Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. set himself against two false conceptions of time and offered a profoundly original alternative.
One false idea was what he called in the Letter from a Birmingham Jail the “tragic misconception” that time flows inevitably toward justice. This is a linear, progressive theory. It has always been popular in the United States, where the white majority has tilted toward optimism and self-satisfaction. We tell ourselves that although we have faults, “the current has set steadily in one direction: toward democratic forms” (John Dewey). This kind of optimism has also been influential in liberal Protestantism and can even have a metaphysical underpinning: since God is omnipotent and good, things will work out, both in this life and the next.
It can imply that people should calm down and wait for justice. The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is King’s response to messages like this one, which he says he received “from a white brother in Texas”: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.”
Rev. King answers, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never. We must come to see … that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.'”
King was equally opposed to the idea that time is static, that a society cannot fundamentally change. One version of this idea says that White supremacy is evil but also foundational and highly unlikely ever to yield. A different version is held by white supremacists. George Wallace, for instance, emphasized that history was, and must remain, static. When he cried, “Segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever,” Wallace was denying the passage of time. And he presented this stance as nothing new: “we sound the drum … as have our generations of forebears before us done, time and time again through history.”
King’s alternative view had three features.
First, the flow of time is up to us. History is neither a tragedy–with a foreordained evil conclusion–nor a comedy, inevitably moving toward a happen end. Nor are we stuck in a changeless present. “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”
Second, the past is always present. It infuses our own time. In the “I Have a Dream Speech,” King says, “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. . … It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. … But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check.”
The founding of the republic was almost two centuries in the past, yet the promissory note was still on the books. (And still is today.) That was not quite a metaphor, because King was quite literal about the need for repayment, for reparations. But the idea that the debts of the past are still carried on the nation’s books was one of many tropes he used to convey the continued existence of the past.
Third, we can make the future present. We can envision a better conclusion and pull that vision into our own time. For instance, we can imagine a future when the government founded by Jefferson and Madison pays its debts to the descendants of the people they had enslaved, thus changing the relationship between the past and the present. Once we imagine that moment, we can work to accomplish it.
King’s “Dream” that Black and white Georgians will “sit down together at the table of brotherhood”–while Mississippi is “transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice”–is not a prediction or a forecast. It is an invention whose purpose is to motivate the quarter of a million people who gathered on the National Mall on August 28, 1963.
And it was remarkable that they had gathered there. Popular movements–and especially nonviolent popular movements with idealistic causes–defy realistic predictions. Individuals usually calculate the costs and risks for themselves against the benefits for themselves. To join a social movement, especially in the face of vicious opposition, is costly and dangerous. Any benefits are speculative. It is rational to stand aside and see if other people struggle for justice. If they do, the problem may be solved without an individual’s having to take the risk. And if they don’t, the individual’s sacrifice would have been pointless anyway.
Yet people occasionally defy this logic and rise up together in large numbers in the same time and place. Montgomery in 1955, Birmingham in 1963, the Washington Mall later in 1963, and Selma in 1965 were moments when the future suddenly broke into the present. To delay them would have destroyed them.
In his last speech, “I Have Been to the Mountaintop,” King diagnoses the challenge (oppressed people calculate their individual interests and fail to congeal as a movement) and reminds his audience of the power of acting in concert:
Now what does all this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. (Yeah) We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula of doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. [Applause] But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. [Applause] Now let us maintain unity.
Note again the analysis of time. Pharoah wants to keep things static, to “prolong the period of slavery.” As soon as the slaves “get together,” the future comes into view.
People sometimes quote King’s line that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” to suggest that progress is inevitable–perhaps because of divine providence. He said those words at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march, which had been fraught, controversial even within the movement, and very nearly a failure. That day, a tragic conclusion was all too easy to imagine. After envisioning a future when “society [is] at peace with itself” and “can live with its conscience,” King says, “I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?'” He gives a series of calls and responses, each beginning “How long? Not long, because …” This is the context in which he mentions the arc of the universe. He does not mean that it will surely carry us to justice and that we can confidently wait for that day. No one who had marched with him to Montgomery would have imagined that. He is telling his audience that they can bend the arc, that they can move the future closer.
In short, the past is always still present, the future can break into today, we can move our vision across time, and we can determine how things end.
