While we are celebrating and commemorating the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., let us remember that King’s rhetorical trajectory shifted from an optimistic prophet to a pessimistic one. This is what we will examine in the class I will teach this semester, From Riverside to the River City: The Prophetic Pessimism of Martin Luther King Jr. In this class, we will focus on the more radical King by examining his prophetic rhetoric during the last year of his life. More specifically, we examine King within the African American prophetic tradition placing special emphasis on his prophetic pessimism. Below are a few quotes from speeches and sermons that we will read in the class.
“My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years — especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”-Beyond Vietnam, April 4, 1967
“And this leads me to say something about another discussion that we hear a great deal, and that is the so-called “white backlash.” I would like to honestly say to you that the white backlash is merely a new name for an old phenomenon. It’s not something that just came into being because shouts of Black Power, or because Negroes engaged in riots in Watts, for instance. The fact is that the state of California voted a Fair Housing bill out of existence before anybody shouted Black Power, or before anybody rioted in Watts.
It may well be that shouts of Black Power and riots in Watts and the Harlems and the other areas, are the consequences of the white backlash rather than the cause of them. What it is necessary to see is that there has never been a single solid monistic determined commitment on the part of the vast majority of white Americans on the whole question of Civil Rights and on the whole question of racial equality. This is something that truth impels all men of good will to admit.”–The Other America, April 14, 1967
“And I’m going to still need your prayer, I’m going to still need your support. Because the period that we face now is more difficult than any we’ve faced in the past. But this morning I did not come to Mount Pisgah to give a civil rights address; I have to do a lot of that; I have to make numerous civil rights speeches. But before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the gospel. This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment. You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry. I have no other ambitions in life but to achieve excellence in the Christian ministry. I don’t plan to run for any political office. I don’t plan to do anything but remain a preacher.
And what I’m doing in this struggle, along with many others, grows out of my feeling that the preacher must be concerned about the whole man. Not merely his soul, but his body. It’s all right to talk about heaven. I talk about it because I believe firmly in immortality. But you’ve got to talk about the earth. It’s all right to talk about long white robes over yonder, but I want a suit and some shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about the streets flowing with milk and honey in heaven, but I want some food to eat down here. It’s even all right to talk about the new Jerusalem. But one day we must begin to talk about the new Chicago, the new Atlanta, the new New York, the new America.
And any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that cripple the souls—the economic conditions that stagnate the soul and the city governments that may damn the soul—is a dry, dead, do-nothing religion in need of new blood.–Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool, August 27, 1967
I came to see this in a personal experience here in Chicago last summer. In all the speaking I have done in the United States before varied audiences, including some hostile whites, the only time I have ever been booed was one night in our regular weekly mass meetings by some angry young men of our movement. Now I went home that night with an ugly feeling. Selfishly I thought of my suffering and sacrifices over the last twelve years. Why would they boo one so close to them? But as I lay awake thinking. I finally came to myself. And I could not for the life of me have less impatience and understanding for those young men. For twelve years, I and others like me, have held out radiant promises of progress. I had preached to them about my dream. I had lectured to them about, the not to distant day when they would have freedom, all here, now. I had urged them to have faith in America and in white society. Their hopes had soared. They were now booing me because they felt that we were unable to deliver on our promises. They were booing because we had urged them to have faith in people who had too often proved to be unfaithful. They were now hostile because they were watching the dream that they had so readily accepted, turn into a frustrating nightmare.– The Three Evils of Society, August 31, 1967
The first thing I would like to mention is that there must be a recognition on the part of everybody in this nation that America is still a racist country. Now however unpleasant that sounds, it is the truth. And we will never solve the problem of racism until there is a recognition of the fact that racism still stands at the center of so much of our nation and we must see racism for what it is. It is the nymph of an inferior people. It is the notion that one group has all of the knowledge, all of the insights, all of the purity, all of the work, all of the dignity. And another group is worthless, on a lower level of humanity, inferior. To put it in philosophical language, racism is not based on some empirical generalization which, after some studies, would come to conclusion that these people are behind because of environmental conditions. Racism is based on an ontological affirmation. It is the notion that the very being of a people is inferior.-The Other America, March 14, 1968
Andre E. Johnson is the Managing Editor and Founder of R3
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