By Shea Howell
March 6, 2017
Every year, on March 2, I listen to the speech Dr. Martin Luther King gave at my college in 1967. This year marks the 50th since I first heard him there. A month after he was in Marietta, Ohio, he would speak at Riverside Church in New York, “Breaking the Silence” on Vietnam. There he would proclaim that America was the “greatest purveyor of violence” in the world and that we needed a “radical revolution in values against racism, materialism, and militarism.” A year later, he would be killed.
King’s subject was the future of integration and, while acknowledging progress in civil rights, he explained that “the murder of civil rights workers is still a popular pastime in the south.”
He chronicled, “In the state of Mississippi alone over the last eighteen months more than fifty-six Negro churches have been burned to the ground…Since 1951 over the southland more than eighty-six deaths have occurred of Negroes and whites who have been involved in civil rights.”
This violence was directly related to a “white backlash.” He says, “We have to discuss this problem very honestly. People tend to think of the so-called white backlash as a new phenomenon and I always say that it is a new name for a very old phenomenon because the fact is that there has never been a solid, monistic, determined commitment to the question of racial justice on the part of the vast majority of the white Americans.”
“America, King says, “Has constantly taken one step forward but at the same time it took a step backwards on the question of racial justice.”
Today, with the ascendancy of Donald Trump, the forces of white supremacy have again pulled us backward. King recognized such moments as times for action.
He says, “I am absolutely convinced that the forces of ill will in our nation, the extreme rightists of our nation, the forces committed to negative ends of our nation, have used time much more effectively than the forces of good will. And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation not merely for the violence of the bad people but for the silence of the good people. Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God; and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. And so it is necessary to help time and to realize that the time is always right to do right. Edmund Burke said some time ago, “When evil men combine good men must unite.” This is a great challenge facing America. When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love. When evil men would seek to perpetuate an unjust status quo, good men must seek to bring into being a real order of justice. This is the great challenge facing America.”