I crave the sound of a call and response—the verbal and non-verbal interaction between a speaker and listener—that is endemic to democratic participation in public matters; the kind of call that allows us to acknowledge misfortune, ruination, or loss, followed by a response proclaiming that freedom and justice are close at hand. It’s a reminder that we have reason to be hopeful.
Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a eulogy for Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Diane Wesley, and Carole Robertson, the four children killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing on Sunday, September 15, 1963. King’s message is time honored, foretelling, and tragically predictive that we would not see the last of violence, suffering, and sorrow.
In the tradition of so many spirituals, King called the faithful to bear witness to ineffable sadness and in doing so, reminds us of our ultimate calling:
These children—unoffending, innocent, and beautiful—were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity. And yet they died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. And so this afternoon in a real sense they have something to say to each of us in their death….They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.
In the tradition of the spirituals that allow us to move from suffering to hope, King calls on our redemptive spirit:
And so my friends, they did not die in vain….The death of these little children may lead our whole Southland from the low road of man’s inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood. These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color. The spilled blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.
The leader’s voice calls for a response that summons justice and human worth. And while we often want to hear King invoke the view from the mountaintop, he reminds us of the reality that the journey up there means that we have to walk through the darkness and through the shadows so that we come to see certain truths:
And so I stand here to say this afternoon to all assembled here, that in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter, nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality.
Negro spirituals are a stunning and beautiful expression of humanity. They can be anthems that transcend a given moment and feed the aspirations and desires of the human soul. King began his sermon by calling attention to the tragedy. He ends by invoking the promise of a new day. And as with so many spirituals, so many of King’s sermons—we, the congregation, have the opportunity to respond. In the words of King:
Now I say to you in conclusion, life is hard, at times as hard as crucible steel. It has its bleak and difficult moments. Like the ever-flowing waters of the river, life has its moments of drought and its moments of flood. Like the ever-changing cycle of the seasons, life has the soothing warmth of its summers and the piercing chill of its winters.
You gave to this world wonderful children. They didn’t live long lives, but they lived meaningful lives. Their lives were distressingly small in quantity, but glowingly large in quality. And no greater tribute can be paid to you as parents, and no greater epitaph can come to them as children, than where they died and what they were doing when they died. They did not die in the dives and dens of Birmingham, they died between the sacred walls of the church of God, and they were discussing the eternal meaning of love. This stands out as a beautiful, beautiful thing for all generations. Shakespeare had Horatio to say some beautiful words as he stood over the dead body of Hamlet. And today, as I stand over the remains of these beautiful, darling girls, I paraphrase the words of Shakespeare: Good night, sweet princesses. Good night, those who symbolize a new day. And may the flight of angels take thee to thy eternal rest. God bless you.