MLK 50 - A Recollection (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

John 20:19-31


April 4, 2018, was a significant date for our metropolitan area and for our nation. It marked the 50thanniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis. I was 16 years old at that time, and moving in on the end of my Junior year in High School. I lived with my family here in Germantown, about a 5 minute drive from where we are now.

I don’t remember a whole lot about that evening of April 4 when we learned that Martin Luther King had been shot and killed in Memphis. I do remember that my Aunt Anna Faye, my mother’s sister, was visiting with us from Arkansas. I don’t remember why she had come to be with us. But, true to my parents’ style, we were all—my parents, my sister, Aunt Anna Faye, and I—eating our evening meal in the dining room, where we dined when there were special guests in our home to be entertained. There was no television on. No radio. But somehow we became aware of the fateful news. Had someone called? Probably so. But I don’t remember.

I don’t remember how I or anyone else in that dining room greeted the news. Somehow I was not surprised. It came as sort of grim inevitability. It was less than five years before that President Kennedy was assassinated. Just two months later (in June of 1968) his brother Robert Kennedy, who was running for president, would be shot and killed. The killing of controversial public figures was becoming commonplace, even in my adolescent mind.

I do have memories of the time leading up to that fateful April 4 evening. I remember what brought Dr. King to our city. It was the strike of the sanitation workers. He had been invited here by religious leaders to stand with the sanitation workers, to advocate for them.

When I was a kid, maybe five or six, my best friend Jesse and I kind of looked up to sanitation workers. We called them garbage men. We said that we wanted to be garbage men when we grew up. There’s even a picture of the two of us wearing what we called our garbage men outfits. Both of us in fact grew up to be ministers, and so have wondered what foreshadowing of our futures was to be seen in our longing to be garbage men. Perhaps to five or six year old boys the work seemed kind of exciting—picking up garbage, jumping on the back of a truck, riding off in freedom.

Alas, the reality of the work was much more difficult, especially in Memphis. The pay was low, the working conditions were bad. As a matter of fact, just before the beginning of the sanitation workers’ strike, a dilapidated garbage truck malfunctioned, crushing two sanitation workers to death. So the sanitation workers went on strike, demanding recognition of their union, better working conditions, and increased pay.

The mayor of Memphis, Henry Loeb, resisted them at every turn. He was anti-union and pro-segregation, which meant that the demands of these black sanitation workers was not well-received. Loeb came from a well-to-do family in Memphis that owned a vast network of laundries in the city, and he understood the value to the bottom line of a business or a city budget of having low-wage, mostly black workers.

What I remember, as a kid who was growing up in the church and around church people a lot of the time, was that the cause of the sanitation workers was a religious concern. It was a matter of justice. Leaders from our denominational headquarters and from our seminary here in Memphis advocated for and marched with the sanitation workers. Religious leaders from many denominations and groups—Methodist, Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Greek Orthodox, Baptist, Jewish, and many others—joined together to advocate in public ways for the sanitation workers. My own mother joined other church women in going to the mayor’s office to appeal for his change of heart and mind regarding the demands of the sanitation workers.

By 1968 the civil rights movement was clearly a movement for justice that recognized that racial injustice often resulted in economic injustice. As Martin Luther King said, “the inseparable twin of racial injustice is economic injustice.” Indeed, his focus was in the process of changing at the time to a concern for economic justice for the poor of all races, and in fact he had in the planning stages at the time of his death a Poor People’s Campaign that was to take place later that year.

I remember being a supporter of the cause of the sanitation workers in Memphis precisely because I was a Christian. Indeed, it seemed to me a Christian movement. Martin Luther King himself was a preacher. He would share that in his heart of hearts that is how he saw himself, as a Baptist preacher. His words were often steeped in the proclamations of the prophets. Indeed, the great Jewish scholar and Rabbi Abraham Heschel said of his friend King just ten days before King was killed, “Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us. His presence is the hope of America. His mission is sacred, his leadership of supreme importance to every one of us.”

The kinds of things I was taught at home, in Sunday School, and in Worship were echoed in the struggle that I remember in Memphis. The words of most of King’s speeches were couched in the kind of imagery that I learned as a young person of faith growing up in the church. His famous “I Have a Dream” speech was laced with Biblical references. His last speech here in Memphis at Mason Temple used imagery of going to the mountaintop that made sense only to those of us who knew the story of the people of Israel and their struggle for freedom. Even the “I Am a Man” placards that the sanitation workers carried as they marched were a reminder that they, like all of us, were created in the image of God. They had value. Jesus loved them too.

So to be disrespected, to be forced to work in dangerous conditions, and to receive poverty wages for your efforts is to be treated as less than a man, as less than a person created in the image of God, as less than a person that Christ loves. Our Confession of Faith as Cumberland Presbyterians states, “The covenant community, governed by the Lord Christ, opposes, resists, and seeks to change all circumstances of oppression—political, economic, cultural, racial—by which persons are denied the essential dignity God intends for them in the work of creation.” While I did not experience the church acting as one, many of the Christians I knew and respected, including my own pastor, were opposing, resisting, and seeking to change the circumstances of oppression that they were witnessing in our city at the time.

It had and has had an important impact on my own life. Our faith has a special concern for those who are denied justice. Our faith has a special concern for those who are treated as less than persons created in the image of God. Our faith has a special concern for those who are poor. It may not seem like much when we bring food to feed the hungry in this the poorest large metropolitan area in our country or to give an evening once a month providing hospitality to the homeless or when we teach or provide tutoring for students who may be left behind. But such things are basic to our faith as Christians. As Martin Luther King himself wrote, “Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.”

The memories of that evening of April 4, 1968, are not altogether clear. I do remember hearing that Martin Luther King had been shot and killed as we gathered in the dining room with our special guest Aunt Anna Faye. I don’t remember so much how I felt—perhaps a little sad, perhaps a little wary. What I remember most vividly was what came before—the commitment of people to a cause for justice and the commitment being because of their faith. And what I remember most vividly was what came afterward—the sad funeral procession on television, the efforts to find the killer, the sucking of the air of hope out of a city and a nation, the violent anger in the streets for a while (violent anger that Martin Luther King would never have wanted, the prophet of nonviolence and peace that he was).

But it was just 12 days after King was killed that the strike was finally settled, that included an agreement that acknowledged the sanitation workers’ union and raised their wages. Problems persisted, but other good things began to happen. The organization to which our church has committed funds from its budget every year of its existence, MIFA, was organized by the religious community to give aid to the poor out of the pain of what happened in 1968. The words that King wrote back in 1960 for an article in The Christian Centurymagazine about his personal faith come to mind: “I have felt an inner calm and known resources of strength that only God could give. In many instances I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope.”

So on this Sunday after Easter when we remember the risen Christ coming among a room full of fearful disciples and breathing hope and new energy into them, let us remember the hope that arose out of the great struggles of our city and the hope that arises still. For the God who invites us to be advocates for justice is also the God who is with us even now giving us the strength to go on in faith.

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, April 8, 2018

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