Dr. King knew the movement he led for human dignity and peace was not about him. He knew the movement mattered more than his own individual life. While he knew his part in it, he understood he was only a part of it. It would continue after him and, of course, he was right. Though it is hard to hear him say:
“I may not get there with you. But we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
He deeply believed that he was merely an instrument in God’s hands, in the larger movement of humanity toward peace and justice. For the last several years of his life he knew death threats and yet, he continued to speak, march, teach, and work. He surely knew the end could come at any time but he did not let this knowledge deter him.
In Memphis, because he knew the dignity of work came from the human person doing it, not the beauty of the work, he stood with Memphis’ sanitation workers in their call for better protection, pay, and working conditions. He said:
“The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers.”
The “I Am A Man” campaign in Memphis carried a clear message: The people who perform this difficult job— are people. Therein, lies the need for justice. They are people.
Having returned to Memphis, because earlier marches there turned violent, he showed more focus and grounding this time. More people had taken the nonviolence training and the marches on April 3, 1968 did not turn violent. In his reflection at the Mason Temple, he speaks of the city’s need to treat its sanitation workers with dignity, he calls for the United States to live up to its ideals of equality for all. Then, at the end of his remarks, he speaks personally, musing on his own mortality.
“I may not get there with you” reveals his deep sense of self as only a part of this movement. There is sadness in his voice, as one might expect. We all know times in life when we persist although we know we will not see the fruits of our labor. Isn’t this the basic reality of parenting? Of teaching? We help others in the present moment, knowing that the help will grow into fruition long after we are gone. We will not see its final form.
Dr. King knew this. In this knowledge he gives us yet another example of deep human freedom. He shows us what it means to be free from the need to see the results of one’s life. He gives us the example of one who is dedicated enough to pour his life into a movement– all the while knowing, he will likely not see its finished product. He speaks these words with human feeling, but he speaks them. He does not fear or grasp at the need to be at the center of this movement.
That we might know something of this freedom. That we might pour ourselves out in as free a way as Dr. King was able to do. This is the gift.
Photos in the Public Domain