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Home » Transcript: The Last Sunday Sermon of MLK (March 31, 1968)

Transcript: The Last Sunday Sermon of MLK (March 31, 1968)

Full text of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last Sunday sermon titled “’Remaining Awake Through A Great Revolution” which was delivered on March 31, 1968, from the Canterbury Pulpit at The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

I need not pause to say how very delighted I am to be here this morning, to have the opportunity of standing in this very great and significant pulpit.

And I do want to express my deep personal appreciation to Dean Sayre and all of the Cathedral clergy for extending the invitation.

It is always a rich and rewarding experience to take a brief break from our day to day demands and the struggle for freedom and human dignity and discuss the issues involved in that struggle with concerned friends of goodwill all over our nation. And certainly it is always a deep and meaningful experience to be in a worship service. And so for many reasons I’m happy to be here today.

I would like to use as a subject from which to preach this morning: ‘Remaining Awake Through A Great Revolution’ .

The text for the morning is found in the Book of Revelation. There are two passages there that I would like to quote, in the [21st] chapter of that book:

“Behold, I make all things new (Revelation 21:5); former things are passed away (2 Corinthians 5:17).”

I’m sure that most of you have read that arresting little story from the pen of Washington Irvin entitled ‘Rip Van Winkle’. The one thing that we usually remember about the story is that Rip Van Winkle slept 20 years.

But there is another point in that little story that is almost always completely overlooked. It was a sign in the end from which Rip went up in the mountain for his long sleep. When Rip Van Winkle went up in the mountain, the sign had a picture of King George III of England. When he came down 20 years later, the sign had a picture of George Washington, the first President of the United States.

Rip Van Winkle looked up at the picture of George Washington but in looking at the picture he was amazed. He was completely lost. He knew not who he was.

And this reveals to us that the most striking thing about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not merely that Rip slept 20 years but that he slept through a revolution.

While he was peacefully snoring up in the mountain, a revolution was taking place that at points would change the course of history and Rip knew nothing about it. He was asleep. As he slept through a revolution.

One of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses that the new situation demands and they end up sleeping through a revolution.

There can be no gainsaying of the fact that the great revolution is taking place in the world today. In the sense it is a triple revolution: that is, a technological revolution with the impact of automation and cybernation; then there is a revolution in weaponry with the emergence of atomic and nuclear weapons of warfare; then there is the human rights revolution with the freedom explosion that is taking place all over the world.

Yes, we do live in a period where changes are taking place, and there is still the voice crying through the vista of time saying, ‘Behold, I make all things new; former things are passed away.’

Now, whenever anything new comes into history it brings with it new challenges and new opportunities. And I would like to deal with the challenges that we face today as a result of this triple revolution that is taking place in the world today.

First, We Are Challenged To Develop A World Perspective.

No individual can live alone. No nation can live alone. And anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution.

The world in which we live is geographically one. The challenge that we face today is to make it one in terms of brotherhood. That is true that the geographical oneness of this age has come in to being to a large extent through modern man’s scientific ingenuity.

Modern man, through his scientific genius has been able to dwarf distance and place, time and change. And our jet planes have compressed into minutes distances that once took weeks and even months.

All of this tells us that our world is a neighborhood. Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood, and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make up it a brotherhood.

But somehow and in some way we’ve got to do this: We must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools.

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We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.

This is the way God’s universe is made. This is the way it’s structured.

John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms.

“No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

And he goes on toward end to say, “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

We must see this, believe this and live by it, if we are to remain awake through a great revolution.

Secondly, we are challenged to eradicate the last vestiges of racial injustice from our nation.

I must say this morning that racial injustice is still the black man’s burden and the white man’s shame. It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans. Spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle, sometimes not so subtle, the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic.

And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly to get rid of the disease of racism. Something positive must be done. Everyone must share in the guilt as individuals and as institutions. The government must certainly share the guilt. Individuals must share the guilt. Even the church must share the guilt.

We must face the sad fact at 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand to sing: ‘in Christ there is no east nor west‘, we stand in the most segregated hour of America.

The hour has come for everybody and for all institutions of the public sector and the private sector to work to get rid of racism.

Now, if we are to do it, we must honestly admit certain things and get rid of certain myths that have constantly been disseminated all over our nation.

One is the myth of time. It is the notion that only time can solve the problem of racial injustice. And there’re those who often sincerely say to the Negro and his allies in the white community, why don’t you slow up? Stop pushing things so fast. Only time can solve the problem. And if you will just be nice and patient and continue to pray, in 100 or 200 years, the problem will work itself out.

That is an answer to that myth. It is that time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I’m sorry to say this morning that I’m absolutely convinced that the forces of ill will in our nation, the extreme rightists of our nation, the people on the wrong side, have used time much more effectively than the forces of goodwill.

