"All we ask is that America be true to what it said on paper"
By Nicole àBeckett
Around MLK Day I like to read the words of Dr. King through speeches, books and interviews and find the relevance to how they fit into today's America. His fight for justice was uniquely American rooted in race, inequality and the demand for representation. I recently read an excerpt of his final speech in Memphis, commonly referred to as his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. Those words have profound resonance in today's America.
I want to share some of the excerpts that struck me for their endurance of significance to our country still 50+ years after proclaimed by Dr. King. My words will never come close to depth and weight of MLK’s and I encourage everyone to read them themselves but I hope I can inspire others to come to know how deep Dr. King held American values and how we should share his words as strongly as those of the founding fathers.
First, some context. On April 3rd, 1968 Dr. King was in Memphis to support the city’s sanitation workers who were on strike to demand fair working conditions and wages. This was part of his larger Poor People’s Campaign — an effort to gain economic justice for all poor people of every background in the United States.
Now about this speech. When referred to it is often discussed for its final paragraphs in which Dr. King seems to prohesy his own death. But this speech is so rich in principles on how to stand up for the ideals of America and use the tools afforded to us by our founders to achieve justice and equality for all Americans. It is not just the how to do it, it is also about the why we must do it. So here are a few excerpts.
The late 1960’s saw us in the midst of war abroad and a civil rights struggle at home. Today, our nation is literally sick and suffering through a pandemic while wrapped in a continual attack on American institutions — free and fair elections, the peaceful transition of power, free press — by our own President. But somehow we see the stars. I believe we have shown that our institutions prevailed. There is probably greater deployment today of our American values — voter engagement, defending the constitution, voting in new power — than any time since the 1960s. Our votes are stars in the darkness. In my lifetime, never have they shined so bright.
One of Dr. King’s fundamental beliefs was nonviolent protest. He used marches and the collective social action of people moved by his words and dedication to principle to take a stand for what is right. This excerpt to me shows the power of when you stand up for what is right, there is no stopping before victory. There is a feeling that the marches of today — the Women’s March, March for our Lives, Black Lives Matter — too aren’t going to stop short of victory. The momentum will push them there.
There is a beautiful section that follows retelling how the protesters of Birmingham, Alabama persevered against police brutality led by Bull Connor, Commissioner of Public Safety in the city, who enforced racial segregation and unleashed fire hoses and attack dogs against any men, women and children who dared stand against him.
I really love this next section:
"All we say to America is to be true to what you said on paper. If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they haven’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right."
America is not a perfect nation but we are the greatest nation because we were created based on a set of ideals that no other nation has committed itself to so deeply — that all men (and women…)are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.
We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable. Still today, we are seeing attacks on preservation of life. We are denying the pursuit of happiness to those that seek out a better life and refuge on our shores. As Americans, we MUST continue to stand for these principles. Because, ultimately if you stand for nothing, you fall for everything. Let’s all use our right to protest — the power of our own voices — to stand for what is sacred and undeniable in America.
“Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal. Now we are poor people, individually we are poor… Never stop and forget that collectively, that means all of us together, collectively we are richer than all the nations in the world, with the exception of nine. That’s power right there, if we know how to pool it."
We have seen collective movements like #grabyourwallet and boycotting NRA supporting companies have had profound effects on social movements. This is important. We can continue to demand our dollars — either through our investment accounts, pensions or everyday spending — be a conscious act of activism for what we believe in.
Now — my favorite part — this moved me the most. Dr. King discusses a passage from the bible about the Good Samaritan. Discussing how a priest and Levite came across a bloody man and feared his situation and the harm his predicament could bring on them.
"The first question that the Levite asked was, 'If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?'
But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” That’s the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?” Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.
Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation."
Those of us who believe America is moving in a direction it not ought to be — this is our duty. To stand with greater determination. To look to our community and say if I do not stop to help what will happen to them. Let us continue to rise up and stand with greater determination to defend the ideals of America.
Thank you Dr. King. May your soul rest in peace knowing that while there may still be struggle for communities, we heed your words and fight for what America once wrote on paper.