitutional. (Although the official Supreme Court decision upholding the lower court decision was still a few months away.) Dr. King had been arrested once by this time; (although the first bomb would not appear on his front porch for another six months.) The summer of 1956 was before Dr. King and his wife traveled to India to study Mahatma Gandhi’s policies of nonviolence. It was before James Meredith tried to enroll at the University of Mississippi, before King was jailed in Birmingham where he wrote his stirring Letter from the Birmingham Jail, before the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech during the march on Washington. This was before King visited West Berlin, before he met with the Pope in Rome, before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This was before Malcolm X was murdered, before the march from Selma to Montgomery, the event at which Unitarian minister, James Reeb, was beaten to death. It was before President Johnson signed the voting rights bill, before the 1967 riots in Detroit and in Newark and in Jackson Mississippi. It was almost twelve years before Martin Luther King was shot by James Earl Ray in Memphis.
My grandfather stood at the lectern to introduce Dr. King to the 1956 State Convention delegates and attendees and had no way of knowing what would unfold over the next dozen years for that man or for the nation. He knew about King’s education and vocation, he knew about the bus boycott and the scope of the issues King and others were trying to address. He knew these were issues that he and the other Universalists there were deeply concerned about. He could sense the fire and the passion in this man.
Can you imagine yourself in my grandfather’s position? Standing before an assembly of people like you and me, introducing Dr. King. When I asked my mom about it, she wrote,
I know he was so proud of being able to introduce Dr. King and be in such close contact with him. Knowing Dad, I would say that he stood in the same spiritual awe as I did. Dad had a deep respect for the integrity and ability to carry out convictions that Dr. King was living out in his life. We were all so proud of being Universalists that day. We had recognized early that this was a man who could change the conditions of the Negro in America and the world.
My mom sent me a copy of the speech which was reprinted in the Empire State Universalist periodical (November 1956, pp 7-10). She admitted she didn’t remember the words he spoke, but deeply remembered that they were powerful. She said that at the time she got the message of acceptance, love, non-violence, and that beloved community begins within one’s heart and actions. She was the same age my daughter is now when she heard King speak.
King’s speech before the New York State Convention of Universalists in 1956 was not a landmark sermon. It is not one that is reprinted in books or touted as the speech that marked the beginning or the culmination of a grand moment in the movement. King was not at his most eloquent, those he was certainly eloquent enough; and the speech certainly proved momentous enough for those who experienced it. The speech covered three areas that mark it as one of his early speeches. He offered a powerful overview of the history of slavery and oppression in America. He described the use of nonviolent resistance as modeled by Gandhi. And he spoke at length about agape love and the power of “an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.” He said, “When we rise to love on the agape level we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but because God loves them.” And he closed with this statement of his vision and his ultimate goal, “Through wisely and courageously using this method [of nonviolent resistance] we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity into the bright and glittering daylight of freedom and justice.”
In these stirring words, we find the seeds that would grow into the powerful phrases and concepts that kindled the conscience of a nation. In these stirring words, we behold the vision that carried the people forward. The vision King offered the nation was a powerful vision calling us to move forward by staying true to the fundamental statements of who we are and who we have been as a country since our inception. King cast a vision of the beloved community united to defeat racism and segregation, united to defeat economic pattern of disparity and inequality of opportunity, united to defeat the great sin of war.
It is interesting to note that nowadays we try to tame King’s message by saying it is a message about racism. We try to contain it into a narrow concept defined by history and consumable only as a nice story of something that happened once upon a time for black people. But the message can not be so contained and ignored because the vision was not simply a vision of voting rights and desegregation. The message can not be contained because the vision can not be contained. King’s vision was of the beloved community and it included all God’s children. King’s vision was as much about peace as he spoke out against the Vietnam War. His vision was as much about economic opportunity as he spoke in support of striking workers. King’s vision was not for some people during some time now past. His vision was for the nation to rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, that all people are created equal. King’s vision was less about desegregation for blacks and more about seeing the nation through the crisis of democracy with which it was struggling.
King became the man he was not simply of his own force of will. It must be recognized that King spoke at a time of great crisis for the country. Had King done all that he did a generation earlier he would have been notice, certainly, but I doubt he would have been effective. The message was delivered and the vision cast at a moment in our history when we most needed it.