Wallace had imagined waves of white supremacists standing in the way of justice, one generation after another. King instead invoked a series of prophets, “extremists for justice,” who were able to envision history’s conclusion and thus speak to us from their own times. In the “Letter,” King names five religious prophets–Amos, Jesus, Paul, Martin Luther, and John Bunyan–and two secular democratic ones, Jefferson and Lincoln. He also credits six contemporary white men and women (most of whose names I do not recognize) for writing “about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms.”
Prophesy means transcending the present to affect the future. In Stride to Freedom, King had written, “Any discussion of the Christian minister today must ultimately emphasize the need for prophecy. … May the problem of race in America soon make hearts burn so that prophets will rise up, saying, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ and cry out as Amos did, ‘. . . let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.'” As his career progressed, he constantly returned to the nineteen biblical books traditionally called Nevi’im, prophecies. For instance, in the “I Have a Dream Speech,” King again quoted Amos 5:24 along with Isaiah 40:4 (“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain”).
This genre of prophecy typically begins with a moral condemnation of the present, often directed explicitly at the most powerful people: the kings, priests, and rich men:
Forasmuch therefore as your treading is upon the poor, and ye take from him burdens of wheat: ye have built houses of hewn stone, but ye shall not dwell in them; ye have planted pleasant vineyards, but ye shall not drink wine of them.
For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins: they afflict the just, they take a bribe, and they turn aside the poor in the gate from their right. (Amos 5:11-12)
The prophecy may forecast the punishment and fall of these wicked men. “Woe unto you,” says the Lord, through Amos, six verses later. The prophet then envisions a better time, a time of justice. This is not a forecast based on continuing the current trends into the future. Rather, it is moral and hortatory. If the people begin to act righteously, then God will help them make the world better. “Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish judgment in the gate: it may be that the Lord God of hosts will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph” (Amos 5:15).
King’s last–and arguably greatest–speech was also his most explicitly prophetic. He had come to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. A mass march had gone badly from his perspective. It had turned violent, at least around the edges. Film of the event strongly suggests that police instigated the violence. King blamed the press for focusing on some “window breaking” instead of the structural violence against Black workers. Yet he was shaken by his own inability to preserve nonviolent discipline. This was the first time he had joined or led a march in which the protesters had failed to turn the other cheek. He was also exhausted and ill, unwilling to speak or even to travel to the venue in the midst of a thunderstorm. He forced himself to go anyway.
We know that he had one less than day left to live, and we must read the speech with that hindsight.
He starts with the now. He says, “something is happening in Memphis, something is happening in our world.” From there, he moves immediately out of the linear flow of time. He asks us to imagine him “standing at the beginning of time with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now” and conversing with the immortal Almighty. He traverses history, mentioning some of the high points, and concludes that the time when he would most like to live is the present. Things certainly seem bad, “but I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”
Once again, he sees the future in the present, taking the form of a voluntary popular movement. “Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up.” At the beginning of his career, he would have emphasized the protesters in his immediate surroundings, but now he sees that the uprising is global. People are “assembled today” in Johannesburg, Nairobi, Accra, New York City, Atlanta, Jackson, and where he stands, Memphis. “The cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.'”
He rehearses the glorious moments of the movement so far, emphasizing the mightiness of a unified nonviolent struggle. He commends the preachers in attendance for their prophetic voices and quotes Amos as the exemplary prophet. He makes the case for economic pressure. He acknowledges people’s fear and exhorts them not to stop when the time is so critical. He recalls when he was nearly assassinated and gives thanks that he survived, because then he could witness the moments when unified people overcame oppression: sit-ins, freedom rides, Albany, Birmingham, Selma. Interestingly, he includes tactical failures, like Albany, and moments when he was not personally involved.
And then he turns to the future, which we know and which he seems uncannily to foresee with less than 24 hours left to live:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. (Amen) But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. (Yeah) [Applause] And I don’t mind. [Applause continues] Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. (Yeah) And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. (Go ahead) And I’ve looked over (Yes sir), and I’ve seen the Promised Land. (Go ahead) I may not get there with you. (Go ahead) But I want you to know tonight (Yes), that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. [Applause] (Go ahead, Go ahead) 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. [Applause]
I am influenced here by David Luban, “Difference Made Legal: The Court and Dr. King.” Michigan Law Review 87, no. 8 (1989): 2152-2224. Luban insightfully compares King to Walter Benjamin. See also: the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theology; notes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and King; Martin Luther and Martin Luther King; no justice, no peace? (on the relationship between these concepts); Martin Luther King as a philosopher; learning from Memphis, 1968; against inevitability; “Another Time for Freedom? Lessons from the Civil Rights Era,” etc.