I had dared to hope that I was finally healthy enough to bring energy and imagination to the world again. But Whack-a-mole returned. A few weeks after I wrote a New Year’s letter celebrating my improved health, I was diagnosed with heart failure almost as severe my original diagnosis 13 years ago. A specialized pacemaker, a new medication and medically supervised exercise hold out the hope of a stronger heart. I need ways to hold onto this hope and persevere in “working the program.”
As the U.S. commemorates the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this week, words of King included in an article in the Washington Post inspire me to keep on keepin’ on.
In “King was unpopular and demoralized before he died. He pressed on anyway,” Stephen Kendrick and Paul Kendrick remind me of both a part of the Civil Rights struggle many of us forget and the perseverance of hope:
The shot that echoed in the Memphis dusk 50 years ago still reverberates through our national life, yet there is so much about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. we find hard to absorb.
In our long effort to moderate King, to make him safe, we have forgotten how unpopular he had become by 1968. In his last years, King was harassed, dismissed and often saddened. These years after Selma are often dealt with in a narrative rush toward martyrdom, highlighting his weariness. But what is missed is his resilience under despair. It was when his plans faltered under duress that something essential emerged. The final period of King’s life may be exactly what we need to recall, bringing lessons from that time of turmoil to our time of disillusion.
Celebrating the march out of Selma, Ala., and his early prophetic optimism made sense in the heady Obama years. Now, we need King’s determined faithfulness.
Once refusing to get on a flight in 1967, King called his wife, Coretta, from the airport saying, “I get tired of going and not having any answers.” His opposition to the Vietnam War cost him support. At a time of emerging Black Power, King’s dream of integration and nonviolence seemed to many insufficient, almost passé. Yet he died still trying to confront “the evil triplets,” how “racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together.”
An unguarded King who still speaks to us can be found in transcripts of Southern Christian Leadership Conference retreats. [At the Penn Center on St. Helena Island, S.C.,] he told his staff in 1966, “I am still searching myself. I don’t have all the answers.” He challenged them — and us — “I’m not talking about some kind of superficial optimism which is little more than magic. I’m talking about that kind of hope that has an ‘in spite of’ quality.”
[Just four months before his assassination, he told a similar gathering,] “Hope is the final refusal to give up.” King did not just assert this but also lived the belief, by continuing to put his body into his nation’s gun sights. His lack of answers did not keep him from his destiny — which was not fate so much as the result of his choice to show up, to keep on.
Every era finds the King it needs. The version we need now is a King who pressed on through doubt to see a radical vision, as we must [with] the challenges we face. King ran out of certainty but never faith.