For a people and a place that have been deemed “Forsaken” and “Desolate,” the prophet Isaiah declares, “I will not keep silent.” From biblical times until today, prophets have refused to be silent in the face of violence and injustice.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was one such prophet, but, sadly, the full power of his voice is often muted and silenced today, despite the praise and adoration he receives on his birthday. All too frequently, celebrations of King’s life present us with a de-radicalized King. We hear snippets of his “I Have a Dream” speech, but we do not hear his more prophetic and penetrating critiques of racism, militarism, and capitalism.
To counter this tendency, Justice and Witness staff members will introduce a different speech, sermon, or writing from King over the course of seven days with the final day being Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Seven Days to explore MLK’s Words and Vision
Written by UCC Staff
As scholar Michael Eric Dyson has noted, Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech tends to be over-emphasized and at times misused. This is especially true around the time of the national holiday that honors him. Dyson goes so far as to call for “a ten-year moratorium on listening to or reading” the speech, so that King’s other works might be considered and the full breadth of King’s radical message heard.
The Drum Major Instinct
Written by Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer
The “Drum Major Instinct” sermon is a remarkable message not only because it is the last sermon Martin Luther King, Jr. preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church before his assassination, and not only because he discusses his own death and how he wants to be remembered, but because of the skillful way King uses the “Drum Major Instinct” theme to offer a deep critique of contemporary culture and an inspired, practical vision for living the Gospel. (Read more.)
A Time to Break Silence
Written by Edie Rasell, Ph.D.
On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a powerful speech at Riverside Church in New York City. He began by criticizing U.S. policy in Vietnam but then his critique of the nation and its public policies went much deeper: “The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.” He called for the nation to “rapidly shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented” society. When … profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” (Read more.)
Where Do We Go from Here?” - The Power of Questions
Written by Rev. Brooks Berndt
On the heels of a June and July that saw riots in major cities throughout the United States with death tolls reaching 23 in Newark and 43 in Detroit, King delivered his last presidential address to the annual convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta on August 16, 1967. Newspaper headlines on that day reflected the controversy and criticism generated in response to King’s remarks the previous day when he denounced the racism of Congress, affirmed black outrage over urban conditions, and called for “mass civil disobedience.” In his address entitled “Where Do We Go from Here?” King displayed his remarkable ability to articulate the systemic character of oppression in a way that raises the consciousness of his hearers. (Read more.)
Give Us the Ballot
Written by Rev. Bentley de Bardelaben
On May 17, 1957 a young Dr. King addressed a crowd in Washington, DC. He urged those listening in the audience, everyday citizens and politicians alike, to move forward with action. In his “Give Us the Ballot” speech, King beautifully articulated the many benefits to a civilized society of giving blacks the constitutional right to vote. While this concern was addressed through small steps in the following years and ultimately writ large for the African American community in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, racism, racial injustice, bias, and systemic oppression based on skin color remain an ugly reality in the streets of America and in the voting booth. (Read more.)
Letter from a Birmingham Jail
Written by Rev. Elizabeth Leung
In the 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote to a group of white male faith leaders, in response to their public statement calling him to end civil disobedience and to use negotiation and legal action to address the denial of rights to Black citizens. The Letter contains many themes that speak to our faith communities and to a nation in which the ideals of justice are still hindered by the legacy of systemic racism. (Read more.)
I’ve Been to the Mountaintop
Written by Rev. Traci Blackmon
On April 3, 1968, at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the last speech of his life. Listening to these prophetic words today, one might easily assume that he smelled death in his purview. In language reminiscent of both an encouraging leader and masterful strategist, Dr. King secures in the hearts and the minds of the listeners the power of the moment. (Read more.)
Prayer: Creating the Beloved Community
O God, all people are your Beloved,
across races, nationalities, religions, sexual orientations
and all the ways we are distinctive from one another.
We are all manifestations of your image.
We are bound together in an inescapable network of mutuality
and tied to a single garment of destiny.
You call us into your unending work
of justice, peace and love.
Let us know your presence among us now:
Let us delight in our diversity
that offers glimpses of the mosaic of your beauty.
Strengthen us with your steadfast love and
transform our despairing fatigue into hope-filled action.
Under the shadow of your wings in this hour
may we find rest and strength, renewal and hope.
We ask this, inspired by the example
of your disciple, Martin Luther King, Jr.,
and in Jesus’ name. Amen.
(Source: Creating the Beloved Community by Rev. Dr. Cari Jackson of New York City)
Dramatic Reading: Words of Vision, Words of Power from UCC Worship Ways.
Hymn: "The Universe is Bending," which can be found in Sing! Prayer and Praise, the United Church of Christ praise and worship song book, and licensed for use under OneLicense.net.
- “Beyond Vietnam—A Time to Break Silence,” Riverside Church, New York City, April 4, 1967, audio and text.
- “The Other America,” Local 1199 Drug and Hospital Union, New York City, March 10, 1998, audio, text.
- “Where Do We Go from Here?,” Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, August 16, 1967, last 16 minutes of audio, full text.
- “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution,” National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., March 31, 1968, audio and text.
- “Address to the United Church of Christ General Synod 5,” Chicago, July 6, 1965, text.
- Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr., (New York: Free Press, 2000).
- Martin Luther King, Jr., The Radical King, edited and introduced by Cornel West, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015).
- Martin Luther King, Jr. “All Labor Has Dignity” edited and introduced by Michael K. Honey, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011).