What Did MLK Really Say About Personal Responsibility?

In his scramble to become Head Babysitter of the status quo in the United States, Barack Obama famously threw his minister, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, under the bus. There will be no “trouble-makers” on his bus, Mr. Obama wants to make clear.

But Reverend Wright is not the only victim of the Obama bus-toss routine. Another major victim has been none other than Martin Luther King, Jr.

As I noted here last month, on the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, Obama ended a generally picayune and misleading commemorative speech with this conclusion:

One of the forgotten aspects of Dr. King’s legacy is how he demanded personal responsibility as well as societal responsibility.

This, of course, is standard code-talk for saying “Racism is over, so get off your asses, black people, and fuck you if you don’t.”

This is a blatantly wrong and anti-MLK thing to say, but, as my initial disgust wore off, I found myself wanting to return to the issue. What exactly did Dr. King have to say about personal responsibility?

To answer this question, you don’t have to look very hard. In fact, the topic didn’t just arise, but leaped up, in MLK’s very first major speech — which was about — dig it — BUSES!

Having just the night before been chosen to lead the newly-formed Montgomery Improvement Association, the 27-year-old MLK went to the Holt Street Church to explain to the overflow crowd of bus boycotters why Rosa Parks’ arrest a few days prior was a turning point.

King’s December 5, 1955 speech, as reported by Harvard Sitkoff in his marvelous new book, went like this:

Several hundred blacks crammed the sanctuary and the basement auditorium, while several thousand more lined the sidewalks surrounding the church, listening on loudspeakers to rousing renditions of “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” to somber Scripture readings, and to pleas for financial support by numerous ministers.

Then an unassuming Martin King mounted the podium. Few in attendance had ever heard him speak, and the short, chubby preacher was hardly a commanding presence in the pulpit.

“We are here this evening for serious business,” he intoned slowly, “and we are determined to apply our citizenship to the fullness of its means.” In his rich, deep voice, he calmly recalled the history of bus segregation and asked the black community to protest the arrest of Rosa Parks, “not one of the finest Negro citizens, but one of the finest citizens in Montgomery.”

Having captured his listeners with his deliberate enunciation, King quickened his cadence and wagged an admonishing finger. “You know, my friends, there comes a time, there comes a time when people get tired-tired of being segregated and humiliated, tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.” Loud applause and shouts forced King to pause, then to pause further as the throng outside added a rising, clamorous approval.

The volume and pitch of the preacher’s words rose. “There comes a time, my friends, when people get tired of being thrown across the abyss of humiliation, where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July and left standing amidst the piercing chill of an alpine November.” A wave of clapping hands and stomping feet shook the church and again made King wait.

“We had no alternative but to protest.” King pointed again for emphasis. “For many years, we have shown amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.”

King’s baritone resounded: “The great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.” Looking down at his hands on the sides of the lectern, he contrasted that right with those “incarcerated behind the iron curtain of a communistic nation,” and with the violence and lawlessness of white supremacists who defied the Constitution, stirring more shouts of “Keep talking” that momentarily drowned him out.”If we are wrong,” King contended, “the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong!” Straining to be heard above the din, he thundered, “If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer and never came down to earth! If we are wrong, justice is a lie.”

The preacher waited. “And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight, until justice runs down like water and righteousness as a mighty stream!” The rafters shook. To still the crescendo of cheers, King held both palms aloft and bowed his head. “If you will protest courageously and yet with dignity and Christian love”-his voice lowered-“when the history books are written in future generations, the historians will have to pause and say: ‘There lived a race of people, black people, fleecy locks and black complexion, of people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights. And thereby they injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.’ [THAT’S RIGHT!] [YESSIR.] [SPEAK. SPEAK!]

“This is our challenge,” he concluded with his head aloft, “and our overwhelming responsibility.”

The rhythm of the words, the power of the rising and falling voice, the bold vision of triumphing over wrong stunned the crowd into sudden silence as King abruptly stepped away from the pulpit, trembling from his effort. Then, rising as one, the congregation shouted its resolve to continue the boycott.

As they say in kindergarten, the wheels of the bus go round and round. Alas, it’s always the wrong people who feel the kiss of the tread…

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