Wittenberg Magazine P.O. Box 720 Springfield, Ohio 45501-0720
Phone: (937) 327-6141 Fax: (937) 327-6112
From the Mountaintops of History: Engaging our Past, Envisioning our Future
by Ronald Woods, '69
Ronald Woods presented the following address during the Wittenberg Series’ Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Convocation, Jan. 18, 1999.
The Wittenberg Series’ mission is to provide diverse cultural, intellectual and value-centered programs that enhance both the Wittenberg and Springfield communities.
In the early evening of Thursday, April 4, 1968, just across the drive in a room on the second floor of Myers Hall, I was readying myself for a routine midweek night of study - likely to be punctuated by a brief social break some where along the way.
Over the radio the news came that Martin Luther King Jr. was dead, the victim of an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Tenn.
In the wake of the news I recalled a somewhat frantic series of phone calls and face- to-face encounters as numerous others and I sought to verify whether the reports were true although we really knew that they were.
Yet, we sought to confirm for ourselves what had happened and struggled to contemplate what life would be without King - and all of this within a matter of minutes following the jarring announcement.
A nation soon came to know more, though never quite enough, about what had transpired in the hours and days leading up to Dr. King’s assassination. We became aware that our leader might have had a premonition of his demise.
For as we now know, while speaking from the pulpit of Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn. on the night of April 3, 1968, Dr. King uttered these words:
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 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.
Throughout his public life, Martin Luther King Jr. drew upon the imagery of mountains and mountaintops.
Indeed, both Judeo-Christian tradition and African American religious practice are replete with references to numerous topographical elevations - Mount Carmel, the Mount of Olives, Mount Sinai, the Mount of Transfiguration, the Sermon on the Mount, etc.
Within either the Old or the New Testament of the Holy Bible, each of these is associated with a landmark event in the evolution of Judeo-Christian belief. African American songs of faith embody the concept.
Illustratively, the black gospel tradition repertoire includes such standards as “I’m Climbing Up the Rough of the Mountain, I Must Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand;” “Lord, Don’t Move that Mountain, But Give Me the Strength to Climb;” and “There Must be Hills and Mountains to Climb, Roads That Are Rough and Trouble in Mind, If God Gave Us Everything We Need, Then We Wouldn’t Have Need to Pray.
“ These all speak to mountains as a symbol of the enduring challenge so central to the African existence in the Americas throughout the centuries.
As a civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr. invoked another dimension of this mountain imagery in his succinct, profound and eloquent speech, “ I Have A Dream.”
Rendered on the occasion of the 1963 March on Washington, this address first lays down a premise for the Dream by arguing that America has defaulted on its “promissory note” of rights for black Americans, and has given them “...a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
Dr. King then draws upon his “ I have a dream” refrain to challenge America to loftier heights and ends by invoking the concept of the mountain as a summit for proclaiming the cry of freedom. The words are by now so familiar to the nation and the world:
So let freedom ring, from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Whether as a religious symbol of challenge against the odds, as a metaphor for vicariously experiencing a freedom that would likely be denied to him while living or as a lofty elevation for proclaiming history’s unstoppable journey toward human fulfillment, the imagery of mountains and mountaintops was a central part of the religious, spiritual and political outlook of Martin Luther King Jr.
This imagery, I suggest this morning, is rich with meaning for us today. It allows us to grapple with the questions of where humanity is at this historical moment, where we stand as a nation on the enduring issue of race, and where Wittenberg and the greater Springfield community are on the same.
Further, the metaphor of mountains and mountaintops permits us to explore the practical imperatives before us if we are to live within the legacy and the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr, Today, you see, we are within months - either 11 or 23 depending on the degree of technicality one brings to the matter - of closing out a one thousand-year epoch of human history.
This circumstance gives us the unique opportunity to glance backward and to ascertain what has happened, how has it happened, why has it happened, and what it means for us today.
To answer these questions, we must not merely acknowledge casually the marching on of time. Rather we must engage our history, confront it, question it, and take the intellectual measure of it.
We must accept the cultural risks, if you will, that are necessary to establish as best we can historical truth. We must then reconcile ourselves to our history and all of its implications.
