Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Trumpet of Conscience

The subject matter of my blog was not a hard choice for this round. I checked out the book of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches titled Trumpet of Conscience. While I have read and listened to some of King’s well-known speeches, there are still many words of his that I have not read or listened to. Focusing this blog on the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. will not only be appropriate as we honor the day of his name, but will also serve as a relevant reminder of his urgent charge for all humans to unite and understand each other–not necessarily agree. As I have stated in my past blogs, our nation is arguably as divided now as we ever have been. There is no better time than now to turn to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. While he urged that nonviolence was the most effective form of protest, he did not condemn those who resorted to riots or outbreaks. While he charges the white man as the African American’s adversary, he explains that it does not encompass the whole white race. Rather, he speaks about the adversarial relationship as something driven by morality (or lack thereof) rather than skin color.  We find ourselves in a political climate where so many things are classified dualistically–one or the other–no negotiation. Each stance is diametrically opposed to the other. We find ourselves in a large, echoing room, screaming over each other so someone will listen to our stance. In King’s words, he unites us to our very core–the only core that matters–the human core.

 

Below, in his speech titled Impasse in Race Relations any reader or listener can hear King’s willingness to approach any problem from all angles. Forgive the long block quotes; it’s rather difficult to convey his message with small excerpts:

“The arresting of the limited forward progress by white resistance revealed the latent racism that was deeply rooted in U.S. society. The short era of widespread goodwill evaporated rapidly. As elation and expectation died, Negroes became more sharply aware that the goal of freedom was still distance and our immediate plight was substantially still an agony of deprivation. In the past decade little had been done for Northern ghettos. All the legislation was designed to remedy Southern conditions–and even these were only partially improved. A sense of futility and frustration spread and choked against the hardened white attitudes.

“Nonviolence as a protest form came under attack as a tactical theory, and Northern Negroes expressed their dismay and hostility in a succession of riots.”

“The decade of 1955-1965 with its constructive elements misled us. Everyone underestimated the amount of violence and rage Negroes were suppressing and the amount of bigotry the white majority was disguising.

“The riots are now in the center of the stage, and are being offered as basis for contradictory positions by whites and Negroes. Some Negroes argue they are the incipient forms of rebellion and guerrilla tactics that will be the feature of the Negro revolt. They are represented as the new stage of Negro struggle replacing the old and allegedly outworn tactic of nonviolent resistance. At the same time some white forces are using riots as evidence that Negroes have no capacity for constructive change and in their lawless behavior forfeit all rights and justify any form of repressive measures. A corollary of this theory is the position that the outbursts are unforgivable, ungrateful, and a menace to the social order.

“I would like to examine both questions: is the guilt for riots exclusively that of Negroes, and are they a natural development to a new stage of struggle?

“A million words will be written and spoken to dissect the ghetto outbreaks, but for a perceptive and vivid expression of culpability I would submit two sentences written a century ago by Victor Hugo:

If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness

“The policy-makers of the white society have caused the darkness: they created discrimination; they created slums; they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance, and poverty. It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes, but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society. When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also declare that the white man does not abide by law in the ghettos. Day in and day out he violated welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he fragrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services. The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society; Negroes live in them, but they do not make them, any more than a prisoner makes a prison.

“Let us say it boldly, that if the total slum violations of law by the white man over the years were calculated and were compared with the lawbreaking of a few days’ riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man.

“In using the term ‘white man’ I am seeking to describe in general terms the Negro’s adversary. It is not meant to encompass all white people. There are millions who have morally risen above prevailing prejudices. They are willing to share power and to accept structural alterations of society even at the cost of traditional privilege. To deny their existence as some ultranationalists do is to deny an evident truth. More than that, it drives away allies who can strengthen our struggle. Their support not only serves to enhance our power, but in breaking from the attitudes of the larger society it splits and weakens our opposition. To develop a sense of black consciousness and peoplehood does not require that we scorn the white race as a whole. It is not the race per se that we fight but the policies and ideology that leaders of that race have formulated to perpetuate oppression” (pp. 6-10).

Throughout the rest of this speech given for the Massey Lecture Series of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, King delineates each part of the race crisis in the United States and the main problems that are perpetuating the injustice practices and ideologies. In a hopeful but firm ending, King charges his listeners to fight for what’s right–that everyone be equal–that everyone who is in a position of privilege use that privilege to help their fellow humans:

“We may now be in only the initial period of an era of change as far-reaching in its consequences as the American Revolution. The developed industrial nations of the world cannot remain secure islands of prosperity in a seething sea of poverty. The storm is rising against the privileged minority of the earth, from which there is no shelter in isolation and armament. The storm will not abate until a just distribution of the fruits of the earth enables man everywhere to live in dignity and human decency. The American Negro in 1967, like Crispus Attucks, may be the vanguard in a prolonged struggle that may change the shape of the world, as billions of deprived shake and transform the earth in their quest for life, freedom, and justice” (18).

The next speech in The Trumpet of Conscience is titled Conscience and the Vietnam War where Dr. King, once again, brings to the forefront not the side that is better, but the moral, human, and compassionate analysis of the issues of violence, war, inequality, injustice, and death and the detriment inflicted on a nation claiming itself to be the land of the free. Speaking to the listener’s nature of “choosing sides,” King directs his charges not to stand on one side or the other, but to dig down to the root of the issue. He explains that while he condemns the war in Vietnam, he is not on the side of North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front nor is he against our soldiers. He states:

“Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I had several reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the build-up in Vietnam, and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demoniacal destructive suction tube. And So I was increasingly compelled to see the war not only as a moral outrage but also as an enemy of the poor, and to attack it as such” (p. 22).

Dr. King goes on to exemplify is observant nature in the ways that he is outraged by the very fundamental rights being denied to those who serve a country in the name of freedom and democracy and justice:

“Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die and in extraordinarily higher proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southwest Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. And so we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. We watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor” (p. 23).
Throughout this wonderful book (and audio recording) of his speeches for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation between November and December of 1967, the reader can become enraged and outraged and angry. But right around the corner is a light shining. It is the hope that Dr. King could always see–the reason that the good fight is a lifelong path–that as long as humans can unite, we have the power to demand what’s right and good. Please check this book out from one of our libraries and listen to this man’s exemplary charges against his fellow humans.

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