And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, wait on time.

Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be coworkers with God.

And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must have time and realize that the time is always right to do right.

Now, there is another myth that still gets around. It is a kind of over reliance on the bootstrap philosophy. And there are those who still feel that if the Negro is to rise out of poverty, if the Negro is to rise out of slum conditions, if he is to rise out of discrimination and segregation, he must do it all by himself.

And so they say, the Negro must lift himself by his own bootstraps. They never stopped to realize that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. The people who say this never stopped to realize that the nation made the black man’s color a stigma. But beyond this, they never stopped to realize the debt that they owe people who were kept in slavery 244 years.

In 1863, the Negro was told that he was free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation being signed by Abraham Lincoln, but he was not given any land to make that freedom meaningful. It was something like keeping a person in prison for a number of years and suddenly discovering that that person is not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted.

And you just go up to him and say, now you are free. But you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money to get some clothes to put on his back or to get on his feet again in life.

Every code of Jurisprudence would rise up against this. And yet this is a very thing that our nation did to the black man. It simply said, you’re free, and it left him there penniless, illiterate, not knowing what to do. And the irony of it all is that at the same time the nation failed to do anything for the black man.

Through an act of Congress, it was giving away millions of acres of land in the west and the Midwest, which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor. But not only did it give the land, it built land grant colleges to teach them how to farm.

Not only that, it provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, as the years unfolded, it provided low interest rates so that they could mechanize our farms. And to this day, thousands of these very persons are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies every year not to farm. And these are so often the very people who tell Negroes that they must lift themselves by their own bootstraps.

It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.

We must come to see that the roots of racism are very deep in our country, and there must be something positive and massive in order to get rid of all of the effects of racism and the tragedies of racial injustice.

There is another thing closely related to racism that I would like to mention as another challenge. We are challenged to rear our nation in the world of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, poverty spreads its nagging, prehensile tentacles in the hamlets and villages all over our world.

Two-thirds of the people of the world go to bed hungry at night. They are ill-housed. They are ill-nourished, they’re shabbily clad. I’ve seen it in Latin America. I’ve seen it in Africa. I’ve seen this poverty in Asia.

I remember some years ago, Mrs. King and I journeyed to that great country known as India and I never will forget the experience. It was a marvelous experience to meet and talk with the great leaders of India and to meet and talk with and speak to thousands and thousands of people all over that vast country. These experiences will remain dear to me as long as the chords of memory shall lengthen.

But I say to you this morning, my friends, there were those depressing moments. How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes, evidences of millions of people going to bed hungry at night?

How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes God’s children sleeping on the sidewalks at night?

In Bombay, more than a million people sleep on the sidewalks every night. In Calcutta, more than 600,000 sleep on the sidewalks every night. They have no beds to sleep in. They have no houses to go in.

How can one avoid being depressed when he discovers that out of India’s population of more than 500 million people, some 480 million make an annual income of less than $90 a year?

Most of them have never seen a doctor or dentist. As I notice these things, something within me cried out “Can we in America stand idly by, and not be concerned?”

And an answer came, oh, no. Because the destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation. And I started thinking of the fact that we spend in America millions of dollars a day to store surplus food. And I said to myself, I know where we can store that food free of charge: in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of God’s children all over the world who go to bed hungry at night.

And maybe we spent far too much of our national budget establishing military bases around the world rather than bases of genuine concern and understanding.

Not only do we see poverty abroad, I would remind you, in our own nation there are about 40 million people who are poverty-stricken. I have seen them here and there. I’ve seen them in the ghettos of the north. I’ve seen them in the rural areas of the south. I’ve seen them in Appalachia.

I’ve just been in the process of touring many areas of our country. And I must confess that in some situations I have literally found myself crying. I was in Marks, Mississippi, the other day, which is in Quitman County, the poorest county in the United States.

I tell you, I saw hundreds of little black boys and black girls walking the streets with no shoes to wear. I saw their mothers and their fathers trying to carry on a little head start program. But they had no money. The federal government hadn’t funded them. They were trying to carry on. And they raised a little money here and there trying to get a little food to feed the children, trying to teach them a little something.

And I saw mothers and fathers who said to me not only were they unemployed, they didn’t get any kind of income. No old age pension, no wealth-aid check or anything. I said, how do you live?

They say, well, we go around, go around to the neighbors and ask them for a little something. When the berry season comes, we pick berries. When the rabbit season comes, we hunt and catch a few rabbits, and that’s about it.

I was in Newark and Harlem just this week and I walked in through the homes of welfare mothers. I saw them in conditions no, not with wall to wall carpet, but wall to all rats and roaches. I stood in an apartment, this welfare mother said to me, the landlord will not repair this place. I’ve been here two years. He had made a single repair.

