The great American playwright Eugene O’Neill once said: “There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.” I was thinking about that as I was traveling to work this morning, on the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King. Fifty years ago, Dr. King was in Memphis supporting sanitation workers striking for better working conditions and compensation. His activism had expanded toward economic injustice and a fight against the war in Vietnam that in 1968 would see 15,000 American soldiers killed in battle. It was a difficult time for him, as many of his supporters during the early days of the Civil Rights movement had abandoned him because of this focus on poverty and the war.
Dr. King was eerily prophetic the night before his murder, when he said during the famous “Mountaintop Speech”:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He'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 tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!
His words from fifty years ago remind us that we still have much work to do to get to the promised land. We as a nation can never truly heal until we put aside the three evils of racism, poverty and militarism that he spoke about that night. I see his legacy of calling out injustice alive today. His message, if anything, was that while there may be violence and injustice, there is also hope. While there may be prejudice and bigotry, there is also love. His words are evident in the action of citizens in this country who are standing up against those ever-present darker forces that bombard us with cynicism and suspicion. The movement towards a nation that is emblematic of, as Lincoln said, “The better angels of our nature” has been energized by recent trauma. I see the hope and determination it in the faces of those kids from Parkland and the marchers in Ferguson. I see it in the grieving faces of those parents who have lost their children due to violence. I see it in the faces of those who teach our children, who have been forced to forego teaching in order to demand better conditions for themselves and their students. I see it in the faces of everyone that stands up and shouts that we are not where we should be, and more work must be done to get there.
Our turbulent times today remind us that the work is unfinished. We need to remember that hope is the fuel that will carry us to the promised land. There is no better honor to Dr. King’s legacy than maintaining the view that in working together we can eventually ensure a world for our children that is free from racial injustice, free from the tyranny of poverty, and free from the terror of violence.