Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution

(Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  March 31, 1968     National Cathedral, Washington DC)

I am sure that most of you know that arresting little story from the pen of Washington Irving entitled “Rip Van Winkle.” What 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. It was the sign in the inn, from which Rip went up in the mountain for his long sleep.

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 he was completely lost. He knew not who that 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 slept through a revolution. And one of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a period of great social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.

There can be no gainsaying that a great revolution is taking place in our world today. It is a triple revolution: it is a technological revolution, with the impact of automation and cybernation; it is a revolution in weaponry, with the emergence of new and ever more deadly weapons of warfare; it is a human rights revolution, with the explosion of freedom that is taking place all over the world. We live in a period where changes are taking place. And there is still the voice crying through the vista of time saying, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Now whenever anything new comes into history it brings with it new challenges and new opportunities. And I would like to deal with the challenges that we face as a result of this triple revolution that is taking place in the world today.

First, we are challenged to develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution. The world in which we live is geographically one. The challenge that we face today is to make it one in terms of brotherhood.

Through humanity’s scientific genius we have been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. Our jet planes have compressed into minutes distances that once took weeks and even months. All of this tells us that our world is a neighborhood.

Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers and sisters 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. I can never be who I ought to be until you are who you ought to be. And you can never be who you ought to be until I am who I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made. John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms: “No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.  Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” We must live by this if we are to remain awake through a great revolution.

Secondly, we are challenged to eradicate the last vestiges of injustice from our nation. I must say this morning that every kind of social injustice is a burden to the victim, but to the rest of us, shame.

It is an unhappy truth that injustice is a way of life for too many Americans, - the disease of discrimination permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly to get rid of the disease of prejudice and discrimination.

Something positive must be done. Everyone must share in the guilt as individuals and as institutions. The government must certainly share the guilt; individuals must share the guilt; even the church must share the guilt.

We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing “In Christ there is no East or West,” we stand in the most segregated hour in America.

The hour has come for everybody, for all institutions of the public and private sectors to work to get rid of division of every stripe. And now if we are to do it honestly we must get rid of certain myths that have constantly been disseminated all over our nation.

One is the myth of time. It is the notion that only time can solve the problem of injustice. And there are those who often sincerely say to the outcast and the immigrant, “Why don’t you slow up? Stop pushing things so fast. Only time can solve the problem. And if you will just be nice and patient and continue to pray, in a hundred or two hundred years the problem will work itself out.”

The answer to that myth is that time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I am sorry to say the forces of ill will in our nation have used time much more effectively than the forces of goodwill. And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, “Wait on time.”

Here is another myth that still gets around: it is a kind of over reliance on the bootstrap philosophy. There are those who still feel that if the poor are to rise out of their poverty, if those men and women and children who dwell on the fringes of our great society are going to rise out of their discrimination and segregation, they must do it all by themselves. They must lift themselves all by themselves by the stings of their own bootstraps.  But it is nothing more than a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.

We are also challenged to rid our nation and the world of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, poverty spreads its nagging tentacles into hamlets and villages all over our world. Two-thirds of the people of the world go to bed hungry tonight. They are ill-housed; they are ill-nourished; they are shabbily clad. I’ve seen it in Latin America; I’ve seen it in Africa; I’ve seen it in Asia; I’ve seen it in India.

Not only do we see poverty abroad, I would remind you that in our own nation one out of every three people live in poverty. I have seen them. I have seen them in the ghettos of the North; I have seen them in the rural areas of the South; I have seen them in Appalachia. I have just been in the process of touring many areas of our country and I must confess that in some situations I have literally found myself crying.

Jesus told a parable one day, and he reminded us that a man went to hell because he didn’t see the poor. He was a rich man. And there was a man by the name of Lazarus who was a poor man, who managed to get to the gate of the rich man every day, wanting just to have the crumbs that would fall from his table. And the rich man did nothing about it. And the parable ends saying, “The rich man went to hell, and there were a fixed gulf now between him and Lazarus.”

The rich man didn’t go to hell because he was rich; he went to hell because he didn’t realize that his wealth was his opportunity. It was his opportunity to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus. He went to hell because he was passed by Lazarus every day and he never really saw him. He went to hell because he allowed his brother to become invisible. Indeed, the rich man went to hell because he sought to be a conscientious objector in the war against poverty.

America is the richest nation in the world - and nothing’s wrong with that - this is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.  When I learned that America spends millions of dollars a day to store surplus food, I said to myself, “I know where we can store that food free of charge—in the wrinkled stomachs of millions of God’s children all over the world who go to bed hungry at night.”

I submit that nothing will be done until people of good will put their bodies and their souls in motion. And it will be the soul force brought into being as a result of this confrontation that will make the difference.

Let me close by saying that we have difficult days ahead in the struggle for justice and peace, but I will not yield to a politic of despair. I say to you that our goal is freedom, and I believe we are going to get there because however much she strays away from it, the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be as a people, our destiny is tied up in the destiny of America.

Before the Pilgrim fathers landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before Jefferson etched across the pages of history the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here. Before the beautiful words of the “Star Spangled Banner” were written, we were here.

We’re going to win our freedom because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands. And so, however dark it is, however deep the angry feelings are, and however violent explosions are, I can still sing “We Shall Overcome.”

We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

We shall overcome because Carlyle is right—”No lie can live forever.”

We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right—”Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.”

We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right—as we were singing earlier today:

“Truth forever on the scaffold / Wrong forever on the throne / Yet that scaffold sways the future / And behind the dim unknown stands God / Within the shadow keeping watch above his own.”

With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair the stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

Thank God for John, who centuries ago out on a lonely, obscure island called Patmos caught vision of a new Jerusalem descending out of heaven from God, who heard a voice saying, “Behold, I make all things new; former things are passed away.”

God grant that we will be participants in this newness and this magnificent development. If we will but do it, we will bring about a new day of justice and brotherhood and peace. And that day the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy. God bless you.

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