When you want to get to the heart of something, count on Worcester, a city whose diversity, politics and practicality mirror our nation. Case in point: The views of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Do Americans today still subscribe to King’s nonviolence, and his vision in which each of us is to be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character? Or has King’s vision been pushed aside by more militant forms of activism? Was King a liberal or a conservative? Would he endorse the views and methods of the Black Lives Matter movement?
There are no easy answers, but those seeking a clearer picture of King have another resource in the rediscovery of recordings of his March 12, 1961, address at Worcester’s Temple Emanuel.
The hour-long talk, followed by an hour of questions and answers, was part of the Temple Forum series held between 1959 and 1962, and was broadcast by radio station WTAG the day after the speech.
By March 12, 1961, the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka had led to widespread desegregation of public schools. The Peace Corps had been established by President John F. Kennedy just weeks earlier. The ratification of the 23rd Amendment, extending the right to vote to residents of the predominantly black District of Columbia would take place just weeks later.
“No one has represented the higher conscience of the American people more than Martin Luther King,” Rabbi Joseph Klein said in introducing King. “For his battles have been the battles of all fair-minded people, of all Americans who believe in justice and decency and goodness. He is indeed the conscience of our nation.”
King certainly did not disappoint.
His words that night serve both as a capsule history of the civil rights movement in the United States, and a fair assessment of the progress made and the distance yet to go. King rejected both the extreme optimism which held that the problem of race in America was solved by 1961, and the extreme pessimism according to which it could never be solved.
His assertion that the nation had certainly come a long, long way, had to be tempered by the recognition that the resurgence of the KKK, the birth of white citizens councils, and “the presence of federal troops in Little Rock, Arkansas” showed there was still a long, long way to go.
Such balance and realism are as important today as they were in 1961.
But the distinctively religious — and specifically Christian — aspect of King’s remarks that evening should also be emphasized. King rejected too-literal interpretations of the Bible that might be used to “crystallize the status quo,” yet urged his audience to remember that “… the Negro came to feel that he was somebody … religion revealed to him that God loves all his children and that all men are made in his image, and that the basic thing about a man is not his specificity, but his fundamentum …”
Some today are disappointed in King, reject the nonviolent methods he advocated, or attempt to reshape him as more radical than he was.
Make no mistake, King was a radical, but not because he drew the attention of the FBI, or was accused of having Communist leanings. He was radical because he called upon Americans, including those in government, to act in accordance with our truest national and religious traditions.
“Discrimination must be uprooted from our society because it is against all of the noble precepts of our Judeo-Christian heritage,” King declared during his Worcester speech.
Some today who profess admiration for King may wish to set aside the religious component of his thought, deeming it divisive or unpalatable, either because ours seems to be an increasingly secular age, or because of what we know were moral imperfections in King’s personal life. And there is the familiar argument that we humans can do perfectly well without God or a sense of the transcendent.
King would not have agreed. His radicalism is rooted in his faith. To pretend otherwise is to distort history, and religious values should be part of any dialogue that invokes his name.
“No greater tragedy can befall a community than this tragedy of seeking to live in monologue,” King told his Worcester audience that March night. He appealed for dialogue between black and white, North and South, rich and poor, Christian and Jew, liberal and conservative.
King was right in 1961. He’s still right in 2018.
Chris Sinacola is a Worcester Sun columnist. His observations on politics, current events, history and more appear online every week. Chris will also be regularly featured in Worcester Sun’s weekly print edition, on newsstands Saturday morning.