Jan. 15 is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday in the States.
Some call it Martin Luther King, Jr Day of Service, focusing on King’s dedication to service, and using the slogan “A day on, not a day off.” Some call it “Civil Rights Day” or “Human Rights Day”, titles that defeat the purpose of honouring a citizen dedicated to service, nonviolent response to violent behaviour, and “justice for all”, concepts no one could argue against.
But King also mobilized a movement, and the need for change it expressed, frightened many. Senators Hatch and McCain voted against the holiday, but later they both expressed regret. Hatch called it “one of the worst decisions” of his career. McCain apologized “for being too slow to give greatness its due”.
On the fortieth anniversary of King’s death on April 4 2008, my fiftieth birthday, I travelled to Memphis to stand with a few hundred others and listened to his daughter Bernice talk about how he was hounded by life threats issued by all manner of humanity threatened by change.
She stood on the balcony outside room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel where her father was gunned down in 1968, where a rifle bullet pierced the knot in his tie.
Blood soaked the scrap of paper on which he’d written notes for an address designed to bolstering the flagging spirits of sanitation workers. One of the lines he’d scribbled was: “Nothing is gained without sacrifice”. On that cold April day in 2008, with thunderclouds moving in, I stood next to Luther Houston who was a garbage collector when King died and was still working as a garbage collector, in his mid-70’s.
We talked for a long while and finally I asked him what did King give him, personally. “We don’t have to take it no more,” he said. Then added, “But we still got a looooong way to go!”
After the speeches, I ran for shelter as one of the dark clouds opened over our heads. A man who talked to me about lions and lambs and fateful last minute decisions earlier that day motioned me to follow him and we jumped into his car. We sat in the front seats while the heater blew and the wipers wiped and then he turned off the engine and we sat in the stillness. Until he started to sing.
I sought my soul/but my soul I could not see/I sought my God but he eluded me/I sought my brother/ and there I found all three.
What was that song, I asked and he said that ain’t no song, I’s preaching.
You’re a preacher? Because the woman I sat next to on the train down from Chicago, shes a pastor, too! And the man who drove me to Mason temple last night was a reverend of some kind.
Hell, everybody’s a preacher round here.
I love the way it all sounds like music.
You know what Dr. King’s last words were?
Yes, I do: ‘Sing it reaaaal pretty’. And he said them to Ben Branch who was gonna sing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” after supper.
The preacher nodded at my answer. I rushed to add: And he had catfish at his last meal, which was not really a last supper but a last lunch.
The comparisons to Christ’s last days were flying that night at Mason Temple. Jesse Jackson talked about an exhausted King begging him to go in his place to Mason and speak to the crowd.
How he was tired and needed his friends to stay up with him as he struggled through the night. Jackson believed that King knew his hours were numbered, but the truth of that never quite sunk into the heads of his ‘disciples’.
Was “I may not get there with you” and “I’m not fearing any man” too prescient to be acknowledged? But Jackson believed, in 2008,“after forty years in the wilderness, we can see the effects of King’s Selma Democracy: a black man can run for the office of the president!”
Al Sharpton spoke as well, and like Jackson, sang his sermon from the pulpit as the preacher he was. For forty years, echoed Sharpton, America has been wandering around in a spiritual wasteland of not only prejudice but a lack of self respect, talking Wilderness Talk, where “black men called each other nigga, call their mothers and sisters hos!” “We’ve gone too far to go back down there! Don’t go back down there!” warned the preachers that night.
But 50 years later we seem to be way down in the hole, talking trash all over again. From high places to the street, the knee- as in kneejerk- seems to be the part of the body that dictates what rolls off the tongue, not the heart. Whether its a reaction to bureaucratic bafflegab or institutionalized BS, the language we spew in the name of ‘keeping it real’ is really just keeping it low, disrespectful, with no regard for our own dignity.
King’s ability to refrain from reacting in kind to slanderous invective and physical abuse made him a man of great courage and strength, a strength far beyond a retaliatory violent wallop.
His decision to respond to the language of fear and hate with a language of love is a decision we are all capable of making. “Power without love is reckless and abusive”, he said. And “love without power is sentimental and anemic.”
“One of the great problems of history”, he wrote, “is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified as a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.”
It took courage to speak of love in the face of hate. I constantly remind myself that the word “courage” comes from the french word “coeur”, meaning heart.
King gave lectures, talks, speeches, addresses and sermons. But its his sermons I love to listen to for their unbridled heart. Like the reverends of Memphis on that rainy April 4th in 2008, he sang above the cruel barking of the day.
With courage he spoke of his discouragement. With love he expressed his fear. With faith he admitted his doubts.
One night he woke to “an ugly voice” on the other end of his phone, threatening to kill him and his family if he didn’t get out of town in three days. He got up and made himself a cup of coffee. He sat at his table, he “tried to give philosophical and theological reason for the existence of such evil.” But it didn’t help.
He was “losing courage”. He made a cup of coffee. He cried out to some power that was in him and yet bigger than him. He had to make his religion “real”, he said.
Courage, wrote my ancestor and Canada’s first nun, Marie Morin, is not something you wait around for. “You grow into courage. You become heroic without even realizing it.”
And like Marie, King after her, grew into courage by continually and consistently serving others, being an example of kindness, a “drum major for justice”, not a baton wielding police officer. When the language of courage was called for he turned to the vocabularies of love, mercy and dignity. In so doing he formed and reinforced habits of language that resisted denigration, that lifted rather than demeaned.
Two years ago, one winter morning, I woke from a dream of a black man in suit and tie walking across the field next to the cemetery road where I was walking.
He approached me holding a jumble of pieces of paper, as if cut from a various newspapers, the makings of a ransom note. On a fence post between us sat a vesper sparrow, head back, singing.
As the man got closer I could see he was MLK and the letters he presented in his cupped hand formed the message: “26 Lions”. I was baffled and then it came to me: “the alphabet! Be lion-hearted. Be courageous with every word you use, right down to the very letters that form them. Wow, I laughed aloud, I had a dream!
Then I slumped, realizing the famous words. I can’t have a dream, I whispered. And then, not only can I, I must. We cannot expect a few exhausted souls to do all the work, to walk alone, to shoulder the dream alone.
“We still got a looong way to go.” And we can start in our own country, where the model of segregation and apartheid still functions through the reservation system, where we turn away out of a sense of learned helplessness out of a quagmire of guilt, shame and fear.
We can be lion-hearted. Use language consciously. We can be brave and say, like the senators Hatch and McCain, that we’ve been unconscious. We might begin by using our talents to serve. We might, without knowing, become heroic.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie home.