This morning, I took my usual 90-second cold shower, grabbed my hoops and swooped the dogs into the car, excited to make it to Hoop Church in downtown Austin. I had some tunes to share, freshly loaded onto my iPod, the day was overcast but warm and felt like Sunday. I punched the radio to 88.7 KAZI, my favorite local community radio station–they broadcast ‘Democracy Now’ every weekday and play a dependable mix of new, non-mainstream hip-hop and R&B.
I quickly realized that the noon program was devoted to Martin Luther King, Jr., this being his birthday, tomorrow a national holiday set aside to remember his legacy. I had been thinking to attend either an interfaith prayer service tonight at Occupy Austin, or a march in his honor tomorrow morning, or possibly both. The voice I was hearing on the radio right now was a man who had been a young activist with and associate of King’s–tuning in right in the middle, I didn’t catch his name. But I was immediately jolted by his personal recollection of the great leader as an intimate friend.
He talked about the fact that King was thrust into his leadership role–something I had heard about before, but hadn’t paused to consider. He shared that King was primarily interested in being a minister and “helping people”–the simplicity of that expression–and suddenly I was imagining King as a young man, just out of seminary, with a new wife and perhaps already a new baby, looking for a congregation in his native Southland, looking for a community to be a part of. Now that I’m in my early 40s, I know what this phase of life is about for many people. Where will we live? Who will our neighbors be?
But King understood the imperative of accepting the destiny–the duty, a word whose sacredness has been contaminated by its abuse in the context of unjust wars and in the enforcement of unjust laws–that was his, and so changed the history of every single one of our lives. His old friend went on to remember how remarkably King’s personality survived his transition from ordinary citizen to living legend. “He was just an easygoing, clowning, warm, lovable guy.”
I was driving down Cesar Chavez, about halfway to Hot Mama’s coffeeshop. A man is remembered for true greatness, and at the same moment, for the very same qualities that would make one’s heart bond to a neighbor, a co-worker, a brother-in-law…the qualities that would cause one’s heart to choose a dear friend from a sea of acquaintances. The same man. How well did we know him? Martin. Martin Luther King, Jr. A name we might have heard too many times to hear.
The announcer began to recite the familiar facts: “On April 3rd, King was in Memphis to support the local black sanitation workers who were organizing for better working conditions and wages. That night, the night before he was assassinated, he gave a speech.” And the last minute or so of this speech, which I had heard, like many of you, before, began to play.
I won’t attempt to describe the prodigious voice that forever altered the course of human events. The sum of all my gifts, capacities, skills, training, and experience would still be unequal to that task. What I can say about this occasion of hearing–just as I was driving past Austin City Hall, the site of Occupy Austin, where I have spent plenty of evenings over the last couple of months–was that I heard anew.
Even my limited participation in Occupy has revealed what my own privilege had previously blinded me to: the dreadful cost of such activism. I say dreadful because consideration of the cost inspires real dread. We remember the veteran’s cracked skull. We understand that guns and bullets haven’t been used yet. We understand that such violence has been and will be considered, and is a lawful option. No one is going to stop the cop who is told to utilize armed force against protesters. There is no one to stop him.
When I heard Dr. King’s voice today, I heard–for the first time–his full comprehension of the cost. It was this man–this single human being, just an easygoing, clowning, warm, lovable guy, with a life, beloved friends and a family, who was looking out into the faces of the people gathered there that night and deciding again and again every second that passed that yes, speaking truth is more important than whether I live or die. Imagine being there, for one second: Speaking truth is more important than whether I live or die. Then, imagine a human being who can not only get to that place, but embody it, second after second, hour after hour, day after day, year after year. And I understood–for the first time–what an unthinkably rare incarnation of humanity we lost. Hours later, I’m still being hit by wave after wave of sobbing.
Martyrdom can and does interpose a veil of incomprehensible goodness and nobility over those who sacrificed their lives for us. Our own psyches seem to guard us from understanding what it means that someone has laid down his life–the ultimate act of nonviolence–for us. Not stood up in battle for us, not fought the enemy on our behalf, but laid down–as a gift, as an offering–his life. As a non-Christian (something I trust–utterly–that Dr. King would understand) I can’t help but think of the intensity of feeling that attends Christ’s sacrifice, and wonder what might be easier about imagining that not an ordinary human being, but a singular and divine entity, has done such a thing for you, and for me.
He knew, of course, that people were right then and there making plans to take his life, and he knew that they were unlikely to fail. He was speaking truth when he looked out into the hundreds of human faces gathered there and said, “I’m not fearing any man.” Imagine speaking those words out loud in front of a crowd you know might contain a real person with a real gun that is aiming, at that moment, at your head. What would it be like to feel that courage, that belief? It’s ungraspable, literally unimaginable. And yet, he died with this very courage in his heart.
The ringing after the last tones of King’s voice was replaced by excerpts from an actual press conference from April 4th, 1968. A man says into a microphone, “Tonight at 6:01pm Martin Luther King was shot in the head.” You can hear many people gasp. The speaker states a few more details: a man in a dark suit was observed leaving in a white car. Then he says, abruptly, “Twenty minutes ago Martin Luther King died.” You hear many more gasps, from many different places in the room, and then the setting in of a kind of dim roar of shocked human voices. It is unlike any sound I have ever heard before.
The next sound to be broadcast was the voice of Bobby Kennedy, speaking the same day to a crowd in Indiana, awkwardly but genuinely offering that a member of his family, too, had been killed “by a white man.” This was the first time he had ever publicly spoken of his brother’s death. (Later, I listened to the full 6-minute speech–when Kennedy says, “Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee,” the crowd screams out in shock.)
And next sound was the voice of the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, speaking at Dr. King’s funeral: “Though this grave is too narrow to hold his soul, we commit his body to the ground. Though there is no stone, no crypt, no grave that can hold his greatness, we commit his body to the ground.”
It’s not enough to merely and politely remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Our hearts must be shattered with the understanding of what was done for us. For if our hearts can be shattered, there might be enough space in us to hold the courage that we must have in order to save what must be saved about humanity. At least I finally understand that.