Through this process of engagement, of assaying from whence humanity has come in the last one thousand years, we can then focus our glance forward and envision where we, humanity on the watch at the outset of the next one thousand, must head.
As we contemplate how to operationalize the Dream held by Dr. King and shared by millions of others, we must appreciate that we are not left to flounder in a swirling sea of ideologies and world views.
Rather, there is an answer to the shape, the particulars, the specifics of the Dream. History has identified the challenge, and in doing so has scripted the outlines of the future.
That future calls upon us to apply our intellect, our discipline and our humanity to discerning those outlines. We are graced with a unique vantage point from whence to undertake that task.
For we are at the point where two millennia converge, one just concluding, the other yet to begin. Like two unstoppable, massive geologic plates on a course to occupy the same space in time, the past and the future now confront one another and create out of their energy and force topographical heights not known before.
They present to us a summit on the mountaintops of history. I thus invite us to reflect collectively, as a community, a Beloved Community, on the subject, “ From the Mountaintops of History: Engaging our Past, Envisioning our Future.”
Our journey of engagement from our perch above history this morning will take us over a chronologically broad and topically differentiated terrain.
During the next few minutes, let us pause for three sojourns of the mind, three brief stops on the road toward envisioning our future of justice, and empowerment and peace.
First, we pause to place this journey into context and to argue that the framework of universal history must inform our work on behalf of the future.
Secondly, we stop to consider the way in which needed societal reform continues to be confounded by deeply held, historically rooted mindsets and behaviors that preserve traditional patterns of power and privilege in America.
Thirdly, we look in a brief but targeted way at a contemporary public policy question, which highlights the challenge of engaging and reconciling ourselves to our history - impeachment.
Though each of these sojourns is distinct in the particulars that define them, our view from the summit of history will allow us to see them as part of the whole cloth of humanity throughout time.
THE CONTEXT OF HISTORY
African American history, a most recent phase of which is the Modern Civil Rights Movement, is a facet of the larger history of humankind.
Our awareness of this history must inform our work today on behalf of the King legacy just as Dr. King’s historical consciousness was at the base of his social and political activism.
Although known as a preacher, theologian, social visionary and human rights advocate, etc., Martin Luther King Jr. was also an astute student of the past.
His most well known addresses and writings are grounded in history. Illustratively, “I Have a Dream” is in many ways a lesson in the history of constitutional development, federalism, race relations and social movements.
King here traces the claim for black rights through the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Emancipation Proclamation, brings into focus the southern segregationist states rights arguments on interposition and nullification, identifies legal disabilities characterizing the status of African Americans as of 1963, and analyzes the “marvelous new militancy,” which has engulfed the Negro community.
In his 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” King turns to history to explain why, after more than 340 years, African Americans have a “legitimate and unavoidable impatience” with the snail’s pace of racial reform in America.
Further, in what would be his last Sunday sermon, delivered on March 31, 1968 at National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King used history to respond to a line of criticism, then a relatively new point of argument but now a full blown fixture of racial debate, against governmental oversight and financial funding.
Arguing against the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps “ critique, King skillfully marshaled the facts of history to delineate the difference between African Americans as enslaved persons and other ethnic groups who arrived as voluntary immigrants.
He used the record of the past to demonstrate how the nation, in its land policies was “... willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor,” while failing to do anything for African Americans other than to proclaim them free.
Moreover, a comparative and global perspective informed Martin Luther King’s consciousness of history. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” for instance, Dr. King asserted that the African American, along with “...his black brothers of Africa, and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean...is moving with a sense of cosmic urgency toward the promised land of racial justice.”
Finally, his mountaintop address on the eve of his death captured Dr. King’s sense of history as he took a mental flight over the great occurrences and epochs of human history, before choosing the contemporary struggle for black rights in general, and those of sanitation workers in Memphis in particular, as his place and time for his won encounter with history.
The historical orientation of Martin Luther King is a model for the way we must approach the task of constructing an agenda of social transformation for our future.
That agenda must be rooted in the historical particulars of the African American and American experience and must recognize that this particular facet of history is linked to the broader body of universal history.
Thus, in looking back from our mountaintop vista, we must extend our field of vision beyond the 16th century and the advent of the Atlantic slave trade, and must embrace in our inquiry a range of issues of which race is only one.
