Taking as his point of departure the story of Rip Van Winkle, who, having slept for twenty years, awakens to a world he hardly recognizes, Martin Luther King Jr. develops the analogy in his speech, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” to speak to contemporary issues of his day—issues still alive and well in our day. The important point about Rip Van Winkle was not that he slept for two decades but that he slept, as King puts it, “through a revolution.” When Van Winkle had ascended the mountain for his rest, he saw a picture of King George III. When he awoke twenty years later, the picture he saw upon his descent was not a monarch’s but rather George Washington’s. During his twenty-year “nap,” Rip Van Winkle was unaware of the significant social, political, economic, religious and cultural changes that had occurred.
Having captivated our attention with his sleeping metaphor, King begins to improvise on his theme.
There are all too many people who, in some great period of social change, fail to achieve the new mental outlooks that the new situation demands. There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution. There can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in our world today. It is a social revolution, sweeping away the old order of colonialism. And in our own nation it is sweeping away the old order of slavery and racial segregation. The wind of change is blowing, and we see in our day and our age a significant development. Victor Hugo said on one occasion that there is nothing more powerful in all the world than an idea whose time has come. In a real sense, the idea whose time has come today is the idea of freedom and human dignity. Wherever men are assembled today, the cry is always the same, “We want to be free.” And so we see in our own world a revolution of rising expectations. The great challenge facing every individual graduating today is to remain awake through this social revolution.
King then comments on how one can avoid the Rip Van Winkle syndrome and thus be attuned to pressing social and political issues and concerns. First, King encourages us to strive to “achieve a world perspective.” For those who believe “that we can live in isolation” and “live without being concerned about other individuals and other nations is sleeping through a revolution. The world in which we live is geographically one. The great challenge now is to make it one in terms of brotherhood.” In other words, King argues against social atomism and individualism which promotes one’s own self-interest above all else. In place of radical individualism, which as many political theorists and critics of classical liberal democracy have pointed out (Marxists, feminists, communitarians, critical race theorists), leads to alienation, oppression, and exploitation, King calls for solidarity and a concern for humans qua humans. None of this suggests that King is advocating for a post-racial society where we deny difference. Rather, he sees that in order to fight for justice, human rights, and the like, there must be some common bond, some unity that connects us and yet allows difference to manifest and even be celebrated. In other words, I see in King a desire to hold unity and difference in tension rather than to exalt one over the other. Listen in the following passage to King’s way of putting it:
all mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be – this is the interrelated structure of reality. John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms: No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main [...] And then he goes on toward the end to say: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. And by believing this, by living out this fact, we will be able to remain awake through a great revolution.
King’s second point is that we must work unceasingly and passionately to uproot and eradicate racial injustice in all its forms, personal or societal/structural. Having noted a number of positive strides in the fight for racial equality—“the Supreme Court’s decision outlawing segregation in the public schools, a comprehensive Civil Rights Bill in 1964” and so forth, King makes clear that these advances are only a beginning and that significant work remains to be done. Although there has been much success on legal fronts with respect to segregation laws, nonetheless, socio-political and economic issues continued to enslave American blacks (of King’s day and in our day as well.) For example, as King explains,
The Negro is still at the bottom of the economic ladder. He finds himself perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. Millions of Negroes are still housed in unendurable slums; millions of Negroes are still forced to attend totally inadequate and substandard schools. And we still see, in certain sections of our country, violence and man’s inhumanity to man in the most tragic way. All of these things remind us that we have a long, long way to go. For in Alabama and Mississippi, violence and murder where civil rights workers are concerned, are popular and favorite pastimes.
Racial injustice, as King reminds us, is not something that will simply work itself out in due time. Rather, it is something toward which we—black, white, brown, etc.—must labor. I conclude my brief commentary on King’s speech with a final passage, a passage that I find both powerful and unsettling. Why unsettling? Because like Rip Van Winkle I have a tendency to choose to sleep rather than remain awake during the revolution.
It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic works and violent actions of the bad people who bomb a church in Birmingham, Alabama, or shoot down a civil rights worker in Selma, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.’ Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals. Without this hard work, time becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always right to do right.
As you reflect on Dr. King’s words, I ask you to consider taking a concrete step to help an African American friend of mine, Michael X. Smith, (with whom I am have been corresponding for over two years) who is serving a life-sentence in prison for a crime of which he claims innocence. Please take a few minutes to read his story and, if you are so moved, to sign his petition for a retrial.