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Descending from Glory to Reality: A Reflection on the Trajectory of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Use of His Speech: “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”

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Editor’s Note: This paper was originally presented at the 2018 Social Consciousness Summit on April 5, 2018. It is reprinted here with permission.

 

“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” —Thomas Jefferson

“God gave Noah the rainbow sign: No more water the fire next time” —James Baldwin

The Civil War was the culminating theological debate of American history. Mark Noll, in his book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis notes that the Civil War was about the theology of slavery, when the real theological question was the theology about race. American theologians failed to resolve the former, never getting to the latter, and thus the greatest theological debate in American history was resolved by those two great prophets, Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee. 

However, in failing to debate the deeper theological issue of race, Americans unanimously and unofficially decided to take God out of public and political conversation. Whatever influence over public thought religion had was replaced with materialism and industry. 

When in the early 1930s, after Wall Street collapsed and Roosevelt brought about his New Deal from above and labor was pressuring them from below, these businessmen decided to wed capitalism with Christianity. It was not done for moral reasons but for their own economic expedience. They wed them against the enemy of creeping socialism which stood antagonistic to their greed, Roosevelt instituting welfare, the GI Bill, and food stamps. Such economic ecumenicalism could not go unchecked, and so these businesses bought preachers, as polls revealed preachers could mold public opinion.

  • Men like Rev. James Fifield—dubbed the 13th Apostle of Big Business and the St. Paul of Prosperity, who preached this prosperity gospel via his mass monthly magazine and his weekly radio show which aired on 800 stations nationally.
  • Men like Rev. Abraham Vereide—who advanced this prosperity gospel through a national network of prayer groups.
  • Men like Rev. Billy Graham—who so supported libertarian prosperity gospel that he is called in the London paper “the big business evangelist.” 

These men took the industrialism and materialism gods of America and added to them the voice of the savior.

The United States was also going through a social revolution. Free love was in play, drugs were more openly used. Eastern and eastern-style religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, B’ahi, Hari Krishna, etc., began to make appearances.

This is the godless and morally deranged world King found himself in.

Moses Ascending to Glory...the Exodus 1958

The year is 1958. King has just returned from India, having met with many of Mohandas Gandhi’s followers. 

In years past he had ascended to the presidency of the Montgomery Improvement Association. His family had survived the house bombing. He oversaw the year-long bus protest, which produced the Browder V. Gayle decision by the Supreme Court that segregation was unconstitutional. King is named chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He attends the Independence celebration of Ghana. He gives his first National address at the Lincoln Memorial“Give Us the Ballot.” He meets Vice President Nixon, and then President Eisenhower. His first book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story in published. He has survived being stabbed by Izola Ware Curry. 

Now he stands before the all black graduation class at Morehouse College, with his speech “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” This is the earliest known usage of this title. 

In this message, King describes the three-fold revolution taking place: it is a social, political, and technological revolution.

The social revolution is for King the throwing off of the yoke of colonialism and racism. He sees this happening around the world. In the American Negro this revolution is the result of the recent abilities to travel and see more of the world: the invention of the automobile, two world wars, the Great Depression. The rural plantation background was uprooted and a more urban and industrial setting was afforded him, enabling the Negro to feel better about himself and his personhood. King places the new status of the Negro on Negro esteem and circumstantial situations. All of these conspired to reveal to the Negro that “man was not his specificity but his fundamental, he was not the texture of his hair nor the color of his skin but the quality of his soul.” 

This social revolution is being supported by the political revolution, indicated in the May 1954 decision outlawing segregation in public schools, nullifying the separate but equal fallacy, and affirming that such a doctrine denies the segregated child equal protection under the law. King declared that all the “loud noises being heard in terms of nullification, interposition, and massive resistance, are merely the death groans from a dying system.” King is optimistic.

All of this change is possible because of the technological revolution that was being experienced. The world was now geographically one place. This is demonstrated in the humor of Bob Hope, who stated that if one developed hiccups on a direct flight from LA to New York, one would Hic in LA and Cup in New York. Or if one flew from Tokyo to Seattle, one wold have to inform one’s Seattle friends, “I left tomorrow.” King is excited.