Race today, along with questions of ethnic, religious, economic, social and political marginality of various sorts is part of what Dr. King called “a great struggle for human freedom within the framework of a democratic society.”
Hence although he recognized that “racism can be the corrosive evil that brings down the curtain on Western Civilization,” he also saw race as a bellwether issue of how well we would grapple with other problems of comparable complexity and sort today.
On both a domestic and global scale, the defining challenge for our time and the immediate future will be eliminating operating inequalities of structure, power and access.
These matters have tentacles that reach far back into the millennium and long history of Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas in interaction with one another.
That interaction has produced a historical palate upon which the macro dynamics of this millennium have taken unfolded.
These dynamics are several and include such items as the rise of the nation state, the proliferation of technology, the shift from status to contract as a theme of labor and social relations, the emergence of capitalism, the dialectics between the state and individual and the evolution of sometimes contradictory notions of democracy, equality and freedom.
Race is today is microcosm of all these dynamics. Embracing this history as a necessary step for shaping a viable tomorrow requires that we recognize, as Dr. King did, the interconnectedness of it all. It requires that we be willing, as Dr. King was, to confront its contradictions.
It requires that we have the courage, as Dr. King did, to reconcile ourselves to that history and its implications for our actions today. As a case in point, we turn briefly to the notion of freedom.
Freedom as a driving force for human migrations, political revolutions, and the building of social and economic institutions is a central theme of this millennium. In this timeframe, however, freedom has often been a concept at war with itself.
For example, while presenting Articles of Impeachment against the President of the United States in the House of Representatives, Congressman Henry Hyde of Illinois invoked the Magna Carta.
Signed in 1215 by King John of England in Runnymeade Meadow as a formal articulation of rights owing to the people of England, the Great Charter is routinely seen as a foundation stone for the concept of rights in the United States.
This document, Hyde noted, was designed to ensure that the English would never again be slaves. Within four and one half centuries, however, English history will in effect belie that commitment to a culture of freedom.
With a legal justification eclectically derived from ancient classical European history and the more recent settlement and conquest experiences of the Spanish and Portuguese, the English had begun the process of expropriating the land of the Native American on the North American mainland.
In addition, through law and social and commercial practice, the English had begun institutionalizing on this terrain and throughout the Western Hemisphere the inhumane and criminal system of African-based chattel slavery.
Further, they will in time refine the techniques of slave acquisition, transatlantic shipment and sale to a commercial art form.
In the name of freedom, the English will thus claim to be justified in their ownership and subordination of other racially and culturally distinct people.
In the name of freedom, they will construct a social order, a sine qua non of which will be African and Native American debasement.
In the name of freedom, descendants of the English will defend policies of racial segregation and exclusion in the United States up to this very moment.
The story of freedom in the Western world is but a segment of a larger saga whose complexities and contradictions we have barely begun to acknowledge much less address.
Achieving a historical consciousness that grows out of the soil of this millennial chapter just ending will challenge us to confront orthodoxies and suppositions.
That confrontation will at points require a frank remolding of the base of knowledge upon which our social order is constructed.
In this first sojourn, the logic of history challenges us, as it challenged Martin Luther King, to ground ourselves in the rudiments of universal and domestic history so that we may be better equipped to take advantage of the perch we now occupy above that history.
THE RACIAL SUPPOSITIONS OF OUR SOCIETAL ORDER
Our second momentary stop on this journey of engagement asks us to reflect on the tendency of patterns of subordination to perpetuate themselves even in periods of racial enlightenment.
As a society we have come a considerable distance in eliminating race as a factor in the quest for access, position and power in America. We are, however, still moving up that proverbial “rough side of the mountain” in this country.
Due to the forces of history and the Modern Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, we have reconciled ourselves theoretically to the proposition that all are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.
Yet, we have not as a nation been able to translate that theoretical acknowledgment into practical operating norms for a more just and empowering society. The indicators that deep and long running racial inequities remain with us are many.
Statistics bear out the stark racial disparities that exist in virtually every phase of our criminal justice system.
Although white preference has been thoroughly infused into the structures and institutions of this society for generation, we witness today the efforts by courts and legislatures to limits racial considerations as a corrective to this reality and observe how the gates of access to American higher education are narrowing as a consequence.
