This special holy season this year, as many people are observing Ramadan, Passover, and Easter during the same week, is also fifty-five years to the week after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. It is as useful as ever right now to return to his last Sunday sermon, delivered at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on March 31, 1968. Dr. King said its title, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” was based on the old story of Rip Van Winkle, who fell asleep for twenty years and slept right through the American Revolution—and he warned us that during upheaval in our own times we must not do the same.
As Dr. King spoke about the freedom revolution he saw happening around the world and the urgent need for America to finally end racial injustice, he addressed “the myth of time.” This was the idea that only the passage of time would ultimately solve this, and Black people and their allies simply needed to be patient. Dr. King said there is an answer to this 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.”
He continued: “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.”
A few minutes later Dr. King shared the parable of the rich man Dives, who went to hell, and the poor, sick man Lazarus, who laid outside Dives’ gate hoping for crumbs from his table. Dr. King said Dives didn’t go to hell because he was rich, but instead of realizing that his wealth was his opportunity to bridge the gulf between them, Dives walked by Lazarus every day and never really saw him: “He went to hell because he allowed his brother to become invisible . . . And this can happen to America, the richest nation in the world.”
Calling for the Poor People’s Campaign that would soon come to Washington, Dr. King added: “This is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will . . . Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. America has not met its obligations and its responsibilities to the poor. One day we will have to stand before the God of history and we will talk in terms of things we’ve done. Yes, we will be able to say we built gargantuan bridges to span the seas, we built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies. Yes, we made our submarines to penetrate oceanic depths. We brought into being many other things with our scientific and technological power. It seems that I can hear the God of history saying, ‘That was not enough! But I was hungry, and ye fed me not. I was naked, and ye clothed me not. I was devoid of a decent sanitary house to live in, and ye provided no shelter for me. And consequently, you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness. If ye do it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye do it unto me.’ That’s the question facing America today.”
Dr. King did not live to see how our nation would answer the question. On the day he was assassinated he called his mother to tell her the title for his next Sunday sermon: “Why America May Go to Hell.” Fifty-five years later, we are still waiting. But the time is still ripe to choose the right answer. This holy season of renewal is also a ripe time for all of us to recommit to being the tireless, persistent, dedicated co-workers with God who will help.
Marian Wright Edelman is Founder and President Emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.