‘What will happen to them?’

‘What will happen to them?’ April 3, 2013

It’s alright to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s alright to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s alright to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.

… Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus; and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters in life. At points, he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew, and through this, throw him off base. Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn’t stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his brother. Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. At times we say they were busy going to church meetings — an ecclesiastical gathering — and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that “One who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony.” And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem, or down to Jericho, rather to organize a “Jericho Road Improvement Association.” That’s a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the casual root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effort.

But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that these men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, “I can see why Jesus used this as a setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1200 miles, or rather 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about 2200 feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. In the day of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

That’s the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” “If I do no stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.

Martin Luther King Jr., April 3, 1968, Memphis, Tenn.

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  • AnonaMiss

    I didn’t know that, about the road. That does indeed change the entire landscape of the parable, pardon the pun.

  • The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?”
    “If I do no stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.

    And that, right there, is the core of what Christianity should be and what the Evangelical culture (and, to be fair, other groups, too) has done to pervert it. I started to write a post last night about what I think was the first step on the road to how I came to accept and embrace feminism. For me it was the realization that there were girls and young women in my church who’s entire goal in life, for all intents and purposes, was to get married to me. They’d been told their entire worth was as a wife and mother and they needed to find a man and pour themselves into him and supporting him.

    Once I realized that I was horrified. I wasn’t freaked out by the system, since I didn’t think about it that way, yet. I was simply horrified at the idea that anyone should decide that I, of all people, would be the end-all, be-all of their world. I wasn’t worth it. I couldn’t imagine ever being worth it.

    Evangelical Christianity, however, teaches people that they are, in fact, the most important person in the world. You have the god of the universe at your beck and call. That god has planned everything in your life so you arrive at your own personal best situation or learn some important life lesson. They’re never encouraged to ask, “But what happened to that other person?” Part of it is a simple benevolent neglect, since it can always be rationalized with, “God will have his back, too.”

    Mostly, though, everyone is encouraged to think primarily of themselves. It’s just kind of how things work. Then they’re taught the parable of the Good Samaritan and made to feel guilty about ignoring others. But then their failure to do so is their fault for being bad Christians instead of the church’s fault for teaching a flawed, selfish Christianity.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I wonder who I contact about using part of this speech in my current novel. There’s a debate going over whether the planet the transportees are on is called Sojourner (for Ms. Truth, and also for the short stay the transportees are hoping for) or (per the people who sent the transportees) New Philadelphia. I’m naming various bits of the planet after other civil rights leaders, and it would be excellent to be able to use this speech.

  • Lori

    It’s really a shame that the focus on the end of that speech means that the rest of it tends to be forgotten. The woo-woo of King supposedly predicting his own death has swallowed up the point of what he was trying to say.

    Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to
    this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this
    point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you
    need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school — be
    there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But
    either we go up together, or we go down together.

  • Abigail Nussbaum

    I’d never heard that King had visited Israel (and I suppose it would have had to be Israel and not Palestine as he only graduated college in 1948, and surely an overseas trip of this sort would have been prohibitively expensive for young student at the time). According to this article in Ha’aretz, starting in the mid-60s there were overtures from Israeli leadership towards King, including official invitations, but though he stated his intention of visiting, he never did. I suppose he could have visited as a private citizen in the 50s or early 60s, though again that seems like it would have been a costly journey.

  • Green Eggs and Ham

    Dr. King is a much better candidate for canonization than John Paul II.

  • Fusina

    That statement presupposes that the Catholic church is the only one that can name saints. I name my own saints–and, indeed, the bible states that we are all saints–and priests while we are at it. So Saint Martin Luther King he is–flaws and all.

    Err, I name my own because there are people who have done things that helped me personally who are not “famous” enough to be named saint by a church.

  • Wednesday

    Oh, geeze, interpreting that as King magically predicting his death is also an insult to King and other civil rights activists of the time. They put their their safety and their llives on the line when they spoke up, and they damn well knew it. We should admire them as much for what they accomplished as for the fact that they put their lives on the line to fight for justice.

    To suggest that King didn’t know his life was in danger until just shortly before he was actually killed is to say King was either a fool, or somehow ignorant of the violence experienced by activists such as the Freedom Riders, and ignorant of what he himself had experienced.

  • JustoneK

    but the BLACK PANTHER CONNECTION TO THE ILLUMINATI! It’s a clear case of Everyone We Don’t Like ganging up on us in a massive conspiracy! this PROVES IT. you’ve been blinded by their

  • For some reason my first thoughts were of a comedian:

    “Now, Sunday, Christ and Moses fly to New York. [snip, they end up in Saint Patrick’s] Now Christ and Moses both possess humility […] So, they stand in the back of St Patrick’s and they listen, look around, Cardinal Spellman would be relating love and giving and forgiveness to the people and Christ would be confused, because their route took them through Spanish Harlem. And they would wonder what forty Puerto Ricans were doing living in one room when this guy had a ring on that was worth eight grand. And he would wonder at the grandeur, and he’d say, ‘Why aren’t the Puerto Ricans living here? It’s clean and nice, and what does it all mean?'”

