[This morning I gave a reflection as part of our Martin Luther King Chapel for grades 6 – 12 at St. George’s Independent School in Memphis. It will stand as one of my favorite memories of this year. From the opening of a student singing Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” (he nailed it!) to the choir beautifully singing a spiritual, it was a lovely service. With a daughter in the sixth grade, I kept thinking about how important it is for her and all of our students to be part of a community that values coming together in this way on this day. My comments from chapel are below.]
A photograph, a certain kind of very rare photograph, can come to stand for a period of history. It can somehow capture a moment larger than the scene depicted in the frame itself, and most relevant to my comments this morning, it can make the past feel present, immediate, relevant. The foggy brown and black and gray frames of Civil War dead after the Battle of Gettysburg, the inferno of the USS Arizona as it tilted into the shallow water of Pearl Harbor, and the Naval seaman kissing the nurse in Times Square on VE Day 1945 are each photographs that take us right up to the edge of the past—a place where we can feel strong emotions and yet be completely powerless to affect any influence. A more recent photograph that holds a similar poignancy for me is an image of the body of a young boy, a three-year old Syrian refugee washed up on a Turkish beach after drowning in a perilous and desperate attempt to escape his war torn country with his parents—his name, it turns out, was Alan. No amount of sadness or concern now can help Alan—we are powerless to provide him comfort or aid. To be honest with you, I did not include this image this morning because as a parent, as someone who has dedicated my professional life to young people, I couldn’t bring myself to show it. It is heartbreaking.
I was born on the fifty-yard line of the 1960s, and that decade has a large number of powerful images associated with it. I have picked out images that I find particularly striking— the image of Jacklyn Kennedy, still in shock and standing beside Lyndon Johnson as he took the oath of office on Air Force One on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, John-John Kennedy saluting as his father’s casket is drawn toward Arlington Cemetery after the assassination of President Kennedy, The Beatles, just arrived in the US for the first time, stepping up to the mic on The Ed Sullivan Show, Bob Dylan, fresh from going electric for the first time, making a controversial tour of England, marchers bravely and peacefully marching toward a violent reception over the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, a young woman silently calling for peace during the troubled years of the Vietnam war by pushing a daisy down the barrel of a soldier’s gun. Photographs like these have the power to make the past immediate, to make it present again, and in so doing they act like a computer compression file holding more than their surface alone portrays.
1968 was arguably the crucible year in a crucible decade, for it was when many things occurred that led the country to pull hard at its seams—and photographs bring the intensity, and often the anguish, of that year to life. There are far too many to choose from, so I will just include two— American Sprinters and members of the Black Panthers, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raising black gloved fists during the medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games, Marines carry a wounded comrade out of the Citadel in the bloody aftermath of January’s Tet Offensive. There were other traumatic events that year—the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the subsequent Democratic National Convention, for instance, come immediately to mind. Photographers caught both of those moments in photographic images as well.
However, no images from 1968 pack more cultural impact behind their shiny surface, than two from a cloudy April day in 1968 on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Hotel here in Memphis. The first shows a group of men gathered casually outside. On its own it may seem to be a forgettable moment, if not for the photograph taken only moments later. The wrenching power of this before photograph juxtaposed with the after photograph awakens us to the tragedy of Dr. King’s assassination as if it occurred only yesterday. We glimpse that last moment before a single act of violence changed the course of history. And we see the immediate aftermath—the now stilled and silenced body of Dr. King at the feet of men pointing in the direction from which the shot came before the full impact could have possibly set up in them regarding who and what had just been lost. They are not cowering in the after photograph—they are bravely assertive, as we witness them at the final moment between when Dr. King’s death occurred and their mourning, and the mourning of the nation, began.
We are powerless when we view these photographs—indeed we are brought up to the edge of history, but we can go no further. The before photograph reveals that we are caught in a painful dramatic irony, for we know what is coming before it occurs, before the actors know themselves, and yet we can not change the course of the narrative. We wish to warn Dr. King on the balcony, but we cannot. And so we feel the loss as if new, the experience of his death is present in us even though only a handful of us were actually alive when it happened.
There is an intriguing message for us in all this, I believe, and it is wonderfully relevant to the life we recognize and celebrate on Monday. It is this: Dr. King’s various and ranging messages regarding race, justice, oppression, war, and poverty are each grounded in a belief, intertwined with his remarkable faith, that we can affect the world around us, we can make the world a better, more just, more peaceful place for all, but there is much work ahead.
Too often, I believe, we think of the world as it is now and as it might be in the future the same way we think of an historical photograph—as something we can not affect. That is absolutely not true. One of the central messages of Dr. King’s legacy is that we are only powerless to change the past. The present and future are ours to make and that our obligation is to work faithfully for a better world for all.
The final photograph on the screen now is of Dr. King speaking at the Mason Temple on April 3, 1968. He gave a long reflection that evening. Not having planned on being there that night perhaps made him particularly ruminative, and his thinking flowed to his own mortality. The following day he was assassinated. I will finish with the end of that final speech and his call of encouragement and hope not for himself, but for those present with him. When you hear it, remember the scripture from today’s service as Dr. King creates a parallel between his role and the role of Moses leading his people to the Promised Land.
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”