04 April 2008

The Other MLK Day

Forty years ago, Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis. To mark the occasion, Sens. Clinton and McCain visited the city. Clinton seemed ready to squirt a few again, as Bernie from Miller's Crossing might say, while McCain confessed error for having once opposed the celebration of King's birthday as a national holiday. Senator Obama was in Indiana, where he chose again to identify himself with the Kennedy legacy, for it was in that state on that day in 1968 that Robert Kennedy gave a famous speech informing the crowd that King was killed while calming then and thus, some say, preventing riots.

There's been some speculation lately over whether King, had he lived, might have turned into a Rev. Wright, or was already turning that way when he died. He had passed the peak of his popularity and risked exiting the mainstream, some thought, by extending his agenda to oppose the Vietnam War and demanding more thorough redistribution of wealth. I don't have my source at hand right now, but I've read one column quoting a King sermon in which he imagines God punishing, or at least threatening to punish the country for its arrogance. I can cite the sermon, at least. It's called "The Drum Major Instinct." Here's the pertinent part of it.

God didn't call America to do what she's doing in the world now. (Preach it, preach it) God didn't call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I'm going to continue to say it. And we won't stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.
But God has a way of even putting nations in their place. (Amen) The God that I worship has a way of saying, "Don't play with me." (Yes) He has a way of saying, as the God of the Old Testament used to say to the Hebrews, "Don’t play with me, Israel. Don't play with me, Babylon. (Yes) Be still and know that I'm God. And if you don't stop your reckless course, I'll rise up and break the backbone of your power." (Yes) And that can happen to America. (Yes) Every now and then I go back and read Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And when I come and look at America, I say to myself, the parallels are frightening.

There might have been more along the same lines later, had he lived to be among us now, possibly still active at age 79, but I don't know enough about King to speculate intelligently on the subject. I do know that most people thought better of him once he was dead. Some people, like John McCain, were slow to catch on, and Ron Paul appears to have been even slower about it, but death is the great reconciler, and King in his grave could be imagined to have made his peace with America and white people, just as John Kennedy in his grave is honored for all the great works he might have accomplished or, like his murdered brother, for the promise he embodied. We often make the dead represent the best in us, because they can't disagree with us. Prophets have no honor in their own countries, and that includes the country of the living.

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