Happy Birthday Dr. King—Rest in Justice

He would be 92 today. Just imagine.

In my childhood, I appreciated the King holiday for the long weekend it created, allowing me a break as I readjusted to my school routine following Christmas break. I relished singing along to Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday, written to honor King: “Happy Birthday to ya, happy birthday to ya, happy biiirthday, haaapppy birthday, happy birthday…” I remember the strange connection of celebration and sadness. Celebration for the movement King co-led—and sadness that he was struck down “with so much left undone,” as my grandma would say, shaking her head with tears in her eyes.

King did not believe his dream was self-implementing.

My family observed the tradition of watching on local television stations the cherished selections of King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” delivered during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. “I have a dream that one day…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as brothers and sisters.” I dreamed King saw me and beamed with pride because I was a Black girl growing up in then-predominantly-White Prince William County, Virginia—and because I had White friends I adored, and who adored me in return.

Now approaching 39, King’s age when he died, I continue to believe cross-racial friendships are often a component of justice work. Such relationships foster deeper understanding of others’ experiences, motivations, and interests, identifying common ground that can transform into shared political commitments. This blog is a testament to that. But I know relationships like these cannot in themselves cure what ails our country. Apostle Paul says in Scripture “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a [woman], I put childish ways behind me” (1 Corinthians 13:11).

King did not believe his dream was self-implementing. The non-violent movement he and other leaders directed, promoted truth and love by forcing Americans to confront contradictions in our core social systems. King diagnosed our country as crippled by an evil triplet: racism, materialism, and militarism. When he spoke out against the Vietnam War, he lost support from establishment leaders, White and Black. Many labeled King communist and unpatriotic when he wondered aloud how our country could afford billions of dollars for a war to “free” others thousands of miles away, but refuse to fully fund President Johnson’s War on Poverty to release Americans from the bonds of racism and capitalist excesses, even as Johnson’s initiative fell far short of Americans’ needs. King boldly battled the evil triplet during his final days. He stood in solidarity with Memphis sanitation workers striking for better pay and work conditions hours before he was murdered at the Lorraine Motel. King’s last major organizing effort, The Poor People’s Campaign, galvanized Americans across racial and class lines to press for an economy that allowed all to live in dignity. And the Campaign lives on.

Today, I don’t turn to “I Have Dream” to meditate on King’s contribution. I reread arguments in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?. And I listen to his speech “Beyond Vietnam,” which he gave at Riverside Baptist Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, a year to the day before he was slain. His searing and soaring oratory calls us to a true revolution of values, what I call a heavenly triplet of solidarity, shared prosperity, and love. May these excerpts pierce your heart, mind, and soul—and may you feel the fierce urgency of now…

Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: “Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?” “Why are you joining the voices of dissent?” “Peace and civil rights don’t mix,” they say. “Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people,” they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live…A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth…We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now…We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation…Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response…If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when “justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Rest in justice, Dr. King.