Forever King

As we remember Martin Luther King Jr., let’s not forget his teachings moved beyond civil rights

Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno. His column, Greenlight, appears weekly in this space.

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, two years before the first Earth Day environmental teach-in was held. I never thought that Dr. King had ever considered the state of the environment. That was before I had the wonderful experience of listening to 11 of his sermons recorded on the Time Warner audio book A Knock at Midnight. I was actually in a car on my way to Los Angeles, but it seemed as if I was in church listening to King preach. His sermons are as meaningful to me today as I believe they were to those who first heard him preach 50 years ago.

During his time on this planet, King did not confine his preaching to civil rights. He came out strongly against the Vietnam War and worked hard to bring about economic justice. In fact, he was in Memphis, Tenn., supporting the garbage workers when he was shot. I believe that if he were still alive, he would be active in the sustainability movement. His 1956 sermon, “Paul’s letter to American Christians,” hints at this possibility.

In the sermon, he imagines that the apostle Paul has written a letter to American Christians. The apostle begins by describing his amazement at the fantastic advances made by Americans.

“I have heard of the fascinating and astounding advances that you have made in the scientific realm. I have heard of your dashing subways and flashing airplanes. … You have been able to carve highways through the stratosphere. So in your world you have made it possible to eat breakfast in New York City and dinner in Paris, France. I have also heard of your skyscraping buildings with their prodigious towers steeping heavenward. I have heard of your great medical advances, which have resulted in the curing of many dread plagues and diseases. … All of that is marvelous.”

Then the apostle turns the table.

“But America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. Your poet Thoreau used to talk about ‘improved means to an unimproved end.’ How often this is true. You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.”

Isn’t this really what the environmental movement is asking for? Fifty years later, all I can say is “Amen.”