The data show that the expected life span for African Americans is less than that for white Americans and that the incidence of potentially life threatening diseases is higher for blacks than for whites.
Findings reveal that patterns of discriminatory treatment toward African Americans and other minorities exist vis-a-vis various state and/or federal agencies. We are able to chart an increase in the level and the intensity of hate crimes against blacks.
In this regard, the lynching and beheading of a James Byrd on the back roads of southeast Texas remind us that black life is an expendable commodity for some.
This selective charting of race in American today argues strongly that we have failed to launch a sufficiently aggressive full assault on historical patterns of subordination in this nation. This too is part of our calling to an engagement with our history.
Why, after so many enactments, commissions, policies and the like during and since the era of Martin Luther King Jr. are we unable to see greater progress in racial matters?
In engaging this history, confronting it, and assessing it in a no-holds-barred manner, we might well conclude that the problem is a stubborn sense of white privilege.
Called by a variety of other terms over the course of our history - white racism, racial hegemony, the arrogance of race, white superiority, the precept of black inferiority and the “ divine white power concept” - this privilege may be subconsciously held.
Yet, like a solid oak tree that may be chopped down at its base, its roots, nurtured over centuries, wrap themselves around American institutions, structures and mindsets and give it continuing influence long after we have declared the phenomenon of American racism dead.
White privilege exists when a Caucasian male, subsequently convicted of the nation’s most costly act of domestic terrorism, almost escapes detection because authorities have focused their efforts on a profile fitting person of color or of foreign descent.
White privilege exists when white militia groups are able to push the envelope of their activities far beyond the point where blacks groups engaged in the same would have long since been subject to criminal prosecution.
White privilege exists when a white family can make a decision about summer car trip to New Orleans or Dallas based on the standard questions of cost, distance, etc. while a black family must calculate in addition whether anyone of them in the car might suffer the fate of James Byrd.
White privilege exists when predominantly white colleges or universities respond to race concerns only if students of color become disgruntled, or the larger African American or Latino/Latina community raises a question, or minority staff persons or faculty members advance the issue to an institutional level.
White privilege exists when representatives of groups of who benefited from this nation’s oldest racial preference program - white racism - become zealots in the effort to block race sensitive programs employed to break the cycle of white preference.
White privilege exists when groups that a generation ago opposed, on grounds of political philosophy, governmental measures to desegregate American life now represent themselves in today’s affirmative action debate as the true defenders of a colorblind society.
White privilege exists when the door of opportunity opens as a white American approaches, while all others in our diverse society must place a hand on the knob, turn it and, more often than not, apply a nudge. White privilege.
In a 1965 interview, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to this dogged persistence of our racial dilemma. “The concept of supremacy,” he said, “is so embedded in the whitesamr society that it will take many years for color to cease to be a judgmental factor.”
Dr. King offered this prediction at a point when the majority of civil rights reforms of that era had already been enacted; he was addressing realm beyond law, policy and public practice.
He was speaking to the ethos of entitlement and privilege, which had been systematically nurtured for more than four centuries in the Western hemispheric Caucasian mindset.
This may in fact be the most wrenching of the problems associated with race that we will confront. For not even an expressed belief in racial equality or in “colorblindness” has allowed our society to put these operating norms of privilege and arrogance to rest.
Indeed, the fact that these two notions have co-existed frames for us a central paradox of America - the nation’s capacity to balance both the ideology of whiteness with its sense of itself as the world’s grand experiment in democracy and equality.
The 1896 Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which gives us the doctrine of separate but equal against which Dr. King fought during his life, also provides us insight into this paradox.
Although the majority of the Court ruled that Louisiana could constitutionally require Homer Plessy and other persons of color sit in railroad cars designated for their race, Associate Justice Harlan stood alone in dissenting from the ruling.
In a now often quoted phrase, Harlan opined that “our Constitution is color-blind.” However, he prefaced this belief in colorblind citizenship with the following words: dominant race in this country.
And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its great heritage and holds fast to the principles of Constitutional liberty.
In essence, the Harlan dissent is a candid expression of the view that by theory and legal obligation we are required to act in one way but that by a natural social order there are certain innate, superior qualities associated with being white in America.
