an anecdote about Martin Luther King, who apparently said to Harry Belafonte, just before he (i.e., King) was assassinated, that he thought he might have been making a big mistake; that he sometimes felt like he was herding people into a burning church. This is a very different insight, quite obviously, than the notion that black people should be getting a larger share of the pie. After all, who wants a larger share of a rotten pie, or to live in a church that is burning down?
This fragment of a possibility; a conversation and an insight coming from that point, so early in my lifetime when the counterrevolution was making itself increasingly, horribly apparent; haunts me.
I vacillate between a visceral sense of an actual conspiracy behind much of what has happened in the last century and an acceptance of the way perception and general conditioning can provide the mechanisms both for the concerted seeming actions and my perception of their coherence.
In one way, conspiracy is the allegory of our age. Where “Classical” societies talked of gods and mythology as a way to give form to the life they saw around them, we have the specter of conspiracy. In either case it can be besides the point getting caught up in whether the characters and situations described by an allegory are “real.” This dogged literalism is the same as the one that has spoiled our discussions on deity from the professional atheists to the professional fundamentalists, each like battling hermit crabs tenaciously holding onto their shells with their soft wriggling tails as they seek to intimidate with their over sized, heavily armored claws. The shells are interchangeable. The bluster is only a sham.
So, back to this report of a possible conversation at a moment held in suspension between what might have been and what is. My admiration for King, began as a teenager; looking for anyone telling truths about violence and oppression; surrounded and threatened by silence and intimations of what it covered over; within an abusive situation – paling in comparison to many, but still frightening in its ubiquity – and looking at the poles on offer, Vietnam or prison. King spoke the truth. He was charismatic, but even then, I think looking back now, I could tell there was some inkling that his charisma was more substantial than JFKs or the Beatles….
To have him, at that time, before any of the voices I now consider foundational, Illich, Bohm, Krishnamurti, etc. had even arrived at the beginnings of their fuller insights, to have this man say that is inspiring – literally provoking the inhalation of breath – and also, adds to the poignancy, the tragedy of his assassination.
By the mid-seventies, when Masterpiece Theater made its run of I Claudius, it was already quite clear that a similar epoch, a descent into state terror, had been going on for over a decade at least. The parallels between the early Empire and my own time were impossible to miss. LBJ as our own Tiberius. Each new emperor scheming to ensure his own legacy by assuring that his successor would be more depraved, a greater horror, or joke. That intrigue and assassination were the dominant and popular tools of power, and that it would all end badly, sooner rather than later. These were the lessons imbued weekly, as I joined with friends at a late friend’s house – he had a TV, and was also in hindsight probably one of the very first vector cases of HIV in the United States.
One’s twenties are the time when personal reality and the forces of the outer world first collide. This can leave behind great wreckage, on the personal as well as the world stage.
All of that, my own detours and slow recoveries, as well as these intimations of how all that is now still ignored, well beyond any possibility for it to be an “honest mistake,” was there to be known way back then. A sadness, a mourning for what might have been.
This is both unfair, and also irrelevant! As is the entire notion of what is fair.
The importance of this vignette is in the way it shows us that truth is not time dependent. Truth only requires the courage and stillness to let it in. These are as hard to find as they are simple to describe.
It requires courage to let go of all that urgency throws at us. This letting go gives us the stillness needed to listen. To hear what is being murmured from the shadows and to pay attention to mere inklings requires another form of courage, and a different perseverance.
King stood “On the Mountaintop.” Yet here, if we can believe this conversation actually occurred – against the pressures of decades of propaganda to the contrary, insisting that we forget the person King and replace him in our minds with either a cardboard saint or a “dark” villain – here he was, ready to set that all aside because a wider truth had shown itself.
The same courage that led him to make his early stands would have fueled his clarifications of this new insight as well. His charisma would have held at least some of the wider stage he had already gained, though as Krishnamurti acknowledged, “What do we have to offer the common person?” While movements and struggles easily gain allies and foes, the consequences of this last insight of King’s promised him a new wilderness, a new desert to roam if he had been allowed to go on to illuminate it.
There is an affection, a love to be honest, I feel behind the shivers this accidental discovery has brought me. It was no mistake of youth, no mere hunger for “role models,” that led me to admire this man King. To find, after all these years, him here, right where all this intervening time and effort has brought me…. To discover that he was already here…!
A great boon.
A great find.
A great person.
They can and sometimes do exist.