For this, the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King, a few members of the A&W staff group offer these reflections.

It’s too late at night for me to still be wrestling with this simple assignment: a few words about the legacy of Martin Luther King in my life. And yet, though my daughter is goading me to ‘write something already and turn the light out’ in the room we share in the UUA’s Beacon Hill bed and breakfast, I’ve been struggling. I’ve been alive 52 years; Dr. King has been dead for 40 of them. I was about the age of my daughter when I ceased knowing the man and began knowing the legend: the holiday written into law by Ronald Reagan which gives me the day off, to lie in my warm bed in Minnesota February and listen to the sanitation workers out there in the cold picking up my garbage. Which one of us was it he died standing with in Memphis, again?

The junior high student that I was in April, 1968 stepped into a dark auditorium set aside for first period, for those who wanted to have ‘a time of meditation.’ Sitting weeping in the darkness, I realized with a start that I was about the only white student there, though the school was majority white. Later, one of the popular girls, a cheerleader, whom I had spent months cultivating as a friend, ridiculed me for this. “So, you MEDITATED?” she asked me loudly at lunch. This was a clarifying moment when I realized that I would never be a popular girl, and didn’t want to be. This was a moment when those UU values gave me strength and I said loudly back, head up, “Yes, I MEDITATED.”

– Rev. Meg Riley

On March 18, 1968, days before his murder, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King told striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., “It is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis . . . getting part-time income.” Dr. King said, “We are tired of working our hands off and laboring every day and not even making a wage adequate with daily basic necessities of life…Now is the time to make an adequate income a reality for all of God’s children… Now is the time for justice to roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Last month on March 13th, the UUA co-sponsored an event with the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign held in Memphis, Tennessee to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of Dr. King’s address to the striking sanitation workers. Along with leaders of faith, one of the speakers was Taylor Rogers, a striking sanitation worker who witnessed Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” Speech, the night before King’s assassination, and became President of the Memphis sanitation workers’ union, AFSCME Local 1733. “We got tired” striker Rogers told the gathering, “And so we stood up and said ‘I am a man.’ Without Dr. King and the ministers who helped us, we never would have won that strike.” [Click here to read about it.]

Forty years later millions of Americans are still making poverty wages and Dr. King would indeed still call it criminal. His legacy inspires today’s movement for a living wage. It was while I was putting together Resources for Living Wage Days a couple of years ago that I actually read the entire “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. The linkages King makes between the various injustices of war, poverty, and racism, the strategies he was moving toward, including boycotts and community investing, most certainly threatened the power structure, and the prescience with which he discusses his possible death are just incredible to read and show a leader who was so clear on the direction forward. He is completely relevant today.

In the course of my research I found a wonderful resource that I heartily recommend to all:
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project
at Stanford University

– Susan Leslie

I have joked amongst UU friends that if there were a pantheon of UU saints, Rev. King would be at the top. He is that much beloved amongst us. In my church, All Souls Church, Unitarian in DC, the Sunday closest to MLK’s birthday is second only to Easter in terms of attendance and energy. Just why is King so beloved? There have been other champions of social justice in our history, people who have been every bit as dedicated as him to their respective causes. But while King started in the struggle for black equality, he ultimately transcended personal causes. That is why, exactly a year before his assassination, he spoke out against the war in Vietnam and in support of peace. Even some of his own supporters told him that he should stick to his own issue, but King recognized that all causes for justice are inter-related, mutually dependent. That is why he supported the rights of workers, as both Meg and Susan talk about above. That is why his widow Coretta Scott King could state unequivocally that MLK would have supported the current struggle for BGLT equality had he lived to see it. King spoke for all his people.

Dr. King was a prophet – a modern day Moses. He delivered his people out of the bonds of legal segregation. Since we lost him 40 years ago we have been wandering in the desert, delivered from overt institutional racism but still struggling with systemic racism and more. We are not yet at the Promised Land, but we are a heck of a lot closer because of him.

Addendum (2008.04.13 4:43 pm)

Tracing back through a series of blogs, I found this great news article about Dr. King that pertains to the Wright controversy:

– Kat Liu

About the Author
UUA Social Justice

Comments are closed.