Dr. King in Context, Part 6

Dr. King was most certainly a man who was “blues in the life of the mind and jazz in the ways of the world.” On Dr. King’s birthday I’ll share this lesser known text from a lesser known essay. It’s from Dr. King’s address for the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival.

“God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create—and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.

Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.

Modern jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.

It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls.

Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.

And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith.

In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.”

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Dr. King in Context, Part 5

During the protests of last summer many who opposed them quoted Dr. King, especially if protests turned riotous. Dr. King was often taken to task when riots happened. He speaks to them in several speeches. I’ll offer something different today to show how his theological commitment to non-violent resistance makes it easy for Dr. King to be taken out of context.

The same Dr. King that said,

“Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. . . . So I will continue to condemn riots, and continue to say to my brothers and sisters that this is not the way. And continue to affirm that there is another way.”

A Speech at Stanford in 1967 he called, “The Other America:”

said this in the very next line of the very same speech: 

“But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

As Dr. King’s daughter Bernice King has said, “My father sought to understand the human condition, including the holistic consequences of racism & white supremacist ideology.”

We need Dr. King in context.


For the transcript click here.

Or watch the speech here.

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Dr. King in Context, Part 4

Prophetic speech is political speech, just not in the way we think.

The same Dr. King that said:

“Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a moulder of consensus.”

Where Do We Go From Here? (1968)

said this:

“Nowhere is the tragic tendency to conform more evident than in the church, an institution that has often served to crystallize, conserve, and even bless the patterns of majority opinion. The erstwhile sanction by the church of slavery, racial segregation, war, and economic exploitation is testimonial to the fact that the church has hearkened more to the authority of kthe world than to the authority of God. Called to be the moral guardian of the community, the church at times has preserved that which is immoral and unethical. Called to combat social evils, it has remained silent behind stained-glass windows. Called to lead men on the highway of brotherhood and to summon them to rise above the narrow confines of race and class, it has enunciated and practiced racial exclusiveness.
We preachers have also been tempted by the enticing cult of conformity. Seduced by the success symbols of the world, we have measured our achievements by the size of our parsonage. We have become showmen to please the whims and caprices of the people. We preach comforting sermons and avoid saying anything from our pulpit that might disturb the respectable views of the comfortable members of our congregations. Have we ministers of Jesus Christ sacrificed truth on the altar of self-interest and, like Pilate, yielded our convictions to the demands of the crowd?”

“Transformed Nonconformist,” in Strength to Love (pp. 16-17)

We need Dr. King in context.

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Dr. King in Context, Part 3

It has become important to me that I not allow myself to package Dr. King’s legacy in a handful of quotes. It’s too easy to make him palatable and dishonor the struggle. 

In the biblical tradition, Yahweh wanted his people to remember the full story of their history, especially the trauma they endured and perpetrated. Remembering keeps the trauma alive in their collective self in a healthy way so that resilience becomes possible. It also serves as a catalyst to provoke a renewed self-understanding that includes self-awareness and a commitment to build a more just society that promotes a positive social identity based upon the triumph over past failures. The aim was building a society where human flourishing is necessary, not just possible, for all its members. 

Remembering the whole of history matters because it’s how we make meaning of the present. We have to keep it in context if we want to avoid self-deception. 

With that, the same Dr. King that said, “The ultimate measure of a person is not where one stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where one stands in times of challenge and controversy.” 

also said this:

“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn. The reality of substantial investment to assist Negroes into the twentieth century, adjusting to Negro neighbors and genuine school integration, is still a nightmare for all too many white Americans. White America would have liked to believe that in the past ten years a mechanism had somehow been created that needed only orderly and smooth tending for the painless accomplishment of change. . . .These are the deepest causes for contemporary abrasions between the races. Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook. He remembers that with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough. Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash.”

“Where Do We Go From Here,” 1968 pp. 10, 11.

We need Dr. King in context.

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Dr. King in Context, Part 2

Dr. King was considered a threat to political power. A poll was conducted and he was marked as the most hated man in America. When read in context it isn’t hard to imagine why.

Dr. King’s Christian faith led to him to speak eloquently about the deepest truths of Jesus’ teaching, namely love of neighbor and enemy. But his commitment to the concrete expression of love is what often caused him trouble. He didn’t speak in abstraction or generalities, but in the particular, both past and present.

Here’s post # 2.

The same Dr. King that said:

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

In his 1957 sermon, “Loving Your Enemies”

also said this in 1964:

“Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles of racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it. Our children are still taught to respect the violence which reduced a red-skinned people of an earlier culture into a few fragmented groups herded into impoverished reservations.”

Why We Can’t Wait,” pp. 119-20

We need Dr. King in context.

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