King's Words Ring, 26 Years Later


April 03, 1994|By BRIAN SULLAM

A few weeks ago, I arrived at work and found a brightly wrapped package on my desk.

I immediately thought someone in the office had made a mistake and delivered the package to the wrong person. After examining the wrapping and the card, which was addressed to me, I figured it must be a joke. My birthday was months away, and it was too late to be for Christmas.

I unwrapped the package and found a book entitled "I've Been to the Mountaintop," by Martin Luther King Jr. The slim volume contains the last speech delivered by Martin Luther King before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, while standing on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tenn.

When I opened the card, I discovered the book was a gift from my friend Tim Bryson, the owner of Locust Books.

I have kept this book on the side of my desk. Every so often, I pick it up and read a couple of pages. No matter what page I turn to, I always find some incredible gems of wisdom, insight or inspiration.

I also have discovered that even though Dr. King delivered these words 26 years ago this day, the same issues of poverty and racial discrimination on which he focused still bedevil our society. As a result, some of his words still resonate with meaning.

The poverty and misery of the nation's large cities seems to have worsened in the past quarter of a century. As Americans flee the cities, many believe they have left behind the messy and intractable problems of crime, drugs, violence, unemployment and broken homes.

To a large degree, they have have put some distance between themselves and the problems of the cities, such as Baltimore. When people live in bucolic settings such as Carroll County, it is easy to forget the grinding problems of urban America.

Twenty-six years ago, Dr. King was reminding people that although landmark civil rights legislation covering voting rights, housing and public accommodations had been passed, problems still persisted.

Dr. King's trip to Memphis was part of his effort to remind people that blacks still faced many injustices. He came to the Mississippi River town to campaign on behalf of the striking city garbage workers, who were all black and grossly underpaid. The city refused to recognize the workers or the union representing them. To help the garbage workers' cause, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized a march and an economic boycott of downtown Memphis businesses.

There had been one march through town, but the city officials ignored it and the striking garbage workers. Dr. King was in Memphis to lead another march. He was determined to get the attention of the city government and force it to negotiate with the strikers.

"For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory," he told the audience that night.

Despite the rise of the black power movement, and calls from some quarters of the black civil rights movement for violence, Dr. King would not be swayed from using non-violent tactics.

"It is no longer a choice between violence and non-violence in this world; it's non-violence and non-existence," he said.

If he were alive today, Dr. King would probably be saying the same thing to rebut the threatening messages that Louis Farrakhan and some of his sidekicks in the Nation of Islam regularly deliver.

"We don't have to argue with anybody. We don't have to curse and go around acting bad with our words," Dr. King said.

Although Dr. King was committed to gaining his goals through peaceful means, it was evident he was losing his patience.

Blacks were second-class citizens and suffered terribly from the overt racism of the day, but Dr. King was not content to rely on just words to pressure the community to change. He felt that an economic boycott would send a much more powerful message.

His opponents and members of the Memphis business community accused him of waging a negative campaign.

Dr. King's response was: "We aren't engaged in any negative protest and in negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying that we are all God's children."

He also appealed to the altruistic sense of the community. He recounted Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan, noting how a Levite and a priest had ignored the injured man who had been robbed and beaten by thieves on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Dr. King said the Levite and the priest justified walking past the man by saying they had pressing ecclesiastical work to do and meetings to attend.

The Levite and the priest were too preoccupied about what might happen to them if they stopped and helped the man lying on the ground, Dr. King said.

By contrast, the Good Samaritan was thinking about others first. Dr. King pointed out that the Good Samaritan asked, "If I do not stop and help this man, what will happen to him?"

We should all be asking the same question today that Dr. King asked the people of Memphis 26 years ago.

What will happen to the people in America living in misery if we don't stop to help them?

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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