27 Nov “You have made of the world a neighborhood.” Martin Luther King, Jr in Cambridge
On a cold and snowy January 10, 1960, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Cambridge to give a sermon at the First Baptist Church (now known as the Central Square Church).
Rev. King was no stranger to the Boston area. King earned his doctorate at Boston University and Boston was where he met his future partner, Coretta Scott, a voice major at the New England Conservatory of Music. While at BU, Rev. King also served as assistant minister at Boston’s historic Twelfth Baptist Church.
On this day he had traveled to Boston from Atlanta, were he was the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church and the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to speak about civil rights, building a national movement that would eventually change laws, change lives, and change the world.
The sermon Rev. King gave that day to more than 2,000 people was a version of a popular sermon he’d given before. In this particular sermon, King imagined what Saint Paul might have thought of America in the twentieth century and wrote the sermon in the form of a letter to America, using the epistolic form characteristic of early Christianity.
King began by setting the stage. “I would like to share with you an imaginary letter which comes from the pen of the Apostle Paul, and the postmark reveals that it comes from the island of Crete,” he said, tongue in cheek.
The audience must have been amused as he continued. “I have heard of your dashing subways and flashing aeroplanes,” he said. “Through your scientific genius you have been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. Yes, you have been able to carve highways through the stratosphere, and so that in your world it is possible to eat breakfast in New York City and supper in Paris, France… “ .
Then King’s sermon makes a dramatic turn. “But as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. Your poet Thoreau used to talk about improved means to an unimproved end….Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood. But you have failed to make of it a brotherhood.” One can almost hear the church’s silence at that moment.
King then transitions into a powerful and passionate call for racial justice that quickly gathers momentum. “You must realize that out of the two billion five hundred million people in this world, about one billion six hundred million of them are colored, living on two continents, mainly Asia and Africa—six hundred million in China, four hundred million in India and Pakistan, two hundred million in Africa, a hundred million in Indonesia, more than eighty-six million in Japan. For years, these people have been the victims of colonialism and imperialism, and now they are breaking aloose. They are breaking loose from all of this, and they are saying in no uncertain terms that racism and colonialism must go. So if your nation is to be a first-class nation, she can no longer have second-class citizens.”
Even reading it now the urgency, intensity, and righteousness of King’s words shine through. Listen for yourself here [LINK.]
Between 1956 and 1962, he delivered a version of this sermon at least fifteen times. It has become one of the most significant speeches in American history—a call that energized the civil rights movement of its time and still inspires us to seek racial justice today.
Rev. King also talked about the risks and commitments it requires to stand for justice. “Whenever you take a stand for truth and justice, you are liable to scorn. Often you will be called an impractical idealist or a dangerous radical. Sometimes it might mean going to jail. If such is the case, you must honorably grace the jail with your presence. It might even mean physical death for some. But if physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children from a permanent life of psychological death, then nothing could be more Christian.”
A year later, King himself was arrested during a lunch-counter sit in and sentenced to four months of hard labor.
King ended the sermon with his characteristic humor and hope. ” I must bring my writing to a close, now. Timothy is awaiting me to deliver this letter…But just before leaving, I must say to you, as I said to the church at Corinth, that I still believe that love is the most durable power in all the world.”
Learn more about Reverend King’s famous sermon and his connections to the Boston area at the links below.
Join us for the 2024 MLK Day of Service & Learning when we kick off the day at 2:00 with a special presentation at the very Church where Dr. King spoke—Central Square Church).