I read somewhere a compelling analysis of the history of crises of democracy in American history, and searched high and low to find the thread again but failed. As best I can recreate the analysis, there have been five ‘crises of democracy’ in the history of our nation. A ‘crisis of democracy’ is a time when the process of democracy is in danger of being supplanted by other more restrictive forms of government. Aristotle said, “A democracy, when put to the strain, grows weak, and is supplanted by oligarchy.” (Oligarchy is a government run by an elite few.) People talk about signs that we are becoming a theocracy or a plutocracy or even a fascist regime, but in essence these are all forms of oligarchy.
In the ‘five crises of democracy’ analysis our current situation is, of course, the fifth example. The time of Dr. Martin Luther King was the fourth. I wish I could tell you all five because it has been nagging me and now it will likely nag at several of you as well, for which I apologize. (Certain the Civil War was one of the five, but beyond that we’ll just need to get back to it later.) Compelling idea, isn’t it, these crises of democracy?
But I find that it fits. King’s message was not contained in the struggle for voting rights. His message was to address the crisis of democracy in the nation. In his 1958 book Strive Toward Freedom, the Montgomery Story, he wrote:
History has thrust upon our generation an indescribably important destiny – to complete a process of democratization which our nation has too long developed too slowly … How we deal with this crucial situation will determine our moral health as individuals, our cultural health as a region, our political health as a nation, and our prestige as a leader of the free world. (MLK, Strive Toward Freedom, 1958)
Of course, implied in the fact that they are listed as five separate crises is the idea that each crisis is different from the preceding crises. Yet ministers are regularly preaching sermons about Martin Luther King’s dream and weighing how we are doing against it today. This concept of ‘five crises of democracy’ suggests that perhaps the message King delivered during that crisis is not the message we need now because we have moved into a new crisis. Oh, to be sure, the base message that equality and justice are inalienable rights is still the core solution to our problem. But beyond that, do we need another vision, a new message to inspire the people to rise up and challenge the problems of our day? Perhaps.
In his 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? King wrote:
The church has an opportunity and a duty to lift up its voice like a trumpet and declare unto the people the immorality of segregation. It must affirm that every human life is a reflection of divinity, and that every act of injustice mars and defaces the image of God in man.
The first thing I hear in this is the call for religion to recognize its role in ushering in a solution to national problems. In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail he wrote that the church had been behaving like a thermometer of culture when it used to be like a thermostat! The second thing I hear is a question: during King’s time, the church had an opportunity and a duty to lift up its voice like a trumpet and declare unto the people the immorality of segregation. What is the pervasive immorality of our day that we as religious people should be trumpeting against?
I would put my money on ‘Greed,’ the immoral amassing of more than your need, the unprincipled quest for financial success. The contemporary crisis that threatens democracy itself is the gluttonous rush to buildup your bank account while running morally bankrupt. We are a nation in trouble and as was true in King’s day, the first step continues to be to sound the alarm, to raise our voices like a trumpet to declare unto the people the immorality of downsizing and outsourcing, of white-collar malfeasance and the political & lobbying corruption. There may be loopholes in the tax codes and laws that allow obnoxious write-offs for big industry, but just because it is legal doesn’t mean it is right! And in another arena – the veneer of nobility has worn off the occupation of Iraq and the last reason standing is greed.
Martin Luther King had a certain measure of success in his campaign for desegregation and the guarantee of voting rights. King had a measure of success in his efforts to wake the conscience of the nation to the immorality of racism. His message and his vision, however was not contained by racism alone. A key demand in his I Have a Dream speech was for “a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living.” Dr. King died while supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis, TN who were struggling for a living wage and for their dignity. Dr. King said,
There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American worker whether a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid, or day laborer.
Perhaps King’s vision still serves for our current crisis, as there are still parts of that vision we have not fully heard.
I dream of a day when our vision is clear enough to recognize that 36 million people in American living in poverty is unacceptable and that we can do something about it. I dream of a day when we look each other in the eye and say to each other ‘13 million children living in poverty in this country, that is unacceptable and we can do something about it.’ I dream of a day when increasing our teachers’ take-home pay will trump tax-breaks for tycoons; when providing for the poor pulls rank over putting them in prison. I dream of a day when we put our great wisdom and wealth to work feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and housing the homeless. I dream of a day when our nation is recognized as the leader of the free world not because of the magnitude of our military but for the capacity of our compassion. I dream of a day when we wake up and realize that before we can be a great nation we must first be a good nation. And there is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent that day from coming.
In a world without end,
May it be so.