Taylor Branch: The Last Wish of Martin Luther King





[Taylor Branch is the author, most recently, of “At Canaan’s Edge,” the third volume in his history of the modern civil rights era. This article was adapted from a speech he gave on Monday at the National Cathedral.]

FORTY years ago on March 31, at the National Cathedral, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered what would be his last Sunday sermon, on his way back to Memphis. That same night in 1968, President Johnson shocked the world by announcing that he would not seek re-election.

I was a senior in college. My mother was visiting four nights later when all conversation suddenly hushed in a busy restaurant. A waiter whispered that Dr. King had been shot.

Civil rights, Vietnam, Dr. King, Memphis — these are historic landmarks. Even so, this year is a watershed. Because Dr. King lived only 39 years, from now on, he will be gone longer than he lived among us. Two generations have come of age since Memphis.

This does not mean that our understanding is accurate or complete. A certain amount of gloss and mythology is inevitable for great figures, whether they be George Washington chopping down a cherry tree, Honest Abe splitting a rail or Dr. King preaching a dream of equal citizenship in 1963. Far beyond that, however, we have encased Dr. King and his era in pervasive myth, false to our heritage and dangerous to our future. We have distorted our entire political culture to avoid the lessons of Martin Luther King’s era.

He warned us himself. When he came to the pulpit that Sunday 40 years ago, Dr. King adapted one of his standard sermons, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” From the allegory of Rip Van Winkle, he told of a man who fell asleep before 1776 and awoke 20 years later in a world filled with strange customs and clothes, a whole new vocabulary, and a mystifying preoccupation with the commoner George Washington rather than King George III.

Dr. King pleaded for his audience not to sleep through the world’s continuing cries for freedom. When the ancient Hebrews achieved miraculous liberation from Egypt, many yearned to go back. Pharaoh’s familiar lash seemed better than the covenant delivered by Moses, and so the Hebrews wandered in the wilderness. It took 40 years to recover their bearings. Dr. King has been gone 40 years now, but we still sleep under Pharaoh. It is time to wake up.....


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