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Peretz on King at Memorial Church

Iartin H. Peretz, Instructor in Social Studies made these remarks at last Tuesday's memorial service for Dr. King.)



FOR THOSE of us who counted Martin Luther King as a friend, the grief of these days comes with a special and immediate intensity. For those qualities of buoyancy and openness of dignity and simplicity, that made so compelling from a public platform, were able to move millions of people to belief, to deed and to courage, were hardly less apparent in private moments than in others.

I have known men and women for whom a single encounter with Dr. King has become a landmark in their lives. Had I met him but once, it would have been so for me. But too much should not be inferred from direct contact. He harbored no secrets from his vast congregation of the hopeless. He did not posture for the masses, and all of us saw him change and knew of his anxieties.

This is not to say, however, that nothing distinguished the public from the private man; clearly and at minimum, he was able to share with his family and only most intimate circle of coworkers almost incredible reservoirs of fortitute for just such tragic moments as these; and little of this strength is ours. His death for them is a station on an inexorable road to redemption; while it leaves us afraid and desolate.


Those of us who simply knew him, whose lives were personally touched by his fire, and who listened to the musical cadence and vaulting poetry of his speech--"I have a dream, the last, free at last, (only last Wednesday) I have been to the mountain top"--and those marched behind him for justice, we are together now, in communion with his spirit.


BUT AS A friend and as a follower, to be faithful to him as I knew him and understood his creed, I must take upon myself the unhappy responsibility or at least the risk, of marring the effusive and superficial, but very official, harmony which has wet-blanketed our country since that day in Memphis not yet a week ago.

Is this too un-Christian, too uncharitable a response to events? One cannot, I suppose, begrudge the powerful their characteristic unction in these circumstances. Indeed, it may remind us again of how different he was from them.

But lest they end up paying empty tribute to the man at no cost save that in the substance of his cause, we now must, as he did, speak truth to power. Do not establish a national holiday on his birthday or issue stamps in his memory, or make any other gestures on this order. These will not even avert the riots we fear. Do not do these, unless you--unless we--are really prepared to act out the content of his life, the explicit politics of his religion.


And so we must say from the very first that non-violence is not law and order, nor is it even stability. It is an order of justice, and not the order of the present. The doctrine of non-violence, suddenly so cherished by men of high office and station who abused Dr. King in life, who were threatened by his methods and callously indifferent to the goals for which he struggled, is not one he would have recognized as his.

Did they not, all of them, to a man, counsel him "Do not hold this march," "Do not demonstrate now?" Did they not all betray him? Martin Luther King believed in non-violence as a strategy and as an end. He was one of those rarest of men in whom values and action, means and purposes are one.

But he was able to distinguish between the violence of the oppressed and the violence of the oppressor. And while he abhorred both, for him, as distinguished from the official preferences, the violence done in uniform against the insurgent wretched had no lesser immoral onus attached to it, but an infinitely greater one.


For A government which he though to be the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today to lecture others on non-violence, he saw as unseemly at best. This is not to condone, as he himself did not condone. And thus one must in candor, point out that many of those who now luxuriatingly inflame to violence are often, as Orwell once suggested, those who are always elsewhere when the trigger is pulled, who "playing with fire don't even know that fire is hot."

May I remind also that of those who seek now to build duchies of hatred on Dr. King's death. many had disdained him, patronized him, scorned him, sneered at him, as De Lawd, as Chump, though he left scars on the map of history as no burning city could.


But if we may reproach our white brothers who so indulge themselves now, in vicarious violence, I do not believe we are justified, least of all in memory of Martin Luther King, in reproaching the black man for his tactics and advising him on his strategy.

The counsel of reason in the black communuty does not depend on the white man's advice. It does depend on our acts. I am saddened, we are all saddened, by the separate gathering outside this church. Our service here today is an act of brotherhood. Yet I would offer as injunction to us the words of The Talmud, "Do not attempt to pacify a man at the height of his anger. But respect it."


FOR US, NOW, there is in any event enough to do with our own souls, our own institutions and society. We are to Dr. King after all as the mill owner's sister was to Gandhi--not guilty of the faults of his adversaries, but also not able to claim his virtues.

The burdens of the immediate future will be taxing enough if we would assume them. Dr. King was planning a Poor People's March on Washington, an act of creative disorder, deliberately contingently disruptive. Will we move with the hungry, those tired at last of the preconditions of their hunger, the conditions of their indignity? Or will we watch?

Will we make Martin Luther King's undiminished and unyielding dream of an integrated and just society of black and white a reality? Or will we allow the slow motion of judicial, all deliberate speed to continue to maim the minds of the young, black and white alike?


Mrs. King on Saturday reminded us that her husband, the father of their children, died for the garbage collectors of Memphis and the peasants of Veitnam. Let us not forget that with an ever clearer and more systematic analysis of our society and its wrongs, this good man, who did not shrink from prisons or bayonets, had spent his last energies on bringing this wretched war to a close. As long as the bombs drop and the guns fire, those sounds and the piercing cries of the victims drown out the homilies of tribute to Martin Luther King.

Now is the time for all of us--all of us to examine our consciences, acknowledge our guilts.


IT IS IRONIC, isn't it, that the full integration of this Negro into society had to await his death. Here too! Our seniors, however, movingly and deeply aware of the inadequacies and dubious relevance of received wisdom to their lives, had asked Dr. King to address them at their Class Day exercises.

Isn't it sad--I hope one could say isn't it strange--that our university which has, at Commencements these last years, honored politicians and international bankers, scientists and poets, journalists, scholars, and headmasters of elite preparatory schools, had not seen fit to honor--not what we use to call in the old parlance "a credit to his race," but the controversial prod to our self-satisfaction, the extraordinary moral teacher of our time, the prophet of living religious faith, the leader of a truly democratic movement of Americans for freedom and for peace.

This church of course had welcomed him and his ministry. But we may take whatever slight hopes we can from the fact that it was the young who eagerly sought him out. They know, as this beautiful man did and had tried to tell us, that it is now five minutes before midnight, Not earlier. Five minutes before midnight.

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