The trinity of having finished reading Tavis Smiley's recently released Death of a King, on the final year of of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s shortened life; seeing actress and playwright Anna Demeare Smith address racism via theater; and reaching the Medicare age all within the same week has me wondering how the world might be quite different had those two lives not been snuffed out so early. MLK, Jr. had just turned 39 and RFK was only 42 when bullets struck them down.
As Smiley's focused biography notes, King had made some significant shifts of ground in his final year - from his fiery oratory against the Vietnam War to the call for a focus on poverty. Kennedy was in the midst of similar shifts having come out against the war and having recently toured the Appalachian poverty fields. King was becoming demonized by the more militant of the black community as well as the more conservative members who believed his focus should remain on racial inequality. And of course much of the white community felt he had no authority to speak beyond that more narrow focus of race. Death threats mounted. Yet King, felt compelled to push even against many of his closest advisers and friends. The roller coaster physical, mental and emotional struggles were huge as pieced together by Smiley and his co-author, David Ritz. But as we see in King's own words from a sermon days before his assassination, he was driven by his increasing understanding of the interdependence of all these issues - racism, economic justice, and war.
"Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus. Cowardice asks the question - is it safe? Expedience asks the question - is it politic? Vanity asks the question - is it popular? Conscience asks the question - is it right?" (p.227-8).
For King this is the fundamental question and the reason he returned to Memphis to participate in march to support the striking Memphis garbage workers. It is also the reason despite many in his inner circle advising against it he gave perhaps the most compelling speech of his life, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence at the Riverside Church in New York City one year to the day, that he was murdered. If you have never heard this speech, listen to it here and see how compelling it is even with today's ears.
Anna Demeare Smith is perhaps best know for her portrayal of Dr. Nancy McNally, the National Security Adviser on the TV series "The West Wing". Besides being awarded a MacArthur fellowship and numerous other awards, her more poignant work has been as a playwright who uses verbatim interviews she does to address the complexity of issues. At her performance the other night she took on the characters of a Korean shop owner in Crown Heights, James Baldwin, Margaret Meade, a Jewish mother, Cornell West and a few others. The excerpts she shared around race and conflict were both powerful in their candor and her capture of the characters as she performed their words. The crowd rose to their feet in thunderous applause at the conclusion of this powerful experience that had use look at race and conflict through numerous lenses.
I have long been struck by all that King accomplished and affected in his short life. In Smiley's account of his last year, there was an approach that Bobby's people made to Martin as RFK made the decision to seek the presidency. King because he was so caught up in planning the March on Poverty that summer, deferred that conversation until after the Memphis garbage workers march was completed, an event he didn't live to see. As I reached my own Medicare standing last week and rubbed up against this story I could not help but wonder what MLK and RFK might have forged together should their twin killings not have occurred so early in their lives. The trajectories they were on were paralleling. Their ability to unite a divided nation would have been powerful although certainly not guaranteed.
That each of them pressed on with their need to speak their truth with the full awareness that there were those who wanted to snuff out their lives should inspire us. Those of us crossing the Medicare threshold should certainly feel freer to speak their truth to power. There are an awful lot of us crossing that threshold these days and over the next few years. What might we collectively unleash if we were but brave enough to do so?
Who's willing to test this hypothesis? Can we build a better world to leave our children and theirs? Is it worth the try? As King noted, the real question we must answer for ourselves - is it right? and is This Our Time to Break Silence?