Linked to these qualities is a corresponding set of privileges, which Harlan believed would exist “for all time.” A century later, this statement seems to capture the suppositions reflected much that occurs in America.
We confront at this moment the task of reconciling ourselves to a difficult set of historical facts framed by the Plessy dissent. We have endorsed the theory of racial equality and undertaken meaningful but modest reforms in pursuit of it.
We have failed, however, to challenge the gestalt of white arrogance in its institutional, systemic and structural forms.
We thus come to the brink of major societal transformation only to retreat to the zones of comfort where power alignments remain static or undergo only such change as is needed to ensure a continuation of power, albeit in another form.
Thus, our journey of engagement with the past from this point of convergence of history and the future calls upon us to confront this deeply imbedded cultural and political assumption.
HISTORICAL CONSCIOUSNESS AND PUBLIC POLICY
Our last stop along this journey of the mind this morning brings us to a specific law and policy issue.
This issue calls forth themes present in the prior two sojourns and illuminates, I will argue, what occurs when history is invoked incorrectly, and when historical consciousness rests in a shallow and selective reading of the past.
Here, we offer an interpretive look at impeachment and explore the capacity of this issue to sharpen our focus on the life and legacy of Dr. King.
While major political debates such as impeachment are, on one level, composites of narrowly drawn legal and political considerations, on another they are lenses, which reveal the depth and quality of our historical consciousness and the nature of the premises, guiding our work as a body politic.
The current impeachment proceedings against William Jefferson Clinton reflect, I will argue, the extent to which the historical drama of African Americans has been marginalized in the mindset of the larger America.
They demonstrate further the tendency of the American cultural dynamic to distort history by extracting from the nation’s political-historical consciousness the record of its subordination of blacks.
This tendency, if not addressed as a part of our work at this moment, will leave us incapable of envisioning a future that will reconcile our differences about race and that will leave us a socially transformed society.
For the record, I endorse the view that the actions of Mr. Clinton are outrageous and stupid but that they do not rise to the level of impeachable offenses, that mechanisms outside of the impeachment process exist to ensure that the rule of law is upheld, and that the proceedings portend a dangerous shift toward a parliamentary form of government in which the vicissitudes of politics midstream into an elected term of office can force a change in political leadership.
The entry point for my analysis, however, focuses on one question: In the history of presidential deeds and misdeeds, do the actions of President Clinton place him in the top echelon of violators of his oath of office as measured by subversion of the rule of law, trauma to the national compact, danger to our constitutional system, damage to the institution of the presidency or undermining of our concepts of civil rights?
In other words, if impeachment represents the most severe action that the political and legal structure can take against a president of the United States, does the record of Mr. Clinton argue that he has done more than any other occupant of the office, save one, to warrant impeachment?
In answering this question as part of our inquiry this morning - engaging the past, envisioning the future - I will not look into such evidence rich areas as sexual indiscretions of American presidents, official lies designed to allow policy initiatives to move forward or the use of presidential authority to achieve given objectives questionable under the law.
I will limit my field of historical data to race and presidential policies so that we can ascertain whether or not our political and legal culture historically values racial politics any differently than it does other categories of politics.
A brief, non-exhaustive, recounting of the history of presidential deeds and misdeeds regarding race would establish:
• That a short list of American presidents, among them Washington and Jefferson, endorsed the international traffic in human beings, a practice protected by American law until the year 1808, but viewed from the standpoint of moral law to be contrary to God’s law;
• That a several American presidents were owners of slaves and otherwise were endorsers of the practice of chattel slavery. Despite the technical legality of such ownership within certain states of the Union until the 1860s, operative elements of this practice included a reliance upon psychological and physical torture, forced permanent separation of family members from one another, rape as a tool of enforcing power relationships and discipline on the plantation, and a systematic war against the mental and physical development of infants and children;
• That at least one American President, Thomas Jefferson, may have been a rapist if we consider that DNA evidence now establishes that he fathered a child by a slave woman, Sally Hemmings, and that as his property, she lacked the power and the free will to form a consensual relationship, particularly if the evidence is correct that their, however designated, relationship was said to have begun when she was an adolescent;
• That one American president, Rutherford B. Hayes, in return for Congressional political support needed to ensure his selection as President in the disputed election of 1876, called for the removal of federal troops from the South, and effectively bargained away the rights of African Americans to federal protection under the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution;
• That despite an epidemic of racial lynchings and terrorism in this nation during the post-Reconstruction era and well into the 20th century, a series of American presidents offered at best lip service to the cause of black rights and rejected even moderate forms of federal intervention to address the problem. This presidentially endorsed policy of malign neglect signaled to the nation that black life was worth less than white life, established that racial politics and policy were to be subordinated to more important aspects of national policy and contributed to a subversion of the rule of law.
