At 6:01 P.M. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., America’s most inconvenient hero, died on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. Just the day before he had stood before an audience and declared that “ I may not get there with you, but I want you to know, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.”
King declared these great words of hope in the midst of great personal despair. He was physically ill that night when he was speaking in Memphis where he had come to support the sanitation workers strike. He had suffered many bouts of depression as he watched the work become more challenging and as he continued to battle with the inevitability of his own death. Michael Eric Dyson says, “ he ate, drank and slept death. He danced with it, he preached it, and he stared it down. He looked for ways to lay it aside, this burden of his own mortality, but ultimately knew that his unwavering insistence on a nonviolent end to the mistreatment of his people could only end violently.”
Forty-eight years after that fateful day on that Memphis hotel balcony we find ourselves left to ponder where we are in that journey to the Promised Land. King was looking at this journey through the religious lens with which he viewed everything. He told us in every way that is possible that in the final analysis he was a preacher. But he had a clear understanding of what it meant to follow Jesus, the Liberator. Just as Jesus’ path led him to the cross, King knew that his path would lead to death. Of course this should come as no surprise to anyone who dares to follow a path that is designed to set the captive free. Those who hold others as captives will not willingly relinquish their hold without resistance and those who are designated as leaders of liberation struggles are the first to be targeted for death. Captors continue to believe that the dream of freedom can be stopped by killing the leader of such a movement.
Forty-eight years later, what can those of us who are left behind say about this inconvenient hero’s journey? Some believe that having elected President Barack Obama is evidence of our arrival to the Promised Land, but those of us are awake know better. Others believe that having a chance to sit on America’s corporate boards and to be allowed tiny glimpses into the upper rooms of corporate power mean that we have arrived to the Promised Land. But those of us who walk among the masses know better. We know that we cannot be seduced by the window dressing of a few elected officials including a president and fewer corporate board memberships which benefit a small group of people for short periods of time. King lived and died for the masses to be free. He lived and died for authentic liberation. He was not striving for the whimsical freedom that comes when a few white people decide to share their white skin privilege with a selected group of people of color in order to appear as if they have an interest in all people being free when nothing could be further from the truth.
Forty-eight years later we are allowing ourselves to celebrate a sanitized King who does not make us as uncomfortable as we should be that we have lost ground since his death instead of getting closer to the Promised Land. The land that God has chosen. Where is it? How do we get there? Unfortunately the same way that King did, by laying down our lives for our sisters and brothers.
Perhaps this year as we think of King’s life and death, we can reflect upon whether or not we are willing to lay down our lives in search of the Promised Land. Are we willing to stand up against the seductive forces of materialism and false expressions of power? Are we willing to visit our brothers and sisters in prison, to resist the violence against the poor, to hold elected officials accountable and to work to unseat the ones who do not represent all of the people?
The Promised Land that King envisioned is a place where all of God’s Children can be free. Do we really want to go there?