King therefore suggests, in this world of tremendous revolution, there are three considerations of this graduating black class at Morehouse College. First, they need to rise above the narrow confines of individualistic concerns to a more broad concern for all of humanity. King begins to speak of global poverty to this black graduating class, with the expectation that they will take an American-integrated identity fully, and work to make America the global savior. Second, they need to keep their moral and spiritual development in line with our scientific and technological growth advances. He speaks to these black graduates of their responsibility to ensure that this American society does not follow the description of Alfred Weber:

Civilization refers to things we use; culture, to what we are. Civilization is the complex of devices, mechanism techniques and instrumentality by means of which we live; culture is the realm of spiritual end, expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion for which at best we live. The great problem confronting man today is that he has allowed his civilization to outdistance his culture. He has allowed his mentality to outrun his morality. He has allowed his technology to outdistance his theology...so we have ended up producing guided missiles and misguided men...unless we awake to solve this problem...”

King places the responsibility for the culture of the civilization on a black graduating class at Morehouse, using the inclusive plural pronoun we to demonstrate the integrated nature of his ideas. Finally, King calls on this class to be excellent in their endeavors, as they will now have to compete in this emerging globally integrated community with people of all reaches and nationalities. King says,

We cannot aim to merely be good Negro teachers, good Negro doctors, good Negro ministers, good Negro skilled laborers. Maybe that was all right in the past, but today if you are merely seeking to do a good Negro job you have already failed your matriculation examination for entrance into the university of integration...we must broaden our fields of interest to include...more scientists and engineers.”

King is excited, energetic, optimistic, hopeful. And with good reason.

Moses on the Mount of Glory...Sinai 1965

The year is 1965. King is at Oberlin College, speaking for their graduation. 

Since 1959 he has met with democratic candidate-turned-President Kennedy, he has been arrested multiple times, and punched in the face by a Nazi. During one of those arrests he penned “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

It was in this same town of Birmingham that “Bull” Conner would use unconscionable force to displease a crowned of peaceful protestors: high pressure firehoses, cops with clubs and cattle prods, as well as police dogs. King had released his book Strength to Love. His March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a resounding success, culminating in his “I Have a Dream” speech. He has delivered the eulogy for three of the four little girls killed September 15, 1963 in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. His phones have been tapped by the FBI. He has been named man of the year by Time magazine, published his book, Why We Can’t Wait, and has met with Malcom X. After criticizing the FBI for failure to protect civil rights, King has been called by Hoover “the most notorious liar in the country,” and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference has been accused of being run by communists. King has received the Nobel Peace prize, and has participated in the march on Selma. 

He now stands before the 1965 multiracial graduating class of Oberlin, a school which is historically anti-slavery, and yet which had accommodated segregation. 

As King begins this speech, he makes three points, some of which he made in 1958. First, there is a need for a more global perspective. Again, he relates to his time in India, seeing the poverty there, and calls upon the graduation class to help rid the world of poverty. 

Second, he calls upon this class to rid America of racism. He affirms that the nation has come a long way, and yet he declares it has a long way to go. While the anti-segregation bill of the 1950s did pass, and a comprehensive civil rights bill was passed in 1964, and even though there was a new voting rights bill coming within a few weeks, King needed this multiethnic graduating class to know that all was not close to being solved. He informs them of the socio-economic plight of the Negro, “on a lonely island of poverty within a sea of material prosperity,” describing the unendurable slums, the totally inadequate and substandard school system, and the violence that Negroes were still suffering under. He refutes the notion that racism will work itself out, that time will change things.

Somewhere we must come to realize that human progress never rolls of the wheels of inevitability. We must help time and realize that the time is always right to do right.”

He declares that racial injustice is morally wrong. 

Third, he moves to declare that we must rid ourselves of hatred, violence, and war. He declares violence the inseparable twin of materialism, and he reaffirms the notion of nonviolent activism, believing that such action disarms the opponent, exposing his moral defenses, weakens his morale, and works on his conscience.

It is my hope that, as we struggle for racial justice, that we will follow that philosophy and method of non-violent resistance, realizing that this is the approach that can bring about that better day of racial justice for everyone.”

King views this work as not only saving the oppressed but also saving the oppressor. Therefore King encourages this graduating class to continue to give of themselves fully to the cause of racial justice; of their time, earnings, bodies, in participation, declaring, 

We shall overcome does not mean we shall overcome the white man. In the struggle for racial justice the Negro does not seek to rise from disadvantage to advantage, to substitute one form of tyranny for another. A doctrine a black supremacy is as dangerous as the doctrine of white supremacy. God is interested in freedom of the whole human race.”

King is still optimistic, but he accepts that there is much more work to do, and a long way more to go to get it done.

