By Rev. Dr. CJ Rhodes, II
JA Guest Writer
Editor’s Note: Rev. C.J. Rhodes was the guest speaker for the annual Tougaloo College/Millsaps partnership celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. The event was held the evening of Monday, January 16 at Millsaps College’s Yates Chapel. This is his speech in its entirety.
Good evening. Thank you, Reena [Evers-Everette], for that generously kind introduction. You and your family mean more to me than you know.
To Presidents Pearigen and Walters, and all gathered here representing Millsaps College and Tougaloo College, respectively; to other program participants; members of the clergy, including Bishop Sharma Lewis of the Mississippi United Methodist Conference and retiring Bishop Brian Seage of the Episcopal Church; to those ice cold Men of Distinction, my brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.; members of Mt. Helm Church who are present; and to all of you. It is good for us to be here.
This is a full circle moment for me, speaking here tonight on the campus of Millsaps College. My dad, Attorney Carroll Rhodes Sr., was one of the first rural African American students to integrate the college back in 1969. I am truly grateful.
Tonight, we gather to hear a fresh Dr. King’s call to conscience that he offered up 56 years ago in his final address as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization he co-founded. In 1967, approximately a year before his assassination, he invited the SCLC to reflect upon how far the nation came since the beginning of the Movement, and what was left undone. As one reads the speech in its entirety, one can sense King’s urgency for addressing the future of the Movement, while also leaning in on some matters he felt were essential to strengthening the resolve of Black people seeking total freedom.
Reading this speech in its entirety and lifting up salient points made therein, is an exercise in comprehension. Every year, we see people take excerpts and quotations from Dr. King’s body of work, extrapolating from their context – a problem with this, as any biblical exegete or literary scholar will tell you, is that you lose context this way.
My first encounter with complete Dr. King messages occurred in high school. While at lunch one day, my Oral Communications teacher slid an audio cassette to me and said she wanted me to deliver one of his speeches during the upcoming Black History Month program. I objected, noting I was too shy to stand up in front of my peers and speak. “I’m not asking you,” she sternly replied. “I’m telling you that you are going to do it.” I complied, took the audio cassette home and listened to the A and B sides daily to learn the words, the cadence, and message. Listening to his sermons, every word of them, helped me understand his argument, one that is often lost when we think of King as merely a colorblind prophet or eloquent instigator.
So, what of King’s 1967 message to the SCLC? It can be read as two complementary parts, asking two separate but equally important questions. First, he asked, Where are we? This was retrospective of all that had been accomplished during the first decade of the Movement. So much had changed in public accommodations, voting, and civil rights. But there was still so much to be done. Housing inequity, income inequality, chronic unemployment, infant mortality, and educational segregation were still pressing issues. For all their victories, King knew that they could not rest on their laurels. There was unfinished business. Leaders worth their salt constantly assess where they have been and where they are. This kind of perspective is important for every organization.
Because of an awareness of where they were in 1967, King raised a second, but maybe more important question: Where do we go from here? The unfinished work of the Movement had to be addressed. King’s own perspective evolved during that decade, especially after his experience in Chicago and Cicero, IL. The problem of white supremacy and economic devastation caused him to interrogate how far the Movement had gone. Furthermore, his prophetic outcry against the Vietnam War, putting him at odds with President Johnson, caused him to lose many friends, both white and Black. But his conscience would not allow him to remain silent. So, he offered at least three answers to the question.
First, he believed Blacks must massively assert dignity and worth by “develop[ing] an unassailable and majestic sense of values.” We need to know who and whose we are. In our day, it would be a shame for us to drive down Lynch Street but not know who John Roy Lynch was, or to drive down Medgar Evers Boulevard but not honor the man who shed his blood for us to vote. We can’t attend Alcorn State University and not appreciate how Hiram Rhodes Revels stepped down from the United States Senate to lead us. We must never forget that Fannie Lou Hamer got sick and tired of being sick and tired and did something about it. Debates around Critical Race Theory (CRT) today evade and avoid not only the long history of institutional racism in government, law, and business, but also the insidious ways language, art, philosophy, and theology have conspired to render inferior Black people. King knew then what we should know now: Black people have to believe in our inherent greatness in order to truly be free. He contended:
“To upset this cultural homicide, the Negro must rise up with an affirmation of his own Olympian manhood. Any movement for the Negro’s freedom that overlooks this necessity is only waiting to be buried. As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free. Psychological freedom, a firm sense of self-esteem, is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery. No Lincolnian emancipation proclamation or Johnsonian civil rights bill can totally bring this kind of freedom. The negro will only be free when he reaches down to the inner depths of his own being and signs with the pen and ink of assertive manhood his own emancipation proclamation. And, with a spirit straining toward true self-esteem, the Negro must boldly throw off the manacles of self-abegnation and say to himself and to the world, I am somebody. I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honor. I have a rich and noble history. How painful and exploited that history has been. Yes, I was a slave through my foreparents and I am not ashamed of that. I’m ashamed of the people who were so sinful to make me a slave. Yes, we must stand up and say, I’m black and I’m beautiful, and this self-affirmation is the black man’s need, made compelling by the white man’s crimes against him.”
A people who knows their history, their somebodiness, would be an unstoppable force for good. I know this is a mixed audience, but I want to center Black folks for a moment. You have to know that you are somebody, that you are beautiful as you are – from your lips, hips, to fingertips. You are fearfully and wonderfully made, yes, the texture of your hair and the complexion of your skin. You are somebody!
Second, King advocated that we “organize our strength in terms of economic and political power.” He noted, “There is nothing wrong with power if power is used correctly. You see, what happened is that some of our philosophers got off base. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites – polar opposites – so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.” He’s right to note that we in the church are especially allergic to conversations about power, even those we engage in power plays all the time. But this collectivist approach, this call to organize is so important.
I think about that scene in the movie “Soul Food” with the grandmother encouraging her family to stick together. She illustrates this togetherness by telling them the difference between individual fingers and when those fingers ball up into a fist. A fist can strike a mighty blow. Too many of us try to change things as one finger, rather than as a collective force. What would happen if just Millsaps and Tougaloo worked together to address the water crisis in Jackson? How might unjust lending practices change in Jackson if several churches pulled our money out of banks with unfair lending practices? We are better together and have the collective power to change the political and economic realities of today.
Third, King encouraged that “[t]he movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society.”Fundamentally, for all the good the Civil Rights Movement accomplished, the unfinished work before them was economic in nature. King offered a third way beyond communism and capitalism: “Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the Kingdom of Brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of Communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis.” In those last few years, King was assembling a rainbow coalition of America’s poor through the Poor Peoples’ Campaign. He insisted that until America reckoned with economic repair and redistribution, we would not fully live out the American Dream.
It is amazing how the issues Dr. King spoke to in 1967 are just as relevant in 2023. We see in our own city and own time how racism, classism, and militarism continue to haunt us. The work is unfinished; we have not arrived. Therefore, we must remain dissatisfied. I leave you with King’s last words in this speech:
“So, I conclude by saying again today that we have a task and let us go out with a divine dissatisfaction. Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent sanitary home. Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality, integrated education. Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity. Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character and not on the basis of the color of their skin. Let us be dissatisfied.
“Let us be dissatisfied until every state capitol houses a governor who will do justly, who will love mercy and who will walk humbly with his God. Let us be dissatisfied until from every city hall, justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Let us be dissatisfied until that day when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. Let us be dissatisfied. And men will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout White Power! – when nobody will shout Black Power! – but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.”
Let us remain dissatisfied.