Tag Archives: martin luther king

Somewhere I Read of the Freedom of Speech

In bygone times, when you came across a political commentator  you found annoying, the solution was to change the channel. Now, an online mob forms with the fervent intention of silencing the offending voice. To the cyber barricades!   Hashtag campaigns, public shaming, boycott the advertisers! And ironically the mobs are often composed of those who label their opponents “authoritarian.” Ah, but the Constitution’s  45 word First Amendment and its resilient spirit of free speech  has proven to be  the most reliable bulwark against real authoritarians.

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Dr. King: Hew out of the Mountain of Despair a Stone of Hope

April 4, 1968, America lost Dr. Martin Luther King to a sniper’s bullet.  That evening, ignoring police warnings of violence, Robert Kennedy spoke to the black community of Indianapolis in the most  heartfelt speech I have heard   He spoke in words of anguish, yet he offered hope for America, thus echoing Dr. King’s call to “hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”  While rage at Dr. King’s murder exploded into riots in scores of American cities, Indianapolis was spared violence.  Perhaps because people there  believed a leader actually cared?  Robert Kennedy’s voice, though silenced 2 months later by an assassin, speaks to us today.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

Dr. King’s Hope in 1963

Kensington Park

Dr. Martin Luther King infused the spiritual into American politics as no one else has–at least since Lincoln.  His “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on this date in  1963 was one of the great uplifting moments in American history.  “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope,” King told the assembled crowd.

Before he became widely known, Dr. King addressed a church congregation in my home town of Detroit, and explained how faith inspired his political vision.

“There is something wrong with our world, something fundamentally and basically wrong,” he told a Detroit congregation in 1954. “The great problem facing modern man,” he said, “is that . . . the means by which we live have outdistanced the spiritual ends for which we live. . . . The problem is with man himself and man’s soul.”

Those words illuminate our current political culture with a light that is sadly lacking in today’s discourse.

Spiritual Resistance in the Crucible of American Slavery

Flight to freedom (photo, public domain)

Flight to freedom (photo, public domain)

 Inspiration  shines like a beacon  from great films when the screen portrayal reflects historical truth. In the 1989 movie, Glory, blue-clad soldiers of the famed 54th Massachusetts regiment sing hymns around a campfire on the eve of a Civil War battle.   The former slaves—the United States Army’s first black unit—invoke their religious tradition to steel their hearts,  as they testify to their faith in God and their faith in each other. “It don’t much matter what happens tomorrow,” one fiery soldier says, “because we’re men now, ain’t we!”  The chorus responds, “Yessir!” and “Amen.”

 [Repost from April]

The historical truth is that the religion of American slaves played a crucial part in preserving their humanity in the face of a brutal system that tore down their human dignity. There was no escape from this existential threat. Slave revolts in the American South proved suicidal. Flight was possible, but so fraught with peril that it was available to only a heroic minority. For the vast majority who remained on the plantations, there was cultural resistance, and the center of that culture was the slaves’ religion.

The slaves’ Christianity taught that there was a power higher than that of the plantation owner, and that before Him the slaves were the equal of any man, with an equal claim to human dignity. Their religion also provided a source of solidarity and collective identity. These were powerful messages in the face of the master’s pervasive control of the slaves’ lives, providing an enclave for the slaves’ human spirit, an inner space protected from the toxic corrosion of slavery.  Religion promised a better future, but also fortified the slaves’ community to endure in the here and now.  100 years later, the civil rights movement’s great orator echoed this spirit. “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope,” Dr. King avowed before the Lincoln Memorial.

The story of this cultural resistance in times that  tried men’s souls is  told in a remarkable book published two generations ago, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, authored by Eugene Genovese. The title itself says so much. Slaves in the American South have often been portrayed as passive, even submissive, and as victims. In Genovese’s account, they are the active subjects who make history, not merely objects to be used and abused by actors who wield greater power. From his narrative, it becomes clear that the slaves’ social labor and their collective struggle to maintain their human dignity contributed as much to the history of the American South as the actions of the planter aristocracy or the exploits of the great political families.

Genovese’s achievement  in writing Roll, Jordan, Roll merits admiration today. Although he is passionate, his book is reliably objective, untainted by the self-righteous tone that so often mars the current spirit in politics. His history reads from the bottom up, giving ordinary men and women their due as historical actors. For an activist and scholar on the left (as Genovese was then), it was a signal mark of creativity to recognize the critical part the spiritual played in enabling the slaves to maintain their humanity.

We are urgently in need of such objectivity and creativity in our politics today. As Abraham Lincoln said in the rancorous 1850s:  ” If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.” Indeed, with contemporary efforts to ban religion from public spaces and airbrush religion from American history, Roll, Jordan, Roll and its tale of communal spiritual strength speaks to us as a timely voice from the past.