Moses Descending Toward Reality...Nebo 1968

The year is 1968. In 1966, King moved to New York, and his attempt to duplicate his work in the North fails. In 1967, he delivered a critical sermon at Riverside Church in New York, titled “Beyond Vietnam,” where he directly confronts the three-headed monster of materialism, militarism, and racism. This lost him much support. His book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community is published in this same year. King revealed his intention to have a poor people’s campaign. On March 28, King leads a sanitation worker’s march, which descended into rioting and looting. He is blamed. 

It is now March 31. King is at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. Here he, for the last time, choses “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” to be his message. He has fought for civil rights and racial justice for over a decade. He is not at the all black school of Morehouse, nor is he at Oberlin College, known for its anti-slavery history. This is the capital of the country, Washington D.C.  

King opens with his classic three points of the revolutions they are all experiencing: a technological revolution, with the impact of automation and “cybernation,” a weaponry revolution, with the emergence of atomic and nuclear warfare, and a human rights revolution, with the global freedom explosion. He then quickly moves to the challenges he thinks his listeners are facing in the presence of these revolutions.

Challenge #1: the need to develop a global perspective. 

“We have through our genius made this world a neighborhood, but we have not had the ethical commitment to make it a brotherhood.”

King has moved from the moral argument in 1965 to the ethical argument in 1968, and the difference is significant. Morals are who we are, what we hold as true, and valuable, placed upon us from within. Ethics are how we treat people, and such rules can be enforced upon us from outside. I submit that King realizes, in using the word ethics here instead of morals like he did when he was at Oberlin, that the inner racial values of his white contemporaries were not morally-oriented toward his racial betterment. The only thing he could hope for was ethical legislation to keep white racial immorality in check.

The problem is morality. Morality and ethics are individual. Morality in the individual’s inner compass. Ethics are external constraints. When the majority share the same morality, one gets a culture; when the majority agree upon a set of ethical constraints, one gets a civilization. Thus, morals drive culture, culture drives ethics, and ethics drives civilization. One can’t focus on civilization and ethics without addressing the underlying problems of culture and morals. This is a disheartening reality check for King. 

Challenge #2: the need to eradicate the vestiges of racial injustice and poverty from this nation.

King states soberingly that “...racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans: spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and not so subtle.” He again addresses the myth of time, refuting the idea that time and prayer alone change things. For King, time is neutral, and he asserts that evil people utilize it more effectively than good people, and that “...we may need to repent in this generation not only of overt evil of the bad people, but of the silence of the good people.”

He addresses with historic sweep and accuracy the myth of bootstrap mentality: while giving the Negro nothing upon liberation, Congress gave away millions of acres to euro-immigrants, Congress established land grant colleges for euro-immigrants, Congress sent county agents to train euro-immigrants, Congress provided lower interest rates for euro-immigrants, and during the time of King until now, Congress pays millions of dollars to euro-immigrants and their descendants to not farm, but all the while America keeps telling the Negro to pull himself up by his bootstraps. 

He addresses the poverty in India versus the affluence of America, transitioning from the pitiful story of millions of Indians with no shelter and no food to American poverty. King has pulled their Christian heart strings: how could they be emotionally moved by the pain of people in another country but so unmoved by the pain and poverty of their fellow citizens? Families with rats and roaches crawling through the home and over their children, housing where landlords refuse to renovate, Blacks so poor their children wear no shoes, and the only work to do is picking berries during berry season.

King reminded the people that God judges harshly those who ignore the poor, and affirms that it is not riches that are damnable but lack of brotherly love when one has riches and yet ignores the poor which is damnable. King then declares his intention to come to Washington in a poor people’s campaign. They are coming because, despite the great documents in Washington D.C. declaring equal rights of all men, and despite national meeting after national meeting, report after report, nothing had been done to address the plight fo the poor. King has realized and therefore states emphatically that nothing will be done until people of goodwill (his kind description of liberal whites), put their bodies and souls into motion for justice. Until liberal whites are willing to put their lives on the line, nothing will change for King.

Challenge #3: the need to find an alternative to war and bloodshed.

King decried the unjustness of the Vietnam War, with is exorbitant spending. He described what he considers to be a missed allocation of money in that we spent $500,000 to kill one Vietcong, and yet only $53 per person to end poverty in our own nation. He declares the judgment of God is upon the nation. 

And yet King CHOOSES to maintain hope. But this is not a hope in naïveté, nor is it an emotional frenzied hope. This is the hope of dogged determination, the hope which fights resignation, the hope which keeps life worth living, even though one is painfully aware that that hope will probably not be realized. It is the hope of life. To turn a phrase, “I resist, therefore I am.”

