MLK’s Last Sunday Sermon: The Case for Reparations
The Kind of Revolution That Martin Luther King Jr. Envisioned
By Esau McCaulley
NYT Opinion, 15 January 2023
“In 1968, four days before he was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his last Sunday sermon at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. It was entitled, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” and although King doesn’t say the word “woke,” he uses the concept as it was understood by many Black folks then, well before the term was co-opted by the political right to refer to any left-leaning policy that it wanted to condemn.”
“King often focused on the financial impacts of white supremacy and the need for America to make amends for its exploitation of Black labor. In the “awake” sermon, King gave a basic and compelling case for reparations based on the “debt” this country owed its Black citizens. He said:
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 … But they never stop to realize the debt that they owe a 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, suddenly discovering that that person is not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. And … 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.
For King, waking up is not simply understanding that racism is bad; it is acknowledging that racism created generational wealth for white Americans and robbed Black Americans of the same economic boost. The racial wealth gap King highlighted in his sermon not only persists, but, according to some studies, is basically the same as it was in 1968.
In his sermon, King pointed out that at the same time that this country didn’t offer any assistance to Black people, it was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest to whites.
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 their farms. And to this day thousands of these very persons are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies every year not to farm….”
MLK on March 31, 1968 at the National Cathedral: