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A new year beckons. A fresh start. A new direction. After the calamities of the past months—from Iraq to the mortgage crisis, from Katrina’s stain to our prisons’ shame—we take hope from the new day. In 2008, we will elect a new president and a new Congress. Hope cometh in the morning.
2008 also marks the fortieth year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, a tragedy that will be remembered across the world. Dr. King’s words will be heard in commemorations from Shanghai to Soweto.
Why is he so honored? He held no political office. He amassed no great financial wealth. He led neither military forces, nor global corporations. In his life, he was arrested, reviled, denounced, and investigated. He was castigated as an “outside agitator,” and suspected of being a communist fellow traveler. He disrupted not simply the segregationists like Sheriff Bull Connor but the liberals like Kennedy and Johnson.
We remember Dr. King because he helped to lead a great movement. His armies were committed but unarmed, engaged but dedicated to non-violence. Dr. King’s greatness came from his faith, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” His faith in the maker gave him immense hope for the better angels of God’s creation.
Dr. King understood that great leaders do not forge change; that oppressors, even the most enlightened of them, do not give the oppressed their freedom. Only people in motion can force real change. The oppressed must demand their freedom, struggle for it, sweat for it, sacrifice for it—and force the oppressor to react. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but the abolitionist movement forced the confrontation with slavery. Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act and the New Deal legislation, but a militant workers movement forced the reforms.
Dr. King worked during the presidencies of Kennedy and Johnson. Kennedy’s election in 1960 sparked great anticipation. But Kennedy’s grace and Johnson’s forceful brilliance were not enough to drive real change. Conservatives forcefully opposed change. Liberals wanted change but in all deliberate speed, slowly without disruption. Dr. King was a liberator, not a liberal; he understood the “fierce urgency of now.”
If you try to start a fire with green wood by lighting paper on top of it, you’ll get a small flame and some smoke, but the fire won’t catch. Fires grow hot only when built from the bottom up, with the match igniting the dry kindling beneath the dense logs. Dr. King understood that Kennedy and Johnson might provide light at the top, but change would only come if the movement he helped lead could ignite the kindling at the bottom.
The Civil Rights Movement pushed Kennedy and Johnson to go farther and faster than they ever imagined—the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the end of legal apartheid. But King understood that equal opportunity was not enough: “Despite new laws, little has changed...The Negro is still the poorest American—walled in by color and poverty. The law pronounces him equal—abstractly—but his conditions of life are still far from equal.”
So he kept extending the argument. King called for a guarantee of the right to work, with government acting, if necessary, as the employer of last resort. He understood that nothing was as corrosive as the inability to find a job. And Dr. King understood that we must make work pay by empowering workers to organize. In his final months, he was organizing a Poor People’s Campaign, bringing people together across lines of race, region and religion, to march on Washington for basic economic rights. As part of this struggle, he went to Memphis to march with sanitation workers striking for the right to a union and the right to a living wage. Dr. King gave his life in the struggle to empower working people—an agenda even more pressing in this day.
Now, we feel the same anticipation. Change is coming. A new president. A new start. But as we remember Dr. King this year, let us remember what he taught us. Voting for change is necessary but not enough. Change will come only if it is built from the bottom up, only when people of conscience join those in need and mobilize to drive that change. “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” That is the great hope for the New Year. Happy New Year everybody.
Reverend Jackson n can be contacted by e-mail at