Rev. Martin Luther King during a press conference, November 6th, 1964. (Photo: Dick DeMarsico / New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection)
Most of us have grown up with the inspiring and courageous example of those who gave their time - and their lives - for civil rights and equality.
Every year on Martin Luther King's birthday and on the anniversary of his death, we hear the excerpt from the speech King gave the night before he was assassinated. Usually, it's just that brief line at the end: "But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!"
Sometimes the paragraphs leading up to that line are included
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really 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!
Most of us probably assume that when Dr. King said, "we, as a people," "we" was limited by race. But what King was actually saying was that we, as a people, will get to the promised land only if we all - every one of us - goes into the promised land together. It's all or nothing.
How do we then, in this very divided nation, stop wandering in the wilderness with no promised land in sight?
Back up in that speech, and King reminds us of the parable of the good Samaritan. A man lies near death on the road to Jericho. People who could have helped him - the elite of the community - pass by, hurry by, leaving the man to die.
Finally, one person does stop - the good Samaritan. Here is what King says:
It's possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road.... It's a winding, meandering road. It's really conducive for ambushing.... In the days of Jesus, it came to be known as the "Bloody Pass."
And you know, it's possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around.
Or it's possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking, and he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to ... lure them there for quick and easy seizure.
And so, the first question that the priest asked - 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....
I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
More than forty years from King's appeal to support striking Memphis sanitation workers, how close are we to the promised land? Was King right? Can we only enter the promised land together as a people? Why can't we just trickle in, one by one?
King was clear on this. Life is not about us versus them, and we are all better off in a country that is built on the core values of social justice, democracy, equality and peace.
These are American values embedded in the founding documents of our country.
The preamble to the United States Constitution commits us to the goal of "a more perfect Union." It tells us that, in order to have that union, we must, "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."
Justice, domestic tranquility, the general welfare and the blessings of liberty for all are this country's core values.
The Declaration of Independence says:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
The Declaration of Independence concludes by saying, "we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."
When the Declaration of Independence says that among our unalienable rights is the pursuit of happiness, it is talking about communal values. In order to engage in the pursuit of happiness, people must have a basic level of economic well-being. In order for all of us to be created equal, we must have a society in which equality is possible - and promoted.
These rights require the right to make a decent living and the right to basic education, health care, food, housing and clothing. Without these rights, society is composed of desperate, powerless people unable to take on the role of citizens of a democracy.
But of course, our country was also founded as a slave-owning society. Slavery stains our founding documents and existed throughout the country. In 1703, 42 percent of New York City's homes held slaves, a higher percentage than any American city other than Charleston, South Carolina. In 1790, two in three blacks in New York were slaves. Slavery created wealth and ease for those who were not enslaved.
Chattel slavery has long been outlawed in the United States, but its effects continue. Indeed, it is these effects that require us to ask: Are we still a country that would sign onto a document that pledged us to promote justice, domestic tranquility, the general welfare and liberty? Or have we replaced those ideals with other values?
Here are some snapshots of the America that existed in the last few years, just before the current recession began:
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In today's America, you can work full-time and still not earn enough to support your family. And this is not just true for a few people; it applies to most of us. Before the recession began, seventy percent of us worked at a job that did not provide decent pay, employer-sponsored health insurance or a retirement plan.
Most children in low-income families have parents who work full-time and year-round. When so many Americans struggle to get by on very low incomes, is it any surprise that they cannot afford the basic requirements of life - food and shelter? Do we want to be a country where you can work hard at a full-time job and still not be able to support your family?
More than one in ten Americans are "food insecure" - in the words of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Only 4 percent completely lack food; most of the food insecure are malnourished. Growing bodies need good nourishment, but nearly one in five children in this country is food insecure at some time during the year.
In our America, when we were in the most prosperous time in memory just a year ago, 42 million Americans earned too little to be able to afford even a modest two-bedroom apartment. So they - and their children - end up living in inadequate and even dangerous housing. Two hundred and fifty thousand American children between the ages of one and five have dangerous levels of lead in their blood.
Even if these children survive hunger, lead poisoning and the effects of unsafe housing, if they live in America's large cities, odds are only 50-50 that they will graduate from high school. If they graduate, they will find they are priced out of higher education.
If education is not an option, how can they gain the skills and credentials that will get them out of poverty and allow them to take up the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship?
In America today, even those who are educated, have skills and are well-paid find that serious illness or a job loss can plunge them into poverty.
People who are poor, hungry and worried about housing and providing the basics for their children and family have no time left to pursue happiness or to participate as citizens of a democracy. This shortfall is not just their problem - it belongs to all of us. Whether we see our connection to them or not, the struggle they are forced to undertake affects us all. Unless we address these problems, we will continue to lose the contributions that millions of us could make to building a good society for us all. As long as we fail to take action, we betray the ideals of this great country.
In his Nobel Laureate lecture, "The Quest for Peace and Justice," King said:
The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually.... We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.
For decades, this has been the richest country on earth, with the capacity to give everyone a decent life, an education and a good job - and yet it is home to millions who live in poverty. King warned us against cashing in our engagement as citizens building a democracy for a passive role as customers. He said, "Enlarged material powers spell enlarged peril - if there is not proportionate growth of the soul."
We can, of course, choose to ignore our problems and continue down the path that has made us a rich country filled with impoverished people - and, in turning away, also overlook the ills this contradiction brings. But doing so will not make the problems vanish. Experience shows that we ignore just demands for freedom, equality, justice, jobs and citizenship at our peril.
Abraham Lincoln said that this nation could not survive half slave and half free. Slavery has been abolished, but people who live in poverty are not free. Far worse than material poverty is spiritual and moral poverty. The money in our pockets expresses a commitment to unity - and community - in the words e pluribus unum - out of many, one. But do we use those dollars for the good of the community?
King said that we are neighbors, but we are not brothers. He said, "All life is interrelated, and all men are interdependent. The agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich."
In King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," he said, "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.... I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."
We, too, must go to Birmingham. We need to go where injustice is. We need to put an end to our blindness, our fear, and all that allows our consciences to sleep.
We can make the moral and mental transformation that will allow us to see that we live in community, that will help us dispel our culture of greed and selfishness - the "I've got mine, you get yours" view.
Humans have lived in community for hundreds of thousands of years, and those many years have shaped us to be creatures who have the skills to build communities. That is not to say that we do not have the will and the ability to engage in conflict and to behave badly, but an increasing body of research demonstrates that human beings are hardwired for cooperation and fairness. We can promote the values of community, justice and equality and create a society where we all can live in prosperity and, therefore, in peace.
King told us that we are all on the road to Jericho. We can stop to render aid, or we can pass by. We can excuse our failure to act because we are busy with our own concerns or afraid that stopping mean we may become the next victims.
King said that when the good Samaritan came by, he asked, "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"
To this we must add another question: if I do not stop to help, what will become of me? What sort of person will I be when I am the person who does not stop on the road to Jericho? Until we stop, none of us can enter the promised land. When we all stop, we will be in the promised land.
From that day in Memphis when Dr. King was murdered to this day, we have wandered in the wilderness without heeding his call to act against injustice. So, let us heed his call now:
Let us rise up today 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.