As Americans everywhere remain on guard against continued chaos and violence leading up to Inauguration Day, it’s instructive to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday even in turbulent times by returning to Dr. King’s own words. His last Sunday sermon, delivered at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on March 31, 1968, was called “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.”
Dr. King said the title was based on the old story of Rip Van Winkle, who fell asleep for twenty years and slept right through the American Revolution: “One of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.” He warned us that during upheaval in our own times we must not do the same.
Dr. King talked about the “great revolution” he was seeing: “In a sense it is a triple revolution: that is, a technological revolution, with the impact of automation and cybernation; then there is a revolution in weaponry, with the emergence of atomic and nuclear weapons of warfare; then there is a human rights revolution, with the freedom explosion that is taking place all over the world.” As usual his words feel prophetic, and Dr. King’s description of a necessary revolution in racial justice is especially relevant right now:
“The hour has come for everybody, for all institutions of the public sector and the private sector, to work to get rid of racism. And now if we are to do it we must honestly admit certain things and get rid of certain myths that have constantly been disseminated all over our nation. One is the myth of time. It is the notion that only time can solve the problem of racial injustice. And there are those who often sincerely say to the Negro and his allies in the white community, ‘Why don’t you slow up? Stop pushing things so fast. Only time can solve the problem. And if you will just be nice and patient and continue to pray, in a hundred or two hundred years the problem will work itself out.’”
Dr. King continued: “There is an answer to that myth. It is that time is neutral. It can be used whether constructively or destructively. And I am sorry to say this morning that I am absolutely convinced that the forces of ill will in our nation, the extreme rightists of our nation—the people on the wrong side—have used time much more effectively than the forces of goodwill. And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.’ Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”
The violence we are seeing today comes as our nation is on the verge of a potential revolution of our values and institutions. In the November elections and the January Georgia Senate runoffs, Black voters and other voters of color once again literally put their lives on the line in order to demand a new future. The riot at the Capitol was the deadly response from the newest generation of extreme rightists and White supremacists clinging desperately to old vestiges of power. This time they are allied with Republican political leaders fighting to overturn a lawful election. The apologists for the insurrectionists and every person still willing to condone the politicians who incited and sympathized with them prove that in the face of today’s violent forces of ill will we are still surrounded by the appalling silence of “good people.” But there is also a bold new generation of antiracist Americans who are telling us they will no longer wait on time. We all must heed Dr. King’s call, stay vigilant, and be prepared to be determined co-workers with God to ensure progress and right prevail. The time is ripe to do right.
In this same sermon Dr. King retold the parable of the rich man Dives, who went to hell, and the poor, sick man Lazarus, who laid outside Dives’s gate hoping for crumbs from his table. Dr. King said Dives didn’t go to hell because he was rich; he went to hell because he refused to see his neighbor: “Dives didn’t realize that his wealth was his opportunity. It was his opportunity to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus. Dives went to hell because he passed by Lazarus every day and he never really saw him. He went to hell because he allowed his brother to become invisible.”
Dr. King said he feared America might make the same mistake, and once again his words are prescient as ever. America—stay awake!
Marian Wright Edelman is Founder and President Emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund