This man is a voice for all ages and all seasons. Sadly, most people have probably never heard of this great civil rights leader. Vincent Harding wrote speeches for Martin Luther King Jr. and was one of his closest friends. But, he doesn’t live in the past. He is teaching new generations about the lessons of that time — and how those lessons can repair divisions in America today. He finds hope in young people today and says they are his answer to the question that drives him: “Is America possible?”
The Day Martin Luther King Spoke to Me as a Failed Man
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Rarely are larger-than-life historical figures relatable as human beings. For me, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a character of history books and film strips. A man to be admired for his empowering speeches and his inspirational marches. Although I knew he was a towering preacher, a man of God, I never thought of him as a person wrestling with his own weaknesses, grappling with his own frailties and contradictions.
That is, until I heard this part of his “Unfulfilled Dreams” sermon (audio above) given in the final months of his life:
“The question I want to raise this morning with you: Is your heart right? If your heart isn’t right, fix it up today. Get God to fix it up. Get somebody to be able to say about you, “He may not have reached the highest height, he may not have realized all of his dreams, but he tried.” Isn’t that a wonderful thing for somebody to say about you? “He tried to be a good man. He tried to be a just man. He tried to be an honest man. His heart was in the right place.” And I can hear a voice saying, crying out through the eternities, “I accept you. You are the recipient of my grace because it was in your heart! And it is so well that it was within thine heart.”
I don’t know this morning about you, but I can make a testimony. You don’t need to go out this morning saying that Martin Luther King is a saint. Oh, no. I want you to know this morning that I’m a sinner like all of God’s children! But I want to be a good man! And I want to hear a voice saying to me one day, “I take you in and I bless you, because you try. It is well that it was within thine heart.” What’s in your heart this morning? If you get your heart right.”
For a man without religious convictions or a spiritual mooring, I heard a sermon in that moment that spoke to my own vulnerabilities as a husband and a father, as a son and a friend. And he does it in the most honest way: by asking, at least in my hearing, for understanding and forgiveness from his congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church — the church his father founded — in Atlanta, Georgia.
You see, I’ve never been all that comfortable with the language of sin. It’s often wielded as weapon in one’s quest for a supernatural resting place. So often this language strips a man of his dignity, makes him feel small, inconsequential, a cog in a nasty machine.
But Dr. King in this sermon elevates the human spirit by making himself vulnerable. The language of sin is human frailty united with goodness and desire. We long to be more than we are, and stumble many times along the way. Dr. King expresses that goodness and frailty inside all of us. He points the finger at himself. He holds my hand and says come walk beside me and take stock of your life. He tells me not to shrink but to acknowledge, repent, and stride forward. He lets me know that being one of the fallen is to be a divine creature. He lets me know that striving to be a good man, a good father, a good husband, is part of the journey — that one’s quest to be more than his basest self is redeeming, and flawed.
Dr. King’s context was the 60s and civil rights. You hear a gentle leader at his most prescient; he would be killed a month later in Memphis, Tennessee. The tension and anxiety in this sermon are palpable, thick with a foreboding awareness that his life’s work would be coming to an end.
His legacy today endures in so many ways. But, for me, it’s the preacher in the pulpit who called me back to my own humanity, rescuing me from abject despair. In that moment one spring night several years ago, he reminded me, “It’s alright. Keep on trying.” I want to be a good man.
Our colleagues next door at American RadioWorks just released a riveting documentary about the last year of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life.
Change Happens on the Margins: Moses Wright and the Dawn of the Civil Rights Movement
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
“I think that change comes about at the margins. I’ve always believed that. People in the center are not going to be the big change makers. You’ve got to put yourself at the margins and be willing to risk in order to make change.”
Today, on Martin Luther King Day, we’re wrapping up a new show with Frances Kissling, a vocal leader in the public conversation about abortion for over three decades. Her belief that change comes about at the margins reminds me of Moses (Mose) Wright, a Mississippi minister and sharecropper whose personal act of bravery sowed the roots of what would become a burgeoning civil rights struggle in the South.
Wright is best-remembered as the great uncle of Emmett Till, a 14-year old boy from Chicago who was viciously beaten and murdered in Mississippi during the summer of 1955 by two white men for allegedly talking to a white woman. Wright testified in court and publicly identified the defendants, with two simple words “Dar he.” (“There he is.”) At that time, Wright assumed great personal risk by bucking social conventions codified by segregation. Newspaper accounts of the day took note of remarkable actions. His life was threatened but he did not back down.
After the trial (the two men were acquitted and later admitted to the murder), Wright left Mississippi for Chicago, vowing never to return. While his personal act of dignified bravery didn’t affect the trial’s final outcome, he demonstrated that the tacit rules of segregation could be questioned.
To commemorate Martin Luther King Day and learn more about Mose Wright’s heroism and the role of Emmett Till’s murder in galvanizing what was then a civil rights movement still in its infancy, watch this excerpt from the award-winning series, Eyes on the Prize.
“I Tried to Be a Good Man”
by Trent Gilliss, online editor
One of the more fabulous aspects of working at SOF is being surrounded by a crazy number of talented people from other other regional and national programs that are part of our parent company, American Public Media (if you’d like, I can try to explain the complexity of the public radio world and distributors some time). I’m overwhelmed by the wide array of topics and material being produced and, unfortunately, never get to hear.
Our colleagues next door at American RadioWorks just released a riveting documentary about the last year of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. As a bonus, the executive editor Stephen Smith presented a live performance for his colleagues — a 35-minute pictorial narrative he had given at a commemorative event in historic Riverside Church in New York.
It’s not often that our topic area overlaps so overtly with our next-door neighbors’ material. In this case, King’s religious and moral language wasn’t ignored or minimized for the political, the historical, the newsiness of it all. It wasn’t an anecdote. Sitting in a small crowd of 50 with my colleagues, I was engaged from the first photo, an image of King preaching with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel sitting in the background.
I was overtaken by his recorded words from a sermon given at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in 1968, shortly before his assassination. I had never heard King like that before.
King’s context was the 60s and civil rights. His legacy today is more than that. His ability is to relate to one’s personal failures and struggles and say, “It’s alright. Keep on trying.” As a husband and a father and a journalist, “I want to be a good man.”