She pointed out her little boy who was the victim of lead poisoning. She pointed out the walls with all of the ceiling falling through. She showed me the holes where the rats came in. She said, night after night, we have to stay awake, keep the rats and the roaches from getting to the children.

I said, how much do you pay for this apartment? She said, $125.

I looked and I thought and said to myself, it isn’t worth $60.

Poor people are forced to pay more for less. Living in conditions day in and day out, where the whole area is constantly drained without being replenished, it becomes a kind of domestic colony.

The tragedy is, so often these 40 million people are invisible, because America is so affluent, so rich. Because our expressways carry us away from the ghetto, we don’t see the poor.

Jesus told a parable one day, and He reminded us that a man went to hell because he didn’t see the poor. His name was Dives. He was a rich man. And there was a man by the name of Lazarus who was a poor man. But not only was he poor, he was sick. Sores were all over his body. He was so weak that he could hardly move.

He managed to get to the gate of Dives every day, wanting just to have the crumbs that would fall from his table. Dives did nothing about it.

The parable ends saying, ‘Dives went to hell. And there was a fixed gulf now between Lazarus and Dives.’ There is nothing in that parable which says the Dives went to hell, because he was rich.

Jesus never made a universal indictment against all wealth. It is true that one day a rich young ruler came to Him, and He advised him to sell all. But in that instance, Jesus was prescribing individual surgery and not setting forth a universal diagnosis.

And if you will look at that parable with all of its symbolism, you will remember that a conversation took place between heaven and hell. And on the other end of that long distance called between heaven and hell was Abraham in heaven, talking to Dives in hell.

Now, Abraham was a very rich man. If you go back to the Old Testament, you see that he was the richest man of his days. So it was not a rich man in hell talking with a poor man in heaven. It was a little millionaire in hell talking with a multi-millionaire in heaven.

Dives didn’t go to hell, because he was rich. Dives didn’t realize that his wealth was his opportunity. It was his opportunity to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus.

Dives went to hell, because he passed by Lazarus every day and he never really saw him. He went to hell, because he allowed his brother to become invisible.

Dives went to hell, because he maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum. Indeed, Dives went to hell because he sought to be a conscientious objector in the war against poverty.

This can happen to America, the richest nation in the world. There’s nothing wrong with that. This is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it.

There’s nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.

In a few weeks, some of us are coming to Washington to see if the will is still alive or if it is alive in this nation. We are coming to Washington in a Poor People’s campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. We are going to bring those who have known long years of hurt and neglect. We’re going to bring those who have come to feel that life is a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign.

We’re going to bring children and adults and old people, people who’ve never seen a doctor or dentist in their lives. We are not coming to engage in any histrionic gesture. We’re not coming to tab Washington. We are coming to demand that the government will address itself to the problem of poverty.

We read one day, we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life, nor liberty and the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.

We’re coming to ask America to be true to the huge promise [indiscernible] that it signed years ago. We are coming to engage in dramatic non-violent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment, to make the invisible visible.

Why do we do it this way?

We do it this way because it is our experience that the nation doesn’t move around questions of genuine equality for the poor and for black people until it is confronted massively, dramatically in terms of direct action.

Great documents are here to tell us something should be done. We met here some years ago in the White House Conference on Civil Rights and we are with the same recommendations that we will be demanding in our campaign here. But nothing has been done.

The President’s Commission on Technology Automation and Economic Progress recommended these things some time ago. Nothing has been done.

Even the urban coalition made up of mayors of most of the cities of our country and the leading businessmen have said that these things should be done. Nothing has been done.

The Kerner Commission came out with its report just a few days ago and then made specific recommendations. Nothing has been done.

And I submit that nothing will be done until people of goodwill put their bodies and their souls in motion and it will be the kind, the sole force brought into being as a result of this confrontation that I believe will make the difference.

Yes, it will be a Poor People’s campaign. This is a question facing America. Ultimately, a great nation is a compassionate nation.

America has not met its obligations and its responsibilities to the poor. One day we will have to stand before the God of history and we will talk in terms of things we’ve done. Yes, we will be able to say we built gargantuan bridges to span the seas. We built gigantic buildings to kiss the sky. Yes, we made our submarines to penetrate oceanic depths. We brought into being many other things with our scientific and technological power.

It seems that I can hear the God of history saying, “That was not enough! But I was hungry and ye fed Me not. I was naked and ye clothed Me not. I was devoid of a decent sanitary house to live in and ye provided no shelter for Me. And consequently you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness. If ye do it unto the least of these, My brethren, you do it unto Me.”

That’s the question facing America today.

And I want to say one other challenge that we face is simply that We Must Find An Alternative To War And Bloodshed.

