A couple years ago, we visited the Lorraine Motel while camping near Memphis. The site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination is now the National Civil Rights Museum, with exhibits that trace the Civil Rights Movement in America from the 17th century to the present. On this MLK Day, as we enjoy the final few hours of our long weekend camp-out, we’ve been remembering Dr. King and reflecting on his legacy.
When Jon turned 35, he noted to friends that he hadn’t really achieved much in life, especially considering that Martin Luther King Jr. had, by that age, received the Nobel Peace Prize. They reminded him that King had also died before the age of 40.
True enough. In the last speech of his life, Dr. King said “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place.”
Now that we’re in our mid-50s, we’re more appreciative than ever before that longevity has had a place in our own lives. More than recognition or achievement, we treasure the time we have together.
The legendary American ballerina Suzanne Farrell once said “Nothing is born with all its plumage—you grow into your feathers.” The older we get, the more we understand the virtue of patience as we grow into our feathers, increasingly aware that the task and the thrill of loving each other is a lifelong process with unpredictable challenges.
Tucked away inside Dr. King’s briefcase in the Lorraine Motel’s room 306 was the title of his next sermon. He hadn’t written anything more than the title, “Why America May Go to Hell,” so we’ll never really know what he intended to say. But considering his focus, at the end of his life, on economic justice, it’s not hard to imagine. By 1968, he envisioned a change in America that was more revolutionary than mere reform. Citing the systematic flaws of “racism, poverty, militarism and materialism,” Dr. King argued that “reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.” He felt that Congress had shown “hostility to the poor” by investing so much in the nation’s military might.
Dr. King went to Memphis in April 1968 to support sanitation workers who had been on strike for nearly a month demanding higher wages and better treatment. Because Jon’s own father worked the last dozen years of his life as a sanitation worker, Jon not only has a personal connection with public workers, but also an understanding of the conditions they faced at that time. Working the trash route was hard work, and it had to be carried out regardless of the weather. In those days, trash containers were industrial-style metal cans, and they had to be lifted and emptied by hand into the back of the truck. It was backbreaking labor, and Jon’s father, who was then in his mid-50s, came home at the end of the workday completely exhausted.
More than 50 years after Dr. King was assassinated, America is still struggling with economic and social disparities, as we’ve seen the unequal distribution of wealth, income and opportunity only get worse. What might he have thought of our current situation, when a person can work a full-time job at the current federal minimum wage and still be impoverished? What would he have said about our ongoing housing crisis, when so many hard-working teachers and first responders and public workers are simply unable to afford a place to live in a decent neighborhood? What might he have done about fact that so many people are priced out of a higher education and, as a result, denied the opportunity to improve their lives? What would this icon of nonviolence said about the rancorous public discourse that has come to dominate America’s politics and mired our nation in seemingly intractable conflicts?
“America may go to hell.”