fresh voices from the front lines of change







Years ago, I visited Memphis, Tenn., to attend a conference.  The conference coincided with the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, and thousands of fans were in Memphis to visit Graceland.  I visited the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

The Lorraine Motel is now a civil rights museum. Visitors can literally walk through civil rights history, ending with the suite King occupied and the balcony where he stood when he was shot. Of course, visitors can’t stand exactly where King stood. So, I stood one balcony over, looking at the spot where one man was struck down, and an entire movement was changed.

King was in Memphis to support a sanitation workers’ strike. The catalyst for the strike was the death of two men — sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker — who had climbed inside a sanitation truck seeking shelter from a rainstorm. They were crushed to death when an electrical malfunction activated the truck’s compactor. As the documentary At The River I Stand shows, their deaths were the spark that lit the economic kindling in Memphis —the conditions under which blacks, and sanitation workers in particular, lived and worked — and ignited the movement that brought Martin Luther King Jr. to town.

The night before he died, King gave his final speech, with its prophetic ending :

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

King’s body traveled back to Atlanta, for his funeral where his favorite hymn — "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" — was sung per his request. I grew up hearing and singing that song in church. As I reflect on King’s death, the movement that has spread from Madison, WI, and the We Are One events taking place today, one verse in particular stands out.

At the river I stand.
Guide my feet.
Hold my hand.
Take my hand, precious Lord,
And lead me home.

Martin Luther King Jr. understood the significance of mountains and rivers — an understanding that drove his work for civil rights and economic justice, and one we urgently need today.


Mountains represent struggle and change. From the vantage point of the mountaintop, the world looks different than it does on the ground.  Places that seem distant on the ground are closer together and more clearly connected than we knew before.   It becomes clear that what happens in one city impacts the town that’s downriver. The problems in one town can travel to another, by the roadways and waterways that connect them.

Yet, to reach the mountaintop, we have to climb the mountain. Struggle is required.

Mt EverestWe climb mountains not only to reach the top, but for the sake of the climb. Climbers face extreme conditions and mortal dangers on their way the peak. Mount Everest, is known as much for those who have climbed it as those who died doing so. The remains of some who didn’t reach the summit have been discovered by those on their way to or from it, who pause to honor the  memories of those who died climbing.

Why do those who reach the summit have so much respect and reverence for those who died trying? Because having climbed the mountain, they understand the struggle of the climb and how it changes the climber. 

We are changed by the struggle to reach the peak. It calls on reserves of strength we may not have known we had. We are changed because we cannot make the climb alone, and cannot reach the mountaintop alone. We must  climb with others, relying on their strength, and offering them ours. Through the struggle of the climb, we realize that we need each other, if we are to stand on the summit.

So we are changed. Whether we are climbing mountains that rise up from the earth, or the mountains of our assumptions and prejudices that make or fellow men seem so distant and so different from us. When we climb those mountains, we are changed by that struggle. We see ourselves and others differently. When we reach the mountaintop together, we are changed again. We see ourselves, our fellow human beings, and our world differently.

Martin Luther King Jr. knew mountaintops and rivers. He understood struggle and change from both perspectives.


Rivers also represent change. Their waters are sometimes calm, and sometimes rough. Their courses twist and turn with the land, Yet, they also shape the land. Their banks change over time.  Sometimes they overflow their banks and flood the surrounding land.

Yet, for all their turbulence and danger, people have stayed close to rivers. We built our first cities and made our first steps towards civilization beside rivers — from the Nile to the Mississippi — because they have nourished us and connected us to each other.

Rivers changed us as we settled beside them. Their rhythms shaped our customs and cultures. Their nature forced us to rely on one other to survive their occasional destruction, and to rebuild. Their waters nourished the seeds of what we call "the social contract," which is really a recognition that we need each other.

Yardenit Jordan river baptisingIn African American spirituals, rivers are symbolic of change in ourselves, and in "crossing over" to a new and different life "on the other side." Our ancestors laid down their troubles "down by the riverside" and hoped to "cross over Jordan." In our churches, the practice of baptism is a nod to New Testament stories of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River.

