Hold Fast To The Dream
A Presentation for Two Readers and Choir of the Life and Words, of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Stan G. Duncan
On one very cold and very cloudy Saturday morning, January 15, 1929, just three months after the beginning of the worst economic depression in the history of the United States, Alberta Williams King and her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., gave birth to their first child.
They named him Martin, after his father, and he would grow up to make it one of the most famous names in all of American history. Little Martin Luther King Jr. would, in his lifetime, change the way people understood democracy, religion, race relations, and human relations, throughout the entire world.
Here are some of his own reflections on what it was like to grow up in a segregated world.
KING: (“Growing Up Negro”)
[Growing up] a Negro in America is not a comfortable existence. It means being a part of the company of the bruised, the battered, the scarred, and the defeated. Being a Negro in America means trying to smile when you want to cry. It means trying to hold on to physical life amid psychological death. It means the pain of watching your own children grow up with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies. It means having your legs cut off, and then being condemned for being a cripple. It means seeing your mother and father spiritually murdered by the slings and arrows of daily exploitation, and then being hated for being an orphan. Being a Negro in America means listening to suburban politicians talk eloquently against open housing while arguing in the same breath that they are not racists. It means being harried by day and haunted by night by a nagging sense of nobodiness and constantly fighting to be saved from the poison of bitterness. It means the ache and anguish of living in so many situations where hopes unborn have died.1
SONG: “We Shall Overcome,” verse 1
In January of 1954, King was invited to come to Montgomery, Alabama, to interview for pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, what would become his first full-time pastorate. And on April 14, he accepted the call to the church.
Montgomery was one of the most racially divided cities in the south in those days, and treatment of blacks on buses was especially terrible. Blacks were wanting to riot and whites were wanting to kill blacks who were wanting to riot. So, the black community elected young father, young preacher, young seminary graduate Martin Luther King to organize them to respond to the crisis resulting from a black seamstress named Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat on a bus.
Over two thousand people rallied in front of a church that night to decide what they would do. The air was tense and explosive. It was a dangerous night for both blacks and whites. Rev. Martin Luther King stood up to speak to them that night and here are some of the words that he said. [music stops]
KING: (Montgomery Bus Boycott Speech)
….We are here in a specific sense because of the bus situation in Montgomery….And we are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong, then the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a Utopian dreamer who never came down to earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie…
But in our protests, there will be no cross burnings. No white person will be taken from his home by a hooded Negro mob and brutally murdered. There will be no threats and intimidation. We will be guided by the highest principles of law and order…the deepest principles of our Christian faith. Love must be our regulating ideal….If we fail to do this our protest will end up as a meaningless drama on the stage of history, and its memory will be shrouded with the ugly garments of shame. In spite of the mistreatment that we have confronted, we must not become bitter and end up by hating our white brothers. Let no people pull you down so low as to make you hate them.2
SONG: We Shall Overcome Verse 2
NARRATOR: [Music over]
So, instead of a riot, they organized a boycott of the Montgomery buses, with car pools taking people to work. Non violently they brought the city to its knees. Finally, after over a year of attacks and threats and thousands of daily hate letters and phone calls, the Supreme Court declared that segregation of public transportation facilities was unconstitutional.
The reputation of Martin Luther King and the movement grew larger and larger through the early sixties.
But perhaps the turning point in his life, and the life of the movement, took place in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham was arguably the most oppressive and thoroughly segregated city in the nation in those days.
The police commissioner of Birmingham was known as “Bull” Connor. He was an angry, forceful racist who openly bragged about how many blacks he had beaten and killed in his lifetime. He promised that “blood would run in the streets” before Birmingham would desegregate its public facilities.
On April 3, 1963, the protest of Birmingham began, with boycotts, lunch-counter sit-ins, and daily marches, all done quietly and calmly, completely nonviolently. “Bull” Connor began arresting protesters but hundreds more came. Over the weeks the Birmingham jail had over three thousand people in it and yet more still came. King himself was one of those arrested early in the marches…King spent the next ten days running the campaign from in the Birmingham Jail.
While there, he had been given a newspaper in which a number of white clergy, Christian and Jewish, had written a public letter criticizing him for pushing integration too quickly. He sat down in his cell and on pieces of newspaper, rags, toilet tissue, and backs of envelopes, he wrote a public response. His response became known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and has become one of the most famous statements about non- violent civil disobedience written in this century. And here is a portion of what he said.
