Tuesday History: Martin Luther King’s historic Montreat speech, part 4

Photo courtesy of the Presbyterian Heritage Center, Montreat

We return this week with the fourth installment of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Montreat speech, “The Church on the Frontier of Racial Tension.” Last week’s post examined King’s call to the church to enter into the arena of social action.

This week, we continue with King’s look at the economic impact of segregation.

To view last week’s segment, click here.

On Aug. 21, 1965 King said:

Now let me mention one of the most serious problems that we face in our country today. … And if this problem isn’t solved, we’re going to have conflict after conflict, and all of my words calling for nonviolence will fall on many deaf ears.

So often, our white brothers do not realize the gravity of this problem is the fact that the Negro finds himself perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. We’re the richest nation in the world. This year, our [gross] national product will go up to the astounding figure of $650 billion. Yet about 50 percent of the Negro families of our country are categorized as poverty stricken.

We must not overlook the economic basis, this tragic problem, growing out of the legacy of slavery and segregation. It is a serious problem. We must face the fact that 42 percent of the Negro families of our country still earn less than 2,000 dollars a year, while just 16 percent of the white families earn less than 2,000 dollars a year. Twenty percent of the Negro families of our country earn less than 1,000 dollars a year, while just 5 percent of our white families earn less than 1,000 dollars a year. Eighty-eight percent of the negro families earn less than 5,000 dollars a year, while just 58 percent of the white families earn less than 5,000 dollar a year.

…[I]n the Watts area of Los Angeles thousands and thousands of Negroes are unemployed. I went to talk to them and the one thing they said to me was, “We want jobs; we want some work to do.” And then somebody will say, “Well, aren’t you getting a welfare check?” The one thing they’ll say is, “We don’t just want to run downtown to get welfare checks. We want to work. We want some jobs.”

At the bottom of many of the conflicts taking place today, in many of our cities, is the lack of economic opportunity. Some of it grows out of our right to discrimination. But we’re ideally moving away from that, as our nation gradually has developed a conscience on the question of employment discrimination. But the tragedy is, just as we gradually stepped out of employment discrimination, we stepped right into other “—nations.”

For years, the people have been denied educational opportunities, not because we didn’t have basic intelligence, but because we were denied these opportunities in inferior schools, and so often couldn’t go to school. We had to get out and pick cotton. We were denied apprenticeship training, and so we were limited to unskilled and semi-skilled labor, and these are the jobs that are now passing away.

So often, those who “have” — I’m not only talking about white persons; I’m even talking about the middle-class Negroes — so often, those who “have” forget the “have-nots.” Jesus tells a beautiful parable in the New Testament. He talks about a rich man named Dives and a poor man named Lazarus. … Dives ends up going to hell. There is nothing in that parable that says Dives went to hell because he was rich. Jesus never made a universal indictment against all wealth. It is true that one day a man, a rich ruler, came to him and raised some questions, and Jesus advised him to sell all. But in that instance, he was prescribing individual surgery, not setting forth universal diagnosis. …

Dives went to hell not because he was rich; he went to hell because he passed by Lazarus every day and never really saw him. Michael Harrington, in the book The Other America, calls a quarter of our country the “invisible poor.” Dives went to hell because he allowed Lazarus to become invisible. He went to hell because he minimized the maximum and maximized the minimum and allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which he lived. He went to hell because he failed to use his wealth to bridge the gap that separated him from his brother Lazarus. He didn’t realize Lazarus was his brother and that he was his brother’s keeper. And that somehow a great man is a compassionate man, a great man is a man who has concerns for the least of thee.

I submit that this is the challenge facing the church. … In the final analysis, we are all made to live together. Rich and poor, lettered and unlettered, tutored and untutored — somehow we are tied in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, and for some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.

Next week, we will conclude our King series.

About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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