By Abby Zimet at Commondreams.org
It’s tough, in this bleak, bloody, foreboding time, to hold onto and keep faith with Martin Luther King’s lofty vision of equality forged through non-violence. Still, we’re trying. For succor there is the memory of the blessed John Lewis, honored in a new biography, for whom “the fire never dimmed”; the words of King himself, who argued, “Only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars,” and the fierce Rev. William Barber, who rejects the revisionist “happy MLK” and vows to “reconsecrate” himself to the work at hand.
It soothes the spirit to see tribute paid to Rep. John Lewis, an “absolutely extraordinary human being” whose deep sense of egalitarianism, “confluence of Black Christianity and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, and engagement with every progressive cause elevated him to become the revered “Conscience of Congress.“John Lewis: In Search of the Beloved Communityby Raymond Arsenault, part of Yale University’s Black Lives series, recounts Lewis’ life from his hardscrabble start as the 10th child of poor farmers who at 11 preached to the family’s chickens and in his first protest tried to get a library card at the all-white library through organizing sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, becoming a Freedom Rider, helping found SNCC in 1963, and in 1965 giving “far and away the most radical speech” of the day as one of six organizers of the March on Washington. He was 25 when he led the Selma to Montgomery march with Rev. Hosea Williams; his fractured skull from truncheon-wielding troopers that Bloody Sunday was the first of over 40 beatings, arrests and jailings he survived over decades.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge
He returned year after year to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, including in 2015 when he marched hand in hand with then-President Obama to mark the 50th anniversary of what became a seminal event in civil rights history. Into his 70s, through 17 terms representing Georgia in Congress, he kept fighting; near the end, he led a House sit-in to demand tougher gun controls, and the day before his final hospital stay he visited protesters at Black Lives Matter Plaza. Having first heard MLK Jr. on the radio as a teenager, Lewis remained a fervent believer in King’s vision of a just and equitable “Beloved Community.” Forgiveness, says Arsenault, was “the central theme of his life. He believed that you couldn’t let your enemies pull you down into the ditch with them – he gave everyone the benefit of the doubt.” At the same time, generations of young progressives, including the Tennessee 3’s Justin Jones – heeded his defiant call to follow him into “good trouble.” Speak up, speak out, get in the way,” he told them. “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.”
Rev. William Barber
Rev. William Barber, “born to the struggle” two days after MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech, likewise argues “the soul of America is at stake.” The tireless, eloquent architect of the Moral Movement, Poor People’s Campaign and Repairers of the Breach, Barber spoke at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church to remind his audience that King doggedly “resisted the great man theory” because “once the great man’s dead, we don’t have any power…And oh, how some people love prophets who are dead.” King, he declared, was “just a great microphone for voices that had been screaming for centuries.” Stressing those longstanding cries for help, he said King was above all a preacher for whom “the sermon was never the end, but the announcement of the beginning” of a fight against poverty, racism, militarism. “If he’d just preached about justice, no one would have bothered with him,” he said. “We must attend to the gospel he preached…He was not preaching a health and wealth gospel – he was preaching a gospel of radical hospitality” focused, like those before him, on “lifting up the poor.”
Barber: “Jesus Was a Poor Man”
Fluent in political and economic realities – and denouncing an obscene military budget that goes up every year – Barber repeatedly argued that the poor, the disenfranchised, those without health care or a living wage or decent schools, all those crying out for help, all remain that way thanks to “a political choice” – there is, as we all know, “plenty of money.” Barber, who sometimes wears a robe that reads, “Jesus Was a Poor Man,” thus reminded his listeners of King’s radical, fierce-urgency-of-now politics that so often get whitewashed out of view this time of year. “How the hell can you commemorate King without saying, ‘C’mon y’all, let’s get back to work’?” he asked, stressing the need to move “from personal piety to public theology” in the form of action. In his “moral fusion organizing,” Barber describes forming “a powerful conglomerate for political and social action,” a how-to, nitty-gritty guide to King’s sacred but also practical “beloved community.” “There’s no way to follow Jesus without working for justice,” he told his listeners. “You can’t just pray it away – you gotta get in the way.”
America Has Heroes
Amidst the darkness, writes historian Heather Cox Richardson, we can feel that, “America has no heroes left.” But she suggests that King, like Lewis, Barber, a few others, represent the “regular, flawed human beings” among us, “choosing to put others before themselves…choosing to do the right thing, no matter what.” In April, 1967, King gave a speech at New York City’s Riverside Church titled, “Beyond Vietnam – A Time To Break Silence.” It’s a speech rarely quoted; nobody wanted to hear a preacher, no matter how stirring, denounce a war already tearing the country apart. But perhaps most powerfully of all his speeches, King reveals the solitary pain of his task, the searing conflict in the space between Rev. Barber’s “personal piety” and “public theology,” Richardson’s glancing “no matter what.” King said he spoke “because my conscience leaves me no other choice.” Quoting the opening of the anti-war clergy’s statement – “A time comes when silence is betrayal” – King concedes that beginning to “break the silence of the night” can feel like “a vocation of agony.” Still, he says, “we must speak.” May he rest in power.
“Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence…But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.” – Desiderata by Max Ehrmann
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