The night before he was murdered, Martin Luther King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to rally support for striking Black sanitation workers. On the evening of April 3, 1968, at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, King spoke for the last time. His final words were so stirring they resonate to this day. Endlessly replayed, they immortalize the tragedy of what the United States suffered when an assassin shot him the next day.
“Because I’ve been to the mountaintop… 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..”
While not as fully remembered, the start of King’s final speech also was fascinating, and vintage King. The great civil rights leader began by telling the crowd how he would like to take a trip through history.
“As you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time,…and the Almighty said to me, ‘Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?’ – I would take my mental flight to Egypt…I wouldn’t stop there. I would move onto Greece and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality.”
The next afternoon, King was shot and killed.
As word spread of the King assassination, Robert F. Kennedy was flying to Indianapolis to give a campaign speech in his run for the Presidency. Upon hearing the news, Kennedy’s aides implored him not to go. Bobby said no, he would speak as planned. After landing in Indianapolis, RFK sadly told the crowd what had happened to Dr. King. You can hear the gasps, screams and cries of anguish as RFK spoke.
“For those of you who are Black,…you can be filled with bitterness and hatred….we can move in that direction…Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend and replace that violence…with an effort to understand compassion and love.”
Like King the night before, Bobby then spoke about the ancient Greeks.
“My favorite poet was Aeschylus, and he once wrote, ‘even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget, drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the grace of God.’”
At the same time RFK was speaking, riots broke out in nearly every American city. But not in Indianapolis. Responding to Kennedy’s pleas, Indianapolis remained calm.
MLK and RFK both were flawed men. There is substantial evidence that King plagiarized without remorse or attribution, including his doctoral dissertation and his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. He cheated constantly on his wife.
RFK also had a reputation as a womanizer. During the 1950s Kennedy worked with Senator Joseph McCarthy assisting the Communist witch hunts of the Senate Select Committee of Improper Activities. These “Investigations” blacklisted innumerable artists, intellectuals and others, destroying countless lives.
Yet by the spring of 1968, as the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights struggle cascaded around us, both men formed the bulwark of that part of America that remained committed to decency and mutual understanding. Now, in early April 1968, both men talked about the ancient Greeks.
The Greek philosophers and writers they mentioned also were very flawed. Aristotle was a total male chauvinist. In Politics, he wrote that:
“As regards the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject.”
While some label Euripides an early feminist, others call him a misogynist. http://whs-blogs.co.uk/teaching/euripides-misogynist-prototype-feminist/. Each of the others certainly had his deficiencies, especially when measured by modern attitudes.
No matter. In 1968, during one of the most frightening and tragic moments of American history, King and Kennedy summoned the wisdom of the ancient Greeks to help the United States navigate through one of America’s most troubled times.
It is likely that in the United States we now are in the most difficult and dangerous period since 1968. Today, however, many in Western society would not even allow us to discuss those same Greek writers and philosophers from whom MLK and RFK drew such inspiration. So entrenched has “cancel culture” become, schools around the country are removing classics such as The Odyssey from school curricula. Last month Lawrence High School in Massachusetts banned the teaching of Homer. With Homer gone, can Aristotle be far behind?
It’s clear what comes next. Cancel culture won’t be satisfied with just the scalps of the ancient Greeks. William Shakespeare, Nathanial Hawthorne, F. Scott Fitzgerald and countless other authors stand accused of being racist, sexist and homophobic. There are movements to ban their works from being taught. An organization called “Disrupt Texts” justifies this cancel culture by claiming that it is “a movement to rebuild the literary canon using an antibias, antiracist critical theory lens.” Forgive my cynicism, but I doubt the individual members of “Disrupt Texas” are so pure.
As opposed to those who believe they have the ability, wisdom and right to expunge so much of literary, political and philosophical history, I hope we as a people stand with Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. I hope we continue to search for inspiration and wisdom among those who have produced the great works of the past and in our own times, understanding how flawed these people were and are. I hope we don’t continue to sacrifice our future in a misguided attempt to “cleanse” the past.
This week in the United States we celebrate the birth of our greatest civil rights leader. Let us mark his birthday appropriately. Let us pledge to appreciate the distance we still need to travel to arrive at his vision and strive to do so. Let us also understand that like Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, we will get to the mountaintop only by standing on the shoulders of those who came before us, and not by canceling their memory.