Are you sleeping through a revolution?

Portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr., by Chris Tank located in the MLK Jr. Memorial Library, Washington, DC Flickr/Creative Commons

Portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr., by Chris Tank located in the MLK Jr. Memorial Library, Washington, DC
Flickr/Creative Commons

“One of the great liabilities of history is the fact that all too many people find themselves amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to achieve the new attitudes and the new mental outlook that the new situation demands.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr., Springfield College Commencement , June 14, 1964

It was empowering this week to re-read and reflect on an oft-overlooked commencement address by Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered 50 years ago at Springfield College.

Just days before the speech, King was arrested with a group of demonstrators attempting to eat at a restaurant and sent to St. Johns County Jail, an infamous building that housed many civil rights pioneers for non-violent demonstrations in and around St. Augustine, Florida. He wasn’t sure he would get out in time to go to Springfield, Massachusetts, for this commencement address, or to Yale University where he was scheduled to speak the following day.

Here are some excerpts from Springfield College address, but we urge you to read it in full.

The theme of this speech cautions all social change advocates and activists to make sure they are not “sleeping through a revolution” by not doing everything possible each day to make the world a better place. He urged his listeners first to adopt a world perspective to understand the breadth of our collective social ills. Next? Wipe out poverty. And, third, recognize the “urgency of the moment.”

As long as there is poverty in this world no one can be totally secure. Somehow we are all tied together in this great system of humanity. 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. This is the inter-related structure of reality. John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms: “No man is an island entire in itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” and then he goes on toward the end to say, “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

When we recognize this, King goes on to say, and “are concerned about our brothers who are less fortunate, then we are remaining awake through a great revolution.”

[I]f we are to remain awake through this great revolution, we must work passionately and unrelentingly to remove the last vestiges of racial injustice from our nation and from the world.

In exposing the modern problem of failing to “recognize the urgency of the moment,” King’s words cross time, just as pertinent today as they were 50 years ago.

There are people all around who are saying, “Cool off.” There are individuals all around who are saying, “You are pushing things too fast.” And they are saying only time can solve the problem. The only answer that we can give to the myth of time is that time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I am absolutely convinced that the forces of ill will in our nation have used time much more effectively than the forces of good will. And I am absolutely convinced that the Wallace’s, the extreme rightists and the individuals committed to negative ends have used time much more effectively in our nation than the individuals committed to positive ends. And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people who will bomb a church in Birmingham, Alabama, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say wait on time. Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals . . .time itself becomes an ally of the primitive and insurgent forces of irrational emotionalism and social stagnation.

 

The speech happens to elucidate the roots and foundations on which VenusPlusX stands, articulated in our recently release of our Manifesto for a New Age of Sexual Freedom, which begins: “The New Age of Sexual Freedom is synonymous with the end of sexism and racism (the greatest form of sexual oppression), and the end of nationalism for the purposes of war (the greatest form of racism), in the shortest amount of time (because we are killing each other).”

We hope social justice advocates everywhere will be inspired by this speech and more of King’s writings, and reflect on what more then can do, how many other people they can awaken to their cause, and how we can all avoid sleeping through the revolution.

Photo by Anne Adrian Flickr/Creative Commons

Photo by Anne Adrian
Flickr/Creative Commons

 

Alison Gardner

Alison Gardner

Alison Gardner is co-founder of VenusPlusX, and writes frequently on global sexual freedom, American fundamentalists exporting hate and homophobia, and grassroots activism.
Alison Gardner