He has now been a memory longer than the actual years of his life. His philosophy and his unfinished work, so far, bear the marks of an immortal and unrealized ideal, the quality of a still distant purpose and a hope deferred. And yet, he was a living sign of his times, living in the hard world of “right now” realities—of laws needing to be changed, of lives needing to be saved, and of minds needing to be enlarged by a dream.
Dr. Martin Luther King lived in a moment of colliding forces and facts. One of the missed aspects of his legacy, which we at a university must constantly recover and sustain, was his intense effort to study thoroughly and to think deeply about the confusing, contradictory impulses of his generation. The passkey to his biography is his education in the liberal arts tradition at Morehouse, Crozier, and Boston University. Without those attainments in liberal learning, it would be impossible to imagine a framework and body of thought that tried to make sense of so much that was wrong and contradictory.
Let us review quickly the American dilemma he expressed. A nation that had liberated people all over the world in the Second World War had not secured the freedom of all its citizens to vote. A nation that could feed a demolished Europe through the Marshall Plan had millions of its own citizens malnourished, living hand-to-mouth. A nation that had for a hundred years built free public schools and opened thousands of public libraries, the very source of the engineers who landed an American on the moon, coexisted with an appalling rate of illiteracy—creating the centrifugal affect of near hopeless disadvantage.
While granting the milestones of progress since the voice of Dr. King was last heard in his own living moment, the global scale of our own contradictions and dilemmas today prove that the nature of human problems is relatively unchanged and constant. We are not done in reliving the ever new, ever perennial issues of life known to the King generation, just as basic now as the issues were a half century ago.
Two trends collide that compel our best thinking. On the one hand, in the year 2010 the rate of global hunger, as measured by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, actually declined for the first time in fifteen years. Despite the drought in Russia last year and the resulting increase in prices for wheat, the world generally had a bumper crop and global food supplies exceeded expectations. There was a decrease by 10% in the “chronically malnourished” around the world. And yet, on the other hand, as we begin this decade, the years when you first come into your independent lives and careers, there are still 925 million undernourished human beings in the earth.
Dr. King loved the ancient poetry of a people once exiled and in search of basic sufficiency, simply the taste of milk and honey, even honey in the rock. He loved the cadences of song that had lasted not just decades and years, but many centuries. The music that played in his head and sang through his speech was captured by the currently popular South African word njola—meaning always: “For the needy shall not always be forgotten, and the hope of the poor shall not perish forever.” (Psalm 9:18)
How will we remember the needy? How will we give hope to the poor? These questions will not leave us; they are with us always. They live next door in a house called first principles.
We have heard a phrase lately from the world of public policy referring to certain sectors of our dynamic global economy as “too big to fail.” I understand the logic and wisdom of that theory, though economists, even on our own campus, will debate the premises and consequences. But it is, nonetheless, a useful set of terms for this hour. The humanitarian issues in our society are big, arguably incomprehensible, and even too big to be written off. Our efforts, which may be frustrated by the sheer size of the challenge, perhaps risking the moral escape clause that bothering at all is not going to help much, can nevertheless make a difference.
When I was not much older than most of you students, my work was in a large city with a population of many poor and hungry people. I knew well the dilemma of the street when confronted by a panhandler—will my curbside charity buy a fried egg sandwich or a pint of cheap whisky? I was inconsistent and certainly imperfect when encountering the question. And the issue, reduced to the pedestrian level, still haunts me—still not knowing how often I failed or infrequently I was making a difference.
How do you think about this collision of facts existing outside your campus world while, at the same time, you are studying the history of foreign policy, vector calculus, labor economics, the modern novel, or invertebrate paleontology? While all this is going on, another kind of education is also happening at St. Lawrence. Maybe it is an education in citizenship and community life; perhaps we call it lessons of the human spirit, or the study of antithetical concerns. Whatever we decide to name it, Dr. King was once in that school himself and gives us ample warrant and text for thinking on this track of moral learning.
If I may venture a way to make a point about simultaneous educations, albeit by an academic example, then let me turn to one of the basic dichotomies in the field of intellectual history. One fixed form of idealism, it turns out, is not enough. In the western classical world, there was a seismic tension between two ways of ideally relating to the world, each excluding the other to create a clash of philosophies. Stoicism and Neoplatonism represented two different approaches to dealing with the difficult world of uncertainty and unpredictability. And depending on which way you tipped, your choices in understanding life were usually informed by either one or the other. Stoicism was an attempt to vindicate a philosophy of this-worldliness, of acceptance that life is finite and unfair; Neoplatonism was a bold endeavor to affirm a reality of other-worldliness, of focusing on the invisible as the ultimate way beyond present troubles.
An argument for accepting things as they are, and doing little or nothing, could be found, ironically, in the adherents of both philosophies. Because neither of them sought the correction of the antithetical idea of the other, and each became inbred, they both failed to survive on their own pure terms. They failed to note the necessity of contradictions, failed to tolerate ambiguity, and overlooked the necessity of negotiating imperfection. The trap of single-minded consistency, an all-or-nothing perspective, was sprung and they fell down. Some historians have observed in a very general sweep that when they tumbled, never having reconciled their different paths, so did classical Greece.
In contrast, Dr. King, as both idealist and pragmatist, did not quit his pursuit of the whole truth, no matter how other-worldly he envisioned it—that all people are created equal—because he was also able to affirm simultaneously the neglected half-truth that the brutal actualities in a troubled world could be altered. He imagined a larger promise on a distant horizon, but he insisted on the necessity of keeping both hands on the plow, not looking back—breaking new ground, breaking a heavy sweat of doing hard work one row at a time.
Robert Franklin, the current president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, is an old and cherished friend. We were Divinity School classmates and now see each other at national conferences. In a recent talk, President Franklin brought to his audience words from one of Dr. King’s brilliant speeches: “This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists. The saving of our world will come not from the actions of a conforming majority, but from the creative maladjustment of a transformed minority.”
In resisting one-dimensional philosophies, the kind declaring values without actions, we must affirm lines of reflection that cause a “creative maladjustment” in our heads.
In looking across valleys of despair in the aftermath of human or natural disasters, the world begs for “transformed nonconformists” who will never give up the effort to teach the hungry minds and feed the human hopes of our time.
In making a priority of our more secure privilege, we risk dangerously accepting the easy membership of a “conforming majority,” just as the volume of the marketplace drowns out the neglected power and poetry of an old truth, we must find our voice to sing again—
“For the needy shall not always be forgotten, and the hope of the poor shall not perish forever."