I’m sure you’re aware of today’s dedication for the monument on the national mall recognizing Dr. King. Here is an excerpt of his last sermon, one that punctuates a narrowing of Dr. King’s vision, one that isn’t as well repeated as the earlier dream speech. His legacy continues to impact me personally, particularly the always sharp and somehow relevant Letter From a Birmingham Jail. The piece below is from the message I’ve Been To The Mountaintop, delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968. Note it’s a sermon, not an essay, and it was heard.
One day a man came to Jesus; and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters in life. At points, he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew, and through this, throw him off base. Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side; they didn’t stop to help him. And finally, a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But, he got down with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his brother.
Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. At times we say they were busy going to church meetings–an ecclesiastical gathering–and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting. At other times, we would speculate that there was a religious law that one who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony. And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem, or down to Jericho, rather to organize a Jericho Road Improvement Association. That’s a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effort.
…But then the Good Samaritan came by and he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” That’s the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers , what will happen to my job?” Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.
Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation…