Today (Jan. 15) is his birthday, although the national holiday celebrating it will not be until next Monday (Jan. 21). I’m writing, of course, about Martin Luther King, Jr., about whom we will be hearing much this year. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered 50 years ago, in August 1963. And then it was 45 years ago, in April 1968, that he was assassinated.
“I Have a Dream” is one of the best, most powerful speeches of all time. I get chills down my spine every time I listen to it—the last time being only last month. And it is the King of 1963 that is most remembered in the celebrations of his birthday.
But I have just read an essay that focuses on King’s talks and activities during the last five years of his life, the years after his famous 1963 speech in Washington, D.C. That essay is titled “The Inconvenient Hero,” which is also the subtitle of Martin Luther King (1996), the book in which it appears. Both the essay and the book were written by Vincent Harding.
|King at Riverside Church, 4/4/67|
Harding, born in 1931 in Harlem, taught at Iliff School of Theology (in Denver, CO) from 1981 to 2004. Early in his career, though, he was a friend of and co-worker with King. Harding, a Mennonite, even occasionally drafted speeches for King, including his noteworthy anti-Vietnam speech, “A Time to Break Silence,” which he (King) delivered at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was assassinated.
Not long after his “I Have a Dream” oration, there was an escalation of racial violence in the nation, and King himself talked about his dream turning into a nightmare. “Four beautiful, unoffending, innocent Negro girls were murdered” (King’s words) when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed in September 1963, an act of racially motivated terrorism.
Then in the summer of 1964, twenty African-American churches were firebombed in Mississippi and in June of that year three civil rights workers were murdered in that same state. (The latter is the subject of the 1988 movie “Mississippi Burning.”) And then the terrible Watts Riots in Los Angeles took place in August 1965.
King also wrote (in 1967), “I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched the war in Vietnam escalating.” So in his last years, he began speaking out more and more in opposition to the war, seeing it as an extension of the same type of injustice and violence being done to African-Americans in the U.S.
King’s speech at Riverside Church was a powerful one, and it is not hard to see why it is not quoted more often—or why the one who gave that speech is referred to as “the inconvenient hero.” He referred to the U.S. as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
King understood that violence as being linked partly to our nation’s refusal “to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.” And so he spoke out strongly against the “giant triplets” of racism, materialism, and militarism.
Being the Baptist preacher that he was, near the end of that 4/67 speech, King quotes 1 John 4 and calls for “an all-embracing and unconditional love” for all people.
Inconvenient or not, here is a hero still worth our serious consideration.