Exactly 50 years ago — on March 31, 1968 — the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached his last Sunday sermon. It was at the Washington National Cathedral. Four days later, someone dear to our hearts — not just a civil rights leader, or a great preacher or orator, but our own Moses, leading us toward the Promised Land — was cruelly taken away at a time we needed him most. Washington, in a paroxysm of pain, rage and loss, went up in flames. Disorder ruled the day in 50 urban centers across the United States. Buildings were still smoldering on Palm Sunday.
Five decades later, we again observe the sacred holidays in our customary ways, now in a rebuilt nation’s capital.
The doors of the Washington National Cathedral and houses of worship across the region will be thrown open to welcome regular and first-time congregants. There will be commemorations of the exodus of Israelite slaves from Egypt, and celebrations surrounding the death and Resurrection of Christ. Moments may even be found to honor King’s life and legacy with reflections upon the death and destruction that followed his murder.
This year’s observance of these holy times will be like the others in the past. All of the familiar words will be spoken, all of the seasonal trappings on display. This year again will be “a time of deep reflection, religious renewal and spiritual rebirth,” as my Ward 4 D.C. Council representative, Brandon T. Todd, told his constituents this week.
We commemorate the season despite or perhaps because of the reality of the world around us.
We mark and cheer April 2018 as the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, which was passed seven days after King’s assassination. That will not, however, overcome the reality that Easter 2018 witnesses the sabotage of federal attempts to enforce fair-housing laws — including plans by the Trump administration’s saboteur in chief, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, to remove the words “inclusive” and “free from discrimination” from HUD’s mission statement.
Fifty years ago, National Cathedral churchgoers wept at a service memorializing King.
Fifty years later, weeping still has no end for people in this city without decent, affordable housing or schools that work or jobs that put food on the table.
Fifty years after the death of that Nobel Peace Prize winner who preached, “I want to be the white man’s brother, not his brother-in-law,” many of this city’s churches are as white as they have ever been, and many are as black as they were when King breathed his last.
The wealth gap, the racial gulf, the gun culture, society’s unwanted are still with us, 50 Aprils later.
So too, the convergence of Passover and Easter and their stories of deprivation and desolation. They couldn’t come at a better time. They bring the message of suffering, but also triumph. That’s what Passover and Easter brought fifty, a hundred, thousands of years ago. They bring us hope. We live in hope. No other way, then or now.
Read more from Colbert King’s archive.