But rivers are often troubled. Harriet Tubman, as she conducted slaves on the Underground Railroad, would sing the hymn "Wade in the Water," to signal to the escaped slaves that it was time to get off the path and into the water so that slave catcher’s dogs couldn’t pick up their scent. Each chorus of the song promises, "God’s gonna trouble the water."

The vocal group, Sweet Honey In The Rock, begins their version of "Wade in the Water" with a spoken admonition: "And when there is a promise of a storm, if you want change in your life walk into it. If you get on the other side, you will be different. And if you want change in your life and you’re avoiding the trouble, you can forget it. So Harriet would say, wade on in the water. It’s gonna really be troubled water." 

Dangerous Unselfishness

Martin Luther King Jr, knew mountains and rivers. He understood that we need each other, if we are to  climb them or cross them. Perhaps, from his own mountaintop he saw distant mountains he knew we would have to climb together and rivers he knew we would have to cross together.

Today, we’re told that our fates are not connected; that we can afford to abandon one another halfway up the mountain or across the the river; that as long as we "get over" we shouldn’t and can’t afford to worry about anyone else.

In the most extreme view — like that of Ayn Rand, a favorite "moral philosopher" of today’s conservatives — workers are less than nothing. They are "looters" or "parasites." They are cogs in the machine built and run by Rand’s "great men," and if they are ground up by that machine, so be it. They have no rights that giants of industry and capital need recognize.

American conservatism is increasingly wedded to a philosophy that raises selfishness to the level of moral virtue, that in fact extols it as the highest virtue. Pursuit of self interest, in this view, is not only the individual’s highest moral act, but it is his only — his only — moral obligation.

As Michael Honey wrote, King went to Memphis to support the sanitation workers’ strike, and efforts to organize a union. But in his final speech, King urged Memphis’ black community to use its collective economic power and support sanitation workers’ efforts with boycotts.

In his final speech, King use a biblical parable to urge his audience to practice a "dangerous unselfishness" by supporting sanitation workers.

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, administering first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great 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 causal 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 1,200 miles, or rather 1,200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about 2,200 feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. In the days 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 not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?" That’s the question.

That dangerous unselfishness drove the civil rights movement. At its core, the civil rights movement was an understanding that the stem of racial injustice was just as harmful to white Americans as it was to African Americans; as detrimental to their souls as it was to the every day lives of blacks. The civil rights movement was just as much about stopping the damage segregation was doing to whites as it was about stopping the damage it did to blacks. It was, as King said, driven not by the question of "What will happen to me if I do?" but "What will happen to them if I don’t?" and ultimately "What will happen to us?"

It is the same in the lives of individuals and nations. We must ask not only, "What will happen to them if we do not help?" But "What will happen to us if we do not help?" How will that moral choice shape us? What will we become as a result? What kind of people will we be?

In some video games, books like the "Choose Your Own Adventure" series, the player or reader follows a character through the arc of a story, in which the character faces many decisions. At each point, the player or reader must determine the character’s course of action. Those decisions determine the direction and outcome of the story, but also shape the character in ways that are reflected in his words and actions, and narrow the choices available as the story proceeds.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity." I believe, and I think King understood, that we must ask ourselves one more question. We must ask "If I do not stop to help, what will happen to me?" The choices we make not only reflect who we are, but they shape who we are.

We need more dangerous unselfishness today. We saw it in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states, as non-union workers asked not just "What will happen to me?" or "What will happen to them?" but "What will happen to us?" Indeed, the words of King’s final speech rang out as protesters were arrested at the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison.

We are seeing more of it in the We Are One events across the country today.

The events in Wisconsin and the movement that has grown out of them are an encouraging sign that Americans are still journeying towards the "promised land" King envisioned. How many more mountains we must climb or rivers we must cross before we get there, he didn’t say. But he believed we would get there. 

Perhaps we will if, every step of the way, we practice the dangerous unselfishness King spoke of, and thus transform "What will happen to me?" to "What will happen to them?" into "What will happen to us? — and remember that we are one.

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