I am in Memphis, Tennessee and so I take Martin Luther King’s hand to dance with today. His speech, the night before he was assassinated, took him to the mountain top, and from that vantage point he saw a storm brewing, and in that storm he drew from his scriptures the journey out of Egypt to the Promised Land and was not afraid as he was already free and had “seen the glory of the Lord”. The speech was delivered 3 April 1968, Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee, USA.
I have listened to the sounds of the Mississippi flowing and the back beat of the bass and those horns blowing on Beale Street. I have heard the click clack of horses hooves and the stomping of the feet and tumbling of the young boys. I have heard the call and response of singers of duelling pianos and their key masters seeking some love in the form of a few dollars from a crowd getting fuelled up with alcohol. I have heard the sounds made in Studio A at Stax and listened to the midwifery of rock ‘n’ roll at Sun Studio and Gracelands.
The coming out of the cotton fields and slavery is not yet complete, behind the glamour and glitz there is poverty. Yet the joy and promise of better days is shining through in the smiles and welcome of strangers. This is the key to Memphis – a currency of cool, laid back, Southern hospitality. A place that birthed so much of what we take for granted in our musical roots, our social and political roots, is looking for a spit and polish of its own. I wonder if, like Rome, Memphis peaked early, or is it like Florence has become a museum to masters from the past? Martin Luther King asked his God to help people and all people around the world in that part of the twentieth century to rise up and embrace freedom and he was excited to be living in his time and to confront the choice not between violence and nonviolence, but between nonviolence and nonexistence. This is the choice that remains with us right now in this second decade of the twenty-first century. Human rights are still on the agenda. Environmental rights for our planet and all the global commons unites us as a species in a way no government or lines on a map marking out territory can never do. We are all children on this planet and to live like we are all connected and all have to stay together to maintain unity is more true than it has ever been in the history of this third rock from the Sun.
MLK reminded his congregation, that prophetic night in Memphis. He called on everyone to remember that when the slaves stuck together against Pharaoh that is beginning of the end of being slaves.
Can we see how we are enslaved by greed, hatred, fear? What if we all understood what it meant to see ourselves as one family, in solidarity with those taking a stand and get a doctor to the ones who are sick and can’t see what they are doing to spread the diseases of fear and hate?
Overcoming this fear and hate is no easy task – the merchants of it are everywhere and are going to the ballot box and taking those who are weak and vulnerable and anxious with them and in the dog whistles are out calling others to follow. How about joining the chorus: Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around; I’m marching to a brand new world ?
It’s time to gather up all the voices and hear all the sounds that are building the new world and helping the old one to crumble, and with those voices a chorus helping justice roll down like a river, a mighty Mississippi River in the hearts and souls of those who know what a brand new day will look like and the taste of freedom. The salt of tears, the salt of sweat, the salt of blood, will be the salt that takes away bitterness and enhances the flavour of life.
Speaking truth to power is the instruction. The how-to manual chapters are: stop buying things exploiting our fellow human beings and our planet; keep supporting those people and processes building equity; affirm and support each other in the journey; listen and learn and take direction from those most effected; and most of all … keep on a-walking, keep on a-talking. This will help us develop the kind of dangerous unselfishness that MLK asked us to aspire too. This is the dangerous unselfishness of the Good Samaritan and is as true a parable for today in Memphis as it was on the shores of Galilee for Jesus and his friends. Just imagine the shock of being helped by a stranger, indeed worse than that a strange enemy? The Syrian or Mexican refugee may well be the one to save the US from themselves – now would be paradigm shift for some – but I doubt for Memphis. Memphis knows what it means to be on the outside and to come calling on the world with sounds of trumpets blazing heralding a new day.
There was no going back after MLK was assassinated, but the journey ‘ain’t over. Memphis has been to the mountain top and seen the promise of the Lord. It is beholden on each and every one of us to bring that promise to fulfillment each and every day.
And 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!!