A Modified version of an address given at Woburn City Hall Chambers, Massachusetts, January 21, 2019.
In this 100th year of his birth and in this period of Black History month celebrated in the USA, it is pertinent to reflect on the sermon delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C. on March 31st, 1968. Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
In Dr. King’s words: “I would like to use as a subject from which to preach this morning: "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution." The text for the morning is found in the book of Revelation. There are two passages there that I would like to quote, in the sixteenth chapter of that book: "Behold I make all things new; former things are passed away."
I am sure that most of you have read that arresting story from the pen of Washington Irving entitled "Rip Van Winkle." The one thing that we usually remember about the story is that Rip Van Winkle slept twenty years. But there is another point in that story that is almost completely overlooked. When Rip Van Winkle went up into the mountain, the sign had a picture of King George the Third of England. When he came down twenty years later the sign had a picture of George Washington, the first president of the United States. When Rip Van Winkle looked up at the picture of George Washington—and looking at the picture he was amazed—he was completely lost. He knew not who he was.
And this reveals to us that the most striking thing about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not merely that Rip slept twenty years, but that he slept through a revolution. While he was peacefully snoring up in the mountain a revolution was taking place that would change the course of history—and Rip knew nothing about it. He was asleep. Yes, he slept through a revolution.
Recently, a Native American Elder at the Indigenous People’s March at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC was mocked by a group of high school kids from Kentucky. This disregard for our historical heritage is but one of the many of the challenges Dr. King addressed during his lifetime . Among those that still plague our country are structural racism, poverty, inequality and inequity, a criminal justice system in need of repair, income inequality and so much more.
Dr. King in this sermon went on to say that “... one of the great liabilities of life is that too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.” He went on to remind us that: “We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”
There are people sleeping through a revolution when action required on issues such as human trafficking, gun violence, school shootings, immigration, wars around the world for example in Syria and Yemen, young black men and women dying while in police custody, inequity in education, climate change and so much more.
Dr. King would definitely be addressing these issues if he were alive today. When he took a stand against the war in Vietnam and seeking to arouse the conscience of the nation, he was ridiculed. When asked by a reporter, “Dr. King, don’t you think you’re going to have to stop now opposing the war and move more in line with the administration’s policy? As I understand it, it has hurt the budget of your organization and people who once respected you have lost respect for you. Don’t you feel you’ve got to change your position? Dr. King responded, “Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader, I do not determine what is right or wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I’ve not taken a sort of Gallup poll on the majority opinion, ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”
This great sermon is well worth listening to in its entirety and it is available on YouTube along with many of Dr. King’s other great sermons (https://youtu.be/AFbt7cO30jQ). His prophetic words are as timely today as they were 50 years ago. And he said, “the time is always right to do what is right.”
As we reflect on the significance of Black History month, let the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr prevail. Let remember him and be enthralled as much by his soaring speeches and sermons as his life and call to action. Look around our communities - do you see any inequity and inequality? Are our places of work sufficiently diverse or diverse at all? Who are those who have a seat at the table and which voices are missing? Look around and see what we are missing, who/what is invisible to us. Will we have the courage to do what is right? Will we remain asleep through the revolution that is taking place today? Or will we get into action? As the youth say, “Are we woke?”.
Author: Hermayne Gordon
Edward and Auriol Greene Directors, GOFAD.