Volume 6 Number 2
"A Witness to Truth"
Martin Luther King Jr.'s Eulogy
for PTS Alum James J. Reeb
James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows. He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice. He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician who has moved down the path of demagoguery, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. He was murdered by the brutality of every sheriff and law enforcement agent who practices lawlessness in the name of law. He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam, yet cannot protect the lives of its own citizens seeking constitutional rights. Yes, he was even murdered by the cowardice of every Negro who tacitly accepts the evil system of segregation, who stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice.
So in his death, James Reeb says something to each of us, black and white alike-says that we must substitute courage for caution, says to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered him, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murder. His death says to us that we must work passionately, unrelentingly, to make the American dream a reality, so he did not die in vain.
God still has a way of bringing good out of evil. History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of this fine servant of God may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark state. This tragic death may lead our nation to substitute aristocracy of character for aristocracy of color. James Reeb may cause the whole citizenry of Alabama to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed, this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.
So in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. As preceding speakers have said so eloquently, we must not become bitter nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence; we must not lose faith in our white brothers who happen to be misguided. Somehow we must still believe that the most misguided among them will learn to respect the dignity and worth of all human personalities....
One day the history of this great period of social change will be written in all of its completeness. On that bright day our nation will recognize its real heroes. They will be thousands of dedicated men and women with a noble sense of purpose that enables them to face fury and hostile mobs with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneers. They will be faceless, anonymous, relentless young people, black and white, who have temporarily left behind the towers of learning to storm the barricades of violence. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a 72-year-old Negro woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity, and with the people decided not to ride the segregated buses; who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness, "My feets is tired, but my soul is rested." They will be ministers of the gospel, priests, rabbis, and nuns, who are willing to march for freedom, to go to jail for conscience' sake. One day the South will know from these dedicated children of God courageously protesting segregation, they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream, standing up with the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby carrying our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. When this glorious story is written, the name of James Reeb will stand as a shining example of manhood at its best.
* * *
So I can say to you this afternoon, my friends, that in spite of the tensions and uncertainties of this period, something profoundly meaningful is taking place. Old systems of exploitation and oppression are passing away. Out of the wombs of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. Doors of opportunity are gradually being opened. Those at the bottom of society, shirtless and barefoot people of the land, are developing a new sense of somebody-ness, carving a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of despair. "People who stand in darkness have seen a great light." Here and there an individual or group dares to love and rises to the majestic heights of moral maturity.
Therefore I am not yet discouraged about the future. Granted, the easygoing optimism of yesteryear is impossible. Granted, that those who pioneered in the struggle for peace and freedom will still face uncomfortable jail terms and painful threats of death; they will still be battered by the storms of persecution, leading them to the nagging feeling that they can no longer bear such a heavy burden; the temptation of wanting to retreat to a more quiet and serene life. Granted, that we face a world crisis, which leaves us standing so often amid the surging murmur of life's restless seas. But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities, its valleys of salvation or doom in a dark, confused world. The kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men.
© Copyright 2001 Princeton Theological Seminary