• That whether it was the killing of Paul Reed and Will Cato, burned alive in Statesboro, Ga. in 1904, the 1934 death of Claude Neal, Marianna, Fla., killed after 10 hours of torture including castration, the 1955 death of the 14-year-old Chicago youth Emmett Till in 1955 in Money, Miss., the 1904 death of the black man known simply as Dixon, who was killed in the doorway of the Springfield, Ohio city jail, and whose bullet-riddled body was hung on the commons in the downtown portion of the city, or the thousands of other lynchings documented in this era, the dereliction of constitutional duty by American presidents was casually linked to the nation’s undeclared war on black life. Moreover, presidential reticence and inaction on the racially inspired decimation of black communities such as Rosewood, Fla., or urban race riots such as those in East St. Louis and Chicago, Ill., Detroit, Mich. and Harlem during the first half of this century was tantamount to an undermining of the concept of civil rights for all Americans;
• That a succession of American presidents, as Commanders-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces endorsed policies of racial segregation in the military, thereby limiting the opportunity for the cultivation of military leadership among blacks, demoralizing black troops, and consequently hampering the ability of the American military to maximize its potential in battle;
• That during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, a series of American presidents, presidential advisers and/or appointees endorsed surveillance of the civil rights movement and its leadership, including Martin Luther King Jr., resisted entreaties from the movement for more aggressive intervention to curb violence against black and white rights workers, and/or handled its informers in ways that may have exposed rights workers to violence, and in at least one instance, that of Viola Liuzzo, may have failed to take actions that could have prevented her death.
Against this recounting of only a fraction of the history of race and presidential policy, we ask whether adultery within the White House, lying to cover it up and possibly enlisting the support of others to help prevent public disclosure of the behavior is a more egregious assault on our system of government than the rape of African American women, the lynching of black men, the selling of black life, the traumatizing and psychological damaging of black children.
My answer, I trust our answer, is that there is no moral equation between sex indiscretions and perjury, and the systematic debasement and subordination of black life, which has been aided and abetted by a succession of American presidents.
The fact that those advocating the cause of impeachment advance their case as the ultimate challenge to the rule of law means either that they are cynically misrepresenting it for political gain, or that they do not know, or choose to disregard, the tragic historical saga of race and the American presidency.
If it is ignorance of the record, then a massive educational assault is needed. If it is a disregarding of the record, then we, as a nation must confront, why yet again we are failing to engage the operating realities of our history.
Most directly, it seems to me, we fail to engage those realities because to do so requires that we confront troubling truths about our history, examine contradictions and hypocrisies, reconstruct in major ways the story of America, reject whiteness as the reference norm, and put aside the comfort of white privilege and power.
Engaging these realities requires that we begin entertaining the imperative of societal transformation and that we begin the task of empowering both the self and the other, a central them of the work of Dr. King.
As a defining public policy issue in the nation’s history, the impeachment controversy can tell us volumes about ourselves. Most salient for our purposes is that it demonstrates the need for a much more empirically rooted, inclusive sense of national history — a sine qua non of the transition to the transformative social order envisioned by Dr. King.
But on that evening of April 3, 1968, as he stood on that promontory of the present looking into the future, he harkened back to the past.
For recall that his fateful last public address begins with a panoramic flight of the mind over the millennia of human history.Were the Almighty he said, to ask him to select the age in which he would choose to live, Martin Luther King responded that he would journey through time and pause to take note of the historic episodes and epochs before him.
He would pass, he observed, through ancient Egypt, the grandeur of Greece and Rome, the cultural richness of the Renaissance, and would stop momentarily as his namesake, Martin Luther, nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg.
