Rev. Dr. Jay Williams on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the “Urgency of Now”
This weekend San Francisco, the Bay Area and the country will honor the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through acts of solidarity, resistance and celebration. We sat down with GLIDE’s Lead Pastor Rev. Dr. Jay Williams to talk about this weekend’s events as well as their significance for our moment.
What’s your part in this weekend’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration?
Rev. Dr. Jay Williams: I got a couple of different invitations. I will offer the benediction for the breakfast on Monday. Then on Sunday afternoon [at 4:00 pm at Grace Cathedral] I get to participate on a great panel around [this year’s theme of] “The Urgency of Now.” It’s a prestigious panel all around but the one [participant] I’m totally geeked out about is Charles Long. He’s a scholar, a historian of religion, who is a trailblazer. He revolutionized, particularly in the Americas, how the academic study of religion is approached. One of his contributions concerns the way in which colonialism functions in how we think about religion. Significations is his landmark piece, which I studied during my undergrad, my masters, and my doctorate. So to get to be on a panel with this man who has helped shape me and how I think about religion—it’s amazing. Finally, during the San Francisco Interfaith celebration at the end of the march [at Yerba Buena Gardens], I will read an excerpt from King’s Drum Major Instinct sermon. Rev. Staci Current, who is our District Superintendent for the Bay, will participate as well. It’s a pretty robust weekend.
What’s that sermon of Dr. King’s about?
JW: This is the fiftieth anniversary of King’s assassination. This excerpt from his sermon was played at his private funeral. In it, he is saying don’t focus on all the things that he has accomplished, all the awards, all the recognition. When you speak of him, just say that he had a drum major instinct. That he was one who always spoke on behalf of justice, was a drum major for justice. All of the accolades and awards are secondary to this undying passion for advocating for the marginalized, the least and the lost. This theme runs through the “I Have a Dream” speech and beyond. It’s based on the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” This work is a struggle, and it is a righteous fight. The battle, the drum major, all is part of this narrative of fighting on behalf of those who are without. In the sermon on Sunday [at GLIDE Celebration] I will probably integrate a video clip of one of his sermons, just to kind of bring him into the room. I get to read the speech but there’s nothing like hearing him, so we’ll get to do a little of that on Sunday.
I really want to focus on the radical King. That’s where I find his vision most aligns with GLIDE’s work and Rev. Cecil’s work.
What’s King’s legacy and example meant in your life and ministry?
JW: On the one hand King’s legacy has become an American possession. People from the left and the right and everywhere in between talk about the Dream. We have a nostalgia for King. But I really want to focus on the radical King. That’s where I find his vision most aligns with GLIDE’s work and Rev. Cecil’s work. I’m talking about the King of the Poor People’s Campaign, the King of his anti-Vietnam War speech, the King that we don’t often focus on—that is the King that shapes me. Where he answers Why We Can’t Wait, right, the Urgency of Now. This passion is more than just some loose, abstract dream, it’s actually about real peoples’ lives, the human right for everybody to have equal access. He’s obviously the icon of the Civil Rights Movement, but there’s something about his radicalism that begins to approach Malcom X’s, in a different way, that really is the heart of liberation.
What would King be doing if he were alive today?
JW: He would be outraged about the backlash, or the “blacklash” from Obama to Trump. He would be terribly outspoken. We hear echoes of King in William Barber and others who are calling for a moral revival of the nation. I see a connection to Vietnam and some of this American Exceptionalism rhetoric. It is polarizing us. King believed in the redemptive power of love. That’s what is very much missing. Justice comes from a place where we see our common humanity and have a common love for that. Only that leads to justice. That transcends black, white, brown, rich, poor—even transcends America and everybody else. We’ve retreated to this America First thing which definitely undermines this moral fabric.
We’ve taken steps forward and we’ve then taken a number back, but yes I remain hopeful—because in some ways I have no other choice but to remain hopeful. Dr. Cornel West said we are “prisoners of hope.”
Are you hopeful about the struggle?
JW: I am. Sometimes I hope beyond hope. As King says, the arc of the moral universe is long and when these injustices continue to rise if you look far enough, it still bends toward justice. That gives me hope. There is a bubbling up, here and throughout the country. It may take more time than we would like. We’ve taken steps forward and we’ve then taken a number back, but yes I remain hopeful—because in some ways I have no other choice but to remain hopeful. Dr. Cornel West said we are “prisoners of hope.” That’s his vision of prophetic Christianity, of course influenced very much by King. Yes, there’s something to that. W.E.B. DuBois, another one of my influences, says we cling to a hope that’s “not hopeless but it’s unhopeful.” [From The Souls of Black Folk, “On the Passing of the First-Born”] It’s this realism that struggles with the shit that’s actually happening, and yet we cling to something that is beyond it, which has power. The good that is within all of us. There is that power of strong moral voices—King, Barber, Shirley Chisolm, people living and dead—who are able to speak truth to power, to speak into the void, and sway the immorality of our society.
Right now, with the #MeToo movement, there’s definitely a continuity there, in that there are a lot of socialized injustices and then there are those who still blow the whistle. There were many before but at a certain point, where these voices join together, there becomes an avalanche. I sense there is a ground swell, if you begin connecting the dots. And that becomes our job, as those on the right side of justice: Even as the mammoth infrastructure of oppressions continue to bear down upon us, we’ve got to still see, look across time and space, at the things that are happening and connect the dots, and say, “We will get there.”