But if not

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, a “video” of King’s sermon — “But If Not” — at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on 5 November 1967. The whole thing is well worth a listen, but the real takeaway moment comes at 18:25:

I say to you, this morning, if you have never found something so dear and precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live.

You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be, and one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid.

You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house. So you refuse to take the stand.

Well, you may go on and live until you are 90, but you are just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90.

And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.

You died when you refused to stand up for right.

You died when you refused to stand up for truth.

You died when you refused to stand up for justice.

Side note: I learned about this particular sermon of King’s from Paul Beatty’s tour-de-force first novel The White Boy Shuffle, where a slight variation on the first part of the quote above is at the center a major turning point in the story. Shuffle ends (and I can say this much without giving anything away) with a short poem that is also worth sharing today:

Like the good Reverend King
I too “have a dream,”
but when I wake up
I forget it and
remember that I’m running late for work.

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