He would pass onto the watershed period of the Civil War and Reconstruction in the great political experiment that was America, and onto the challenges that nation confronted in the era of the Depression and the New Deal.
Yet at each sojourn, if you will, he said, “ But I wouldn’t stop there.” Finally, he stated, he would turn to the Almighty and say, “ If you will allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy. “
Martin Luther King Jr.’s answer to this hypothetical proposition was something more than mere resignation to one’s placement in the grand scheme of human history.
Rather, it was an affirmation that history and human progress were joined, that history gives to each successive generation a unique set of challenges, which, if met, would move humanity closer to a sense of oneness and fulfillment.
Informed by his sense of history, Martin Luther King recognized that the winds of social, political and economic change sweeping the entire world in the era of domestic racial reform and global decolonization created the promise of a world community linked ultimately by the bonds of spiritual cohesion for the first time in human history.
Thus, his “choice” of the historical era in which to live was rooted in the unparalleled promise of the present.
It was his engagement with history from the summit of time that allowed him to see the present for what it was, and ultimately to envision the future.
The task before us today, as members of a greater Wittenberg and Springfield community, is to bring into being a future predicated on our sense of the past and worthy of the unparalleled promise of the present.
The momentum of history alone, however, will not be adequate to build that future. As Dr. King stated in his sermon entitled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution:”
Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God.
And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.
Before us is a challenge of truth and reconciliation, which must be met if the “primitive forces of social stagnation,” or of the status quo are to be held in check.
Just as South Africa has wrestled under its Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the work of fashioning a future society through a frank and often painful engagement with its past, we today must also take up the same.
As an institution of liberal learning melded together by a belief in character development and intellectual growth, Wittenberg is positioned to make that foray into the future if we would, with courage and at some risk, engage and reconcile ourselves to our past and chart out a worthy future.
As a greater Springfield community, diverse in class, culture, race, ethnicity and religion, we can exit this century on a far higher plane than was the racial status quo with which it began.
As an African American people, we can draw strength from the indomitable spirit that characterizes our history and challenge ourselves to reign in features that retard rather than advance our march toward empowerment.
As a nation, we must resolve the contradictions around questions of power and freedom, confront and reconcile ourselves to the competing tendencies that constitute America, and rise above the negative racial dynamics of our birth.
As a world, we must in the next epoch, work to reduce the structural inequalities, which are today the most visible results of the aggrandizement of one part of the human family at the expense of another.
In 1956, at the outset of his public career, Martin Luther King Jr. offered a pastoral prayer that embodied that linkage between past and present:
The bright hope of the future is the beloved community, in which we will have moved beyond ending the practices of exclusion, beyond inclusion in the realms of politics, economics and social discourse, and toward the realm of spiritual conceitedness.
This is the world where all human dignity and life are validated, and spiritual wholeness is affirmed. Somewhere this evening on the Wittenberg campus, a student will ready herself or himself for an evening of study - likely to be punctuated by a social break along the way.
The relative calm of this evening may not be shattered by events as tumultuous as those that reverberated around the world on April 3, 1968.
Yet, this evening as for many evenings to come, the silent but powerful forces of history - past, present, and future - will be moving in our world.
The task for each of us is to grasp the essence of this history, and seek a future that is transformative and empowering for all.
Perched above the mountaintops of time, we can draw today upon the charted domains of the past, and the as yet uncharted visions for the future.
This vast continuum stretching from the past, through the present and into the future represents the energy of humanity Harnessed over time. We can bring unto ourselves the beams of energy of this vast continuum of history.
With that physical and spiritual force, that which Dr. King called soul force, we can be beacons of light. Having that light we can, we must, pass it on to others in the quest for the Beloved Community.
Ron Woods received his J.D. from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and has developed a highly respected, nationally recognized program for African American Studies at Eastern Michigan University.
He currently serves as chair of the Academic Affairs Committee on Curriculum Diversity at Eastern Michigan University.
Copyright © 1999 by Ronald Woods
Wittenberg Magazine P.O. Box 720 Springfield, Ohio 45501-0720
Phone: (937) 327-6141 Fax: (937) 327-6112