Like most white people, I don’t know a lot about black history. When I read “A Testament of Hope,” a collection of Martin Luther King’s writings and speeches arranged by James Washington, it was for a class assignment. This book was the focus of a course that Washington and Lee University once offered for some prison inmates in a class titled—appropriately enough—Love, Hope, and Forgiveness. The whole text is imbued with an almost biblical lyricism, an urgency and power that draws a sad contrast with the political discourse of today. In comparison, the most recent State of the Union was a bland and meandering palimpsest.
This collection is massive and massively redundant, but there isn’t a piece that I can honestly advise you to skip. He repeats himself as a preacher does, for effect and memory, wanting the message to be clear. Dr. King’s stance on the war in Vietnam surprised me, even though it was perfectly consistent with his wider opinions on freedom and civil rights. He spoke against the war at a time when doing so was tantamount to being labelled as a communist, and fellow leaders in his own movement counseled vehemently against speaking out. They felt the civil rights movement would be weakened by the distraction. But injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, so in this as in all else, Dr. King’s conscience compelled him to make a public statement.
What are lost from the wide-angle view of many history lessons are, unfortunately, the details. The civil rights movement is all too often presented as a fait accompli. A few protests, a few speeches, and everyone can vote. We miss the tireless labor of thousands of volunteers before each event, we miss the old woman walking for miles every day in the first bus boycott because indignity hurt worse than her feet.
A Testament of Hope includes many insights into the life of a civil rights hero. Dr. King kept a gruelling schedule, working seven days a week on minimal sleep, making difficult compromises. After the church bombing that left two children dead, he doubted whether he could continue on, given the risk to his family. Yet, throughout all of this, his voice remains distinct. The collection contains thousands of quotes worth reading and remembering, but a few of the most memorable include; “I call upon you to be maladjusted,” “We have cosmic companionship when we stand up for righteousness,” and “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Dr. King was a scholar as much as he was a political leader, and many of the ideas he championed would be considered progressive even by today’s standards. Poverty was as much the enemy as racial divisions. He didn’t just ask for legal equality between whites and blacks, but for an end to class disparity. He believed that the institution of a universal income, or a system of universal employment, could free the human race from the degradation of economic hardship.
In 2019, 51 years after the assassination of Dr. King, the battle for equality is far from finished. Laws are still being passed to suppress minority voters. The criminal justice system is not free from bias. Poverty and the rift between rich and poor are ever expanding. So many years have passed, but Dr. King’s work and his words are not out of date—they are for all time.
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