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.
The sermon is an opportunity to encounter the real King, who is too often obfuscated by politicians who use his legacy to support their own agendas. They contend that King was “colorblind,” when in fact his policy aims were unapologetically color-conscious.
King opened his sermon by recalling the well-known story of Rip Van Winkle, the character in the Washington Irving book of the same name who slept for 20 years. King notes that when Rip went to sleep, King George III reigned, and when he awoke, George Washington had become president. Rip Van Winkle had slept through the revolution.
King believed that too many Americans, especially those in its churches, were also snoozing through a time ripe for transformation. They needed to wake up to the injustice all around them and make demands for change.
What kind of revolution did he envision?
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.