KING: (“Letter from Birmingham Jail”)
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in Birmingham jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.”…Since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.
…You told us that our protests were “untimely” and that we should trust you and “wait.” For centuries the Negro has heard “wait,” and “wait” has nearly always meant “Never.” We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights…Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will, and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers [and sisters] smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television…when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; …when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
SONG: We Shall Overcome Verse 3
Outside, “Bull” Connor seemed intent on proving that racism could be even more evil than King had described it in his letter. He had firemen turn fire hoses on the marchers, which sent columns of water crashing into children and adults, knocking them down, ripping their clothing, smashing them against the sides of buildings, sweeping them off of the streets, bloodying their bodies and throwing them into parks and alleys. Then he let loose German shepherd dogs trained to attack and bite and tear at running people.
The turning point occurred on Sunday, May 5, 1963, when three thousand children went on a prayer vigil to the Birmingham jail, where King and others were being held. When they arrived, the police threatened them and screamed at them, but all they did was kneel in prayer.
“Bull” Connor yelled at his men to turn on the hoses, but nobody moved. The children continued praying. His men were silent. He yelled again, but they dropped their hoses. One of the firemen began crying. “We can’t continue to do this,” one of them said. The children continued silently praying. Nobody spoke again, and nobody got hurt. That event was the moral turning point of the struggle. Soon after that, the businesses of Birmingham agreed to integrate.
Increasingly during this time King was growing to believe that race is only one of the issues which was at the core of America’s problems. Its violent nature and general disregard for poor people seemed to him to be the larger issues which stood over race. So for the summer of 1968 he planned to hold the biggest march on Washington ever. This time the march would not be specifically about black people or civil rights, but also about poverty. He called it the “Poor People’s Campaign.” This would be a chance, he thought, to reframe the movement in a much broader context, and to regain its moral tone and direction that had seemed to be waning in recent years.
But right in the middle of his plans for the march, he was asked to come to Memphis, Tennessee, to lend support to striking sanitation workers. Even though his schedule was brutal and he was too tired, too busy, and was growing sick with the flu, he agreed to go… He drove to the church that night in driving rain, stumbled weakly to the podium, and without notes or manuscript or any idea of what he was about to say, he delivered one of the most stirring speeches of his life. He gave what has become known as the “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech. These are some of the words that he said, on April 3, 1968.
KING: (“I’ve Been To The Mountain Top”)
…Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you.
…I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountain top. And I don’t mind. 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 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 tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing anyone. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.6
SONG: We Shall Overcome Verse 4
NARRATOR: [No music]
The next day, April 4, 1968, King and Ralph Abernathy and several others spent most of the day in their room at the Lorraine Motel planning for the big events of the next few days
At 6:05 that evening, Martin Luther King, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, and several others were standing on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, waiting to go to dinner. The car that was to drive them pulled up. He recognized the driver as Ben Branch, the young man who was to sing for them after the dinner. He yelled down. “Ben,” he said, “Make sure you play ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand’ at the meeting tonight. Sing it real pretty.” Ben yelled back, “Okay, Doc, I will.”
At 6:09 they heard the sound of a shot ringing out. During the next few minutes Ralph Abernathy held the head of his dearest, closest friend in his lap while waiting for an ambulance to arrive, and watching the life bleed out of him. He spoke to Martin several times during those minutes, but Martin could only respond with his eyes. Years later Ralph said that he heard much from those eyes that night. Martin Luther King looked at him very awake, and very alert, and with his eyes he seemed to be speaking very clearly. He was saying, “Ralph, it isn’t over. It’s only in other people’s hands now. Don’t give up. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up.” …And then he died.
The PROCLAMATION FOR MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. DAY written in 1986 said in part: “Let all Americans continue to carry forward the banner that…fell from Dr. King’s hands. Today, all over America, libraries, hospitals, parks and thoroughfares proudly bear his name. His likeness appears on more than 100 postage stamps issued by dozens of nations around the globe. Today we honor him with speeches and monuments. But let us do more. Let all Americans of every race and creed and color work together to build in this blessed land a shining city of…justice and harmony. This is the monument Dr. King would have wanted most of all.”7
SONG: “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” verses 1,2,3.