“I think the tragedy is that we have a Congress with a Senate that has a minority of misguided senators who will use the filibuster to keep the majority of people from even voting. They won’t let the majority senators vote. And certainly they wouldn’t want the majority of people to vote, because they know they do not represent the majority of the American people. In fact, they represent, in their own states, a very small minority.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke these words in July, 1963 in response to a question from a journalist about a Civil Rights bill being discussed by Congress that would end segregation, a bill first proposed by President John F. Kennedy that became law in 1964 following his death, a law that represented a revolution in prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin in employment.
Dr. King understood the dangers of a political procedure which threatened the will of the people in a democracy – particularly in an attempt to suppress voting. Dr. King’s remarks hit home to me almost six decades later. The more things change, the more they stay the same, according to the French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in 1849.
In May, 2018 Pretty and I met our Texas sisters Leora and Carmen in Louisiana to spend a few days on Pretty’s guided tour of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama. In addition to great barbecue and fun times playing cards at night, we went to the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery.
We squeezed in under the wire for the last tour of the day for the church following our visit to The Legacy Museum that morning. The church was rich in history but was usually identified by its connection to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was its pastor from 1954 – 1960. The meeting to launch the Montgomery Bus Boycott was held in the basement of the church on December 2, 1956.
What an incredible experience we all had with our tour guide Wanda – her joy in sharing the history of the church was infectious…her storytelling made the history come alive. She provided opportunities for our personal interactions within the sacred surroundings. One moment from the church basement tour stood out to me as I settled into my thoughts on a riverboat ride later in the afternoon.
The original lectern Dr. King used in his meetings was still standing in the basement of the church. Wanda allowed each of our small group of six (another married couple from Kansas had joined us) to stand behind that lectern and repeat his words: “How long? Not long.” I put both my hands on the lectern as I repeated the short phrases, how long? not long. I felt a crack in the veil of shame for an entire race that I had worn since The Legacy Museum visit earlier that day. If Dr. King could say “not long,” then surely time was meaningless; redemption was still possible for all who repented. How long? Not long.
I wanted to add “too long.”
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like any man I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now…God’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know today that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, today, I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man...”
These famous words were delivered in a speech by Dr. King at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee on April 03, 1968, the day before his assassination.
The Covid pandemic has changed all our lives in the past two years. The political unrest is crazy unnerving, but our struggles are small in comparison to those of a young African American minister in the 1960s who refused to surrender to fear in the face of threats on his life over and over again until one became a reality.
Here’s my last quote. I promise. But if you haven’t listened to any of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches, I urge you to celebrate his birthday in 2022 by going to the magical YouTube videos of his recordings to pick your own favorite quotes. I think you’ll be glad you did.
Meanwhile stay safer, stay saner, get vaccinated and boosted, and please stay tuned.
poster for 1993 March on Washington
“Our freedom was not won a century ago, it is not won today, but some small part of it is in our hands, and we are marching no longer by ones and twos but in legions of thousands, convinced now it cannot be denied by human hands.”
Hear ye, hear ye, Senators Manchin and Sinema. To borrow a line from Wanda Sykes, Dr. King is talking about you, fools.