Anyone who feels, and there’s still a lot of people who feel that way that war can solve the social problems facing mankind is sleeping through a revolution.

President Kennedy said on one occasion, “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.”

The world must hear this. I pray God that America will hear this before it is too late. Because today we are fighting a war. I’m convinced that it is one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world.

Our involvement in the war in Vietnam has torn up the Geneva Accord. It has strengthened the military industrial complex. It has strengthened the forces of reaction in our nation. It has put us against the self-determination of the vast majority of Vietnamese people and put us in a position of protecting a corrupt regime that is stacked against the poor.

It has played havoc with our domestic destinies. This day we are spending $500,000 to kill every Viet Cong soldier. Every time we kill one, we spend about $500,000, while we spend only $53 a year for every person characterized as poverty stricken in the so called poverty program, which is not even a good skirmish against poverty.

But not only that, it has put us in a position of appearing to the world as an arrogant nation. Here we are 10,000 miles away from home, fighting for the so called freedom of the Vietnamese people when we’ve not even put our own house in order.

We force young black men and young white men to fight and kill in brutal solidarity. Yet when they come back home, they can’t hardly live on the same block together.

The judgment of God is upon us today and we could go right down the line and see that something must be done, and something must be done quickly. We have alienated ourselves from other nations so we end up morally and politically isolated in the world.

There’s not a single major allied of the United States of America that would dare send a troop to Vietnam. And so the only friends that we have now are the few quiet nations like Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea and a few others. This is where we are.

Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.

And the best way to start is to put an end to the war in Vietnam. Because if it continues, we will inevitably come to the point of confronting China which could lead the whole world of nuclear annihilation.

It is no longer the choice, my friends, between violence and non-violence. It is either non-violence or non-existence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation. And our earthly habitat will be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.

This is why I felt the need of raising my voice against that war and working wherever I can to arouse the conscience of our nation on it.

I remember so well when I first took the stand against the war in Vietnam. The critics took me on and they had their say in the most negative and sometimes most vicious way.

One day a newsman came to me and said “Dr. King, don’t you think you’re going to have to stop now opposing the war and move more in line with the administration’s policy, as I understand it is at the budget of your organization and people who once respect you have lost respect. People who once respected you have lost respect for you. Don’t you feel that you really got to change your position?”

I looked at him and I had to say, ‘Sir, I’m sorry, you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or by taking a sort of Gallup Poll of the majority opinion. Ultimately, a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a mold of consensus.”

On some positions, cowardice asks the question: is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?

And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular. But he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.

And I believe today that there is a need for all people of goodwill to come with a massive act of conscience and say, in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “We ain’t going to study war no more.”

This is the challenge facing modern man. Let me close by saying that we have difficult days ahead in the struggle for justice and peace. But I will not yield to a politic of despair. I’m going to maintain hope.

As we come to Washington, in this campaign, the cards are stacked against us. This time we will really confront a Goliath. God grant that we will be that David of truth set out against the Goliath of injustice, the Goliath of neglect, the Goliath of refusing to deal with the problems and go on with the determination to make America the truly great America that it is called to be.

I say to you that our goal is freedom. And I believe we’re going to get there because however much she strays away from it, the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be as a people, our destiny is tied up in the destiny of America.

Before the Pilgrim fathers landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before Jefferson etched across the pages of history the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here. Before the beautiful words of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ were written, we were here.

For more than two centuries, our forebearers labored here without wages. They made cotton king, and they built the homes of their masters in the midst of the most humiliating and oppressive conditions. And yet, out of a bottomless vitality, they continued to grow and develop.

If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery couldn’t stop us, the opposition that we now face will surely fail. We are going to win our freedom because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the Almighty God are embodied in our echoing demand.

So however dark it is, however deep the angry feelings and the violent explosions are, I can still sing “We Shall Overcome.”

We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

We shall overcome because Carlyle is right: “No lie can live forever.”

We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right: “Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.”

We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right as we were singing earlier today: Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne. Yet that scaffold sways the future. And behind the dim unknown standeth God Within the shadow keeping watch above his own.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair the stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

Thank God for John who centuries ago, out on a lonely, obscure island called Patmos caught vision of the new Jerusalem descending out of heaven from God, who heard a voice saying behold, “I make all things new. Former things are passed away.”

God grant that we would be participants in this newness and this magnificent development if we will, but do it. We will bring about a new day of justice and brotherhood and peace. And that day, the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy.

God bless you.

For Further Reading:

What Is Your Life’s Blueprint? by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Full Transcript)

Martin Luther King, Jr.: 3 Dimensions of a Complete Life (Transcript)

Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have Been to the Mountaintop Full Speech (Transcript)

Martin Luther King on I Have a Dream on August 28, 1963 Full Speech (Transcript)


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