An End to Glory

On April 3, Martin Luther King Jr. preached his “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” message.

On April 4, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. 

After King’s death, Harry Belafonte gave this reflection:

 

Midway through the Civil Rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. realized that the struggle for integration would ultimately become a struggle for economic rights. I remember the last time we were together, at my home, shortly before he was murdered. He seemed quite agitated and preoccupied, and I asked him what the problem was. ‘I've come upon something that disturbs me deeply," he said. "We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I've come to believe we're integrating into a burning house.’

 

That statement took me aback. It was the last thing I would have expected to hear, considering the nature of our struggle, and I asked him what he meant. "I'm afraid that America may be losing what moral vision she may have had," he answered. "And I'm afraid that even as we integrate, we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears at the soul of this nation.’

But the nation had lost its moral compass long ago. By integrating, King integrated his people into an immoral culture at worst, and an amoral culture at best.

And what of the Adventist Church?

During the Civil Rights movement, ministers and church member alike were encouraged to not participate by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. All one need do is ask any old regional minister from this time, and they will confirm this. The church continued and continues to operate from a position buttressed by a deterministic eschatology which says that prophecy MUST happen as it is prophesied, and thus until it does there is nothing we can do. Within this fatalistic eschatology is the rebar of totemic hyper-spirituality—the “totem” being eschatology and the “hyper” because of its deterministic application: since there is nothing we can do but wait on prophecy, there is nothing we should do except wait on God to do for us.

Thus, we release ourselves from all human responsibility to resist evil. While this is not the theological action of the founders, it is the theological action of the children. It is as simple as this: we theologically state that the eschatological lamblike beast does not speak like a dragon until the Sabbath commandment is infringed upon. By saying so we reveal the mind and the privilege of those for whom such an application must maintain theological supremacy: it isn’t blacks, Japanese, non-euro-immigrants, Native Americans, or women.

This church structure in North America is birthed and based in racism. It is not on blacks to resolve it, as we did not create it. And the black leadership realizes that the heart’s issue (morals) has never changed, no matter if the church says this structure was created for mission (ethics). So black leadership have followed suit, with both regional and state leadership declaring that this organization structure was birthed in mission only, that the conferences have naturally integrated, that God has used this structure to grow the church greatly, and thus the regional vs. state conference issue is no longer a racism issue.

This is the lie that King refuted: that time will take care of it. This is also King’s accommodation to ethics, the actions we do, instead of addressing the issues of morals and who we are. It is the Civil War/Civil Rights debate over slavery/segregation versus racism. Apparently even the remnant of God is unable to address, repent of, and reconcile who we are and who we can become (morality). We made a structural modification, and we continue to rename it while letting it function (ethics). Hypocritical legalism at its best.

That God has used this fallen structure to grow his church is equivalent to God using an ass to speak his message, when the man was rebellious. This state-regional conference organizational structure is the ass of God’s ideal for his church. And since all humanity wanted to give him was an ass, God has used this ass to carry his Son, and proclaim the gospel. But make no mistake: the duplicitous nature of church structure versus the gospel of Jesus makes this church in North America sound very much like an ass, and when we don’t want to sound like an ass, as in the case of racial injustice, we are historically silent...but even in our silence, we still look like asses. And Martin Luther King Jr. would have nothing to do with us.

And to our shame, Adventists were complicit in Europe under Hitler, in South Africa under apartheid, and in Rwanda during the genocide. Ironically, while the U.S. was heading in 1944 to destroy Hitler and Nazism, Adventists were racially segregating our conferences. We exiled the prophet to Australia when we got fed up with her rebuke of how this church should do better by the Negro. The failures globally of the 20th century Seventh-day Adventist Church regarding race are the direct consequence and descendants of the General Conference failing to heed the words of the prophet in regard to race. The General Conference by example and arguably by inference colonialized that racist ideology as normative praxis around the globe, while claiming a racially ecumenical theology. Nothing short of corporate acknowledgement and repentance will do to remove the stench from our organizational structure.

The Adventist Church is complicit.
The Adventist Church is a catalyst.
The Adventist Church set the racial tone and trend.

 

J.A. O'Rourke is a husband, father, military veteran, and hospital chaplain. He resides in Orlando, Florida.

 

Image Credit: Andrews University, designed by Kandace Agyemang-Baah.

 

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