February 1, 2008

Commemorating the 40th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s
Speech on the Manchester College Campus

Dr. Kenneth L. Brown, professor emeritus of peace studies and philosophy

PDF Version

Yes, Martin Luther King ­spoke from this podium. He was every bit as eloquent and inspiring as President Switzer said. It was a great day for Manchester: One of our very best.

King was a prophet in the biblical tradition. He named our sins, called us to repentance, and reached for the dream that God tells us can be had by caring for others. In calling for community that includes all of us, Martin sought a new day for America. His vision, however, posed a problem. It required change; and for all the people who clung to a present based on the past, change was  threatening. This nonviolent Baptist preacher was a threat.

Despite forewarnings that King would bring trouble and violence where he came, the day here was relatively peaceful. There were demonstrators, pro and con, outside, along the walk. One sign, held by an older student, read: “Kill the King.” A sober forecast of April 4 of that year, when King was assassinated.

When King rose to speak, few of us knew that spread among the 1,500 people in that packed auditorium and balcony were over 40 security personnel, officers, and F.B.I. agents.  They were there to protect Martin and keep the peace. We know now that some of them had other agenda; that the powerful head of our own F.B.I. personally hated King, called him “the most dangerous man in America,” planted bugs and spread rumors – both true and false – in an attempt to destroy the civil rights movement and its leader. There were adversaries against the dream in very high places.

By the time King came to Manchester, the storms of opposition had gathered strength from several sources. His campaign to bring integration to the North had floundered in Chicago before the rock walls of prejudice that surrounded segregated neighborhoods. By 1968, King had recognized the importance of economics and broadened his message to plead for poor people, white or black, who had been left out of America’s dream for dignity and respect.

One could almost sense a preoccupation. Despite government opposition, he was planning a Poor People’s March to Washington to plead for all people left out of America’s prosperity.  Nothing is more biblical than helping the poor; but neither Washington nor we the people wanted to be reminded of our own impoverished citizens living in the midst of our abundance
A third, raging storm of opposition had gathered against King. Ten months before coming to Manchester – exactly one year before his assassination, and against the advice of his own lieutenants, King had spoken out with the power of  his prophetic eloquence against the immorality and senseless slaughter of the Vietnam War that was making a nightmare of his dream. His famous speech in New York’s Riverside Church connected the human and material carnage of the war with the plight of the poor, the cost of killing abroad at the expense of  human need at home, and  the even greater spiritual jeopardy: what this longest war was doing to the very soul of our nation that was measuring  progress  by body counts.

If King were here this morning, he could repeat that famous speech, replacing every reference to Vietnam … with Iraq. His sorrow and condemnation would be the same; and people who identify patriotism with approval of our every war would oppose him as fiercely now as they did in 1968.

So, the storm clouds created by King’s denunciation of prejudice, poverty and war congealed and thundered through the air in a single rifle shot to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. That’s what we often do with our prophets:

They tell us what we need but don’t want to hear.
We vilify them, silence them … kill them, sometimes.
Then we resurrect them to our liking, decide what ­we want them to say.
And all the people say “Amen.”

He wouldn’t care so much that schools and streets are named for him. He wouldn’t be much impressed that there’s a national holiday named for him. He wouldn’t be elated to learn that a $100 million memorial is being planned for the mall in Washington where he shared his dream and poor people pitched their tents.

Instead, he would want us to  join in creating in our lives and politics a caring community  for this great nation.

He would hope that professors teach and students study about alternatives to prejudice, solutions to poverty, and substitutes for war. He would ask us to spend less time with Facebook and more time with real books and real faces;  to find meaning for our lives beyond ourselves by building community and peace.

The most important challenge in this century will not be in smaller iPods or life-size HD screens. It will be in how we are to live – together or apart. That is what education in this place called Manchester must be about.

I like to think that Martin Luther King needed us on that winter day 40 years ago. He knew that Manchester College has a long history of seeking nonviolent means in resolving personal and national problems. He knew that we treasure the same Scriptures and prophets that set him on his journey for justice.

I like to think that he left this place strengthened a bit by kindred spirits who found staying power from his inspiration to carry on in his absence, until his dream comes true. May it be so.
As King himself said he wanted to be remembered:

“… I want you to say that day, that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try, in my life, to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say, on that day, that I did try, in my life, to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant."

   – Martin Luther King Jr., accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Dec. 10, 1964
“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. ... The giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered. We need a true revolution of values to unseat the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. A nation that continues year after year to pour money into war and ignoring social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
– Martin Luther King Jr. , “Beyond Vietnam,” Riverside Church, NYC, April 4,1967