We have been honoring Martin Luther King Jr. – one of the great civil rights leaders for approximately 37 years – with a national holiday. A number of years ago I was able to visit Memphis, Tennessee and saw the exact spot where he was assassinated. I remember that in the aftermath of that murder the racially divided community did not communicate with each other for decades. It was sad to hear of that intense level of hate and division.
Dr. King’s last speech was delivered to speak for the rights of sanitation workers in Memphis who were hoping for more fair treatment and wages from the city. This happened the night prior to his death. It is relevant to hear those words as we encounter some of the same divisions and injustices that we continue to experience in our current culture. Here are some of his final words:
“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. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you.”
His speech and life were about civil rights but he also connected his values to his faith, to his church members, to those he was advocating for and for all of America. I believe he felt if we could be a nation of unity and equity that there would be greatness in our trajectory. He closed this last speech with these words:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
As he spoke the threats on his life were apparent. Yet he asserted his passion to do God’s work of justice. He was hopeful that there was a future promise of a better America that was free from these types of divisions and inequities. Yet here we are decades later, in a nation that has been polarized by so many factions still looking for that promised land. In celebrating this holiday, maybe we all need to renew that vision for our families, communities and our country to long for the day and speak of that hope and unity that we so desperately need in order for us to move forward together.
As Dr. King said, “we’ve got some difficult days ahead”and although he is no longer here to do that work, he left a passion and legacy to us all. Perhaps those ideals are what we can be reflecting on as we remember and respect his impact.