  • AnonaMiss


  • Lorehead

    People excerpt parts of speeches all the time, and a tenth or less of it (certainly the line mentioning the new Philadelphia by itself) would surely be fair use. But IANAL.

    The firm that manages the King estate is called Intellectual Property Management, run by his sons, and you can find its contact information for licensing at The King Center.

  • EllieMurasaki

    After hearing that not even a single lyric from a song is fair use, I’m nervous, you know?


  • JustoneK

    disqus stole my code!

  • Edo

    Episcopalian here. He’s one of a relatively few people who can be celebrated in the liturgical calendar twice.

  • Hth

    I remember working in a restaurant where the Latino guys in the kitchen had written in on the calendar in the back (where for some reason none of the holidays came pre-printed) for MLK Day “El Dia de Martin.” I thought at the time that made it sound like a saint’s festival, and how much I liked that idea.

  • Lorehead

    You’ve read plenty of other novels by now, so think of some examples of what other published writers have gotten away with.

    By the way, hearing that North Carolina Republicans now want to establish a state religion in defiance of the First Amendment made me go back and review some colonial history, and New Philadelphia really has a proud namesake to emulate.

  • Hth

    Yeah, it’s so, so easy even for those of us who know better to assume the details we don’t understand in a story are irrelevant because we don’t understand them. “I don’t know that road. Whatever, probably any road is fine!” It’s a dumb, lazy way to listen to stories, and I know I do it all the time.

  • Lorehead

    People who read it that way need to watch the speech. And everyone should; it’s amazing.

  • EllieMurasaki

    True that. ‘S why I picked that name. Of course, white male privilege and colonialism and a bunch more things I want to explore, which is why the people actually going there in the first wave are renaming the place something more their liking. And then getting in conflict with the second wave, who were expecting to arrive to something civilized, by a definition of civilization that includes among other things ‘[white male] captain and ‘[nearly all white, mostly male] crew of ship still in control’–wait, where did that come from? I like it, I’m keeping it.

  • misanthropy_jones

    him and fred rogers should be at the top of the list of folks awaiting canonization…

  • Anne

    I couldn’t agree more.

  • That part of the speech where he talks about going to the mountaintop is still amazing, though. Gives me chills every time I watch it.

  • So few of them seem to remember that Matthew 25:31-46’s only judgment of the less fortunate was that they were entitled to care, compassion and love…

  • Kirala

    Reading this to my Christian, socially conservative, passively Republican mother in North Carolina, I got the response, “What is WRONG with our legislature?! We’re gonna have to move…”

    I swear, we’re not all crazy here. I blame the gerrymandering allowing unbalanced legislation.

  • Green Eggs and Ham

    I’m okay with the Orthodox or the Copts making him a saint.

    I’d be okay with the Baptists officially naming him a saint. In fact, I would smile a wry smile if they did.

  • Lorehead

    I know. It was a friend of mine in NC who alerted me to it.

  • I’m kinda interested in how this plays out. Because if they actually mean to establish a religion, they actually do have to pick a sect. You can’t just establish “Christianity”: you only get the hegemony they want if someone is empowered to call bullshit if I were to say “Hi. I’m a Rosstafarian. I follow the teachings of the great prophet Joe, who was divinely inspired to write the New New Testament, “The Book of Joe, or, A Funny Thing Happened to Jesus on The Way Back From Harrowing Hell”. My religion commands abortion-on-demand, gay marriage, and strict gun control. But we are Christians. Fork over the special privileges.”

    Because that’s the exact opposite of what they want. But the second they say “Go away; you’re not a Real Christian!” and thus declare themselves the official arbiters of who does and doesn’t count as a Christian, someone’s gonna start asking “What about the Catholics? What about the Mormons? Heck, what about the Moonies?” Nobody’s going to want to accidentally enfranchise the wrong sort of Christians.

    (And, of course, if they were to actually pick one specific sect and establish them, a civil war would break out every time two Baptists met each other on a bridge)

  • Lorehead

    What they’re actually trying to do is hold sectarian prayers in the legislature, at least right now. This is what cost Judge Roy Moore his job, although the bar association didn’t have the guts to disbar him for disobeying a court order (as a judge!) and he eventually got re-elected.

    And, really, nothing stops them from drafting a law saying, “Abrahamic monotheism is hereby established as the state religion of North Carolina.” Although it will probably be more subtle and more sectarian than that. There’s no reason they’d have to pick one denomination.

  • David S.

    It’s not that simple. Under the right circumstances, you can get away with quite a bit under fair use; you’ve got some hard circumstances, commercial use and not hugely transformative. The problem for writers is that publishers often don’t want to try. They’d rather have the contract saying they’re safe then put a few lines from a song or speech. And unfortunately MLK’s estate is notoriously litigious on the matter.

    I’d feel comfortable with a paragraph, maybe 100 words, but if you’re not self-publishing, I wouldn’t be surprised if your publishers forced you to get permission for a single line.

  • The_L1985


    I have just quoted dozens of songs at once. Apparently, that’s not fair use. :P