On March 31, 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. preached what would be his last sermon to a congregation of thousands at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. His sermon, entitled “Remaining Awake Through the Great Revolution,” was billed as a reassurance for the predominately white congregation that his Poor People’s Campaign March on Washington would be peaceful.
Dr. King had other ideas. Throughout his short life, King believed that the greatest threat to racial justice didn’t come from the avowed racists of the Jim Crow South, but from the complacency of white liberals. It was a message he crafted in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail:
“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice… .”
He made the same point to UUA General Assembly in 1966 when he implored us not to “sleep through the revolution.” It’s been a haunting call for many of us over the decades in our struggle to come to grips with racism and our place in it.
After this past Sunday, I am heartened by our resolve: not only are we taking racism seriously as a moral evil but we are committing our religious life to working with others against it. Our Racial Justice Council and the TUCWomen BLM Team have been partnering with on-the-ground organizations committed to racial justice. I am proud of what we are doing.
And we have much more to do. I have taken a longer view to the work of justice. While not delaying our call to justice, I think we are recognizing that the work we do will take generations. And it is well and good that it should. One of the most redeeming characteristics of a congregation such as ours is that we can carry on this work from generation to generation. Our work is deep and long. It goes beyond liberal hobbyism of just studying the issues; it creates an intergenerational structure to carry on that work. Our own Youth Group, for instance, is learning about the intersectionality of environmental justice and racial justice through the lens of study and action.
Far more than any one individual, our congregation can rely on our elders to pass on wisdom and on subsequent generations to take up the mantle from them. This is the very reason a congregation exists: it goes beyond any one’s lifetime or ministry, and takes us to a higher plane.
As we remember the prophetic life and words of Dr. King, I leave with this quote from his last sermon at the National Cathedral:
“Human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God.”
And so may it be, Rev. John