I was in the lounge of the dorm of the nursing school I was attending, drinking coffee and playing a game of Bid Whist with some of my classmates while preparing myself for work on the 11-7 shift on the medical surgical ward.
We were just killing time before we would be on the front lines of our altruistic dream: Saving the world, one person at a time.
Such is the rhythm of life when you are in your twenties - intermittent waves of altruism and nobility lapping at the shores of boredom and listlessness.
Someone - I can't remember who - came into the lounge and yelled, "Dr. King has been assassinated!" I remember that the atmosphere in that room went from ho-hum to surreal in 0.5 seconds.
We were shocked. Stunned into silence. The information refused to sink into our consciousness. Someone turned on the television. The obvious, painful, horrible truth was there for everyone to see and yet we stared in disbelief.
The balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN. Dr. King on the ground. Someone tending to him. Everyone else pointing their fingers at the brick building across the street.
Even so, we stood around the television, hands covering our gaping mouths. Heads shaking slowly in terrible sadness and disbelief.
President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been shot five years earlier, in November of 1963. Could this be happening again?
As hard as the present was to imagine, little did we know that Robert F. Kennedy would be assassinated two months later, in June of 1968.
It was a time of turbulence and unrest in the country. The battle for Civil Rights had been won but racism was still very much alive. The war in Vietnam was still raging.
Dr. King had just preached the previous Sunday - Palm Sunday, March 31, 1968 - at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. In what would be his last Sunday sermon, the title was, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution".
His text was taken from the 16th Chapter of the Book of Revelations, "Behold I make all things new; former things are passed away." He wrote:
I am sure that most of you have read that arresting little story from the pen of Washington Irving entitled "Rip Van Winkle." The one thing that we usually remember about the story is that Rip Van Winkle slept twenty years. But there is another point in that little story that is almost completely overlooked. It was the sign in the end, from which Rip went up in the mountain for his long sleep.We were not sleeping through a revolution. We knew that we were in the midst of one.
When Rip Van Winkle went up into the mountain, the sign had a picture of King George the Third of England. When he came down twenty years later the sign had a picture of George Washington, the first president of the United States. When Rip Van Winkle looked up at the picture of George Washington—and looking at the picture he was amazed—he was completely lost. He knew not who he was.
And this reveals to us that the most striking thing about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not merely that Rip slept twenty years, but that he slept through a revolution. While he was peacefully snoring up in the mountain a revolution was taking place that at points would change the course of history—and Rip knew nothing about it. He was asleep. Yes, he slept through a revolution. And one of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.
Many of us were in nursing school so that we could go to Viet Nam and tend to the soldiers there. Others of us came to nursing school having been Peace Corp volunteers and had been inspired and persuaded to continue our education in ways that would make a difference in people's lives.
We all knew we had to shake off our grief and shock and get ready for our assignment. The night supervisor was Ms. Duffy, and she would have none of this.
Ms. Duffy wore a starched white pinafore over her white uniform - with stiffly starched collar and cuffs. She was a legend at the hospital. Everyone knew that sh had tried to get into medical school but that she had been denied admission because of her gender. So, she went to Mass General Hospital School of Nursing Program - "The General" as it was known in those days - and graduated top of her class.
She went on to serve as a nurse in the Army, earning the highest rank possible to women in those days. She had served in Korea and Viet Nam and had seen hideous injuries and evidence of "man's inhumanity to man" first hand and up close.
There was no question that she was a "hawk", but she was curiously silent when the conversation came 'round to Viet Nam. Some of the doctors joked she might be "getting soft". One of the head nurses wondered out loud if she might have been traumatized by what she saw in Nam.
Ms. Duffy was stern and strict. Everything by the book. She took the position of Night Supervisor because she knew that she could handle most any situation that arose, while the doctors slept in the lounge. She would only awaken them when she knew the situation was beyond her legal limit.
When Ms. Duffy walked into the nursing station, everyone - E.V.E.R.Y.O.N.E., including the doctors - stood up until she nodded for us to be "at ease" and we were able to return to whatever it was we had been doing.
In her way of quiet but strong authority, she was part of the revolution. She changed minds and hearts. Everyone I knew - including the doctors - wanted to be just like Ms. Duffy. When Ms. Duffy was on duty, no matter what your shift presented you, you knew everything was going to be more than okay - it would be handled with skill and expertise and professionalism.
That night, as the hour came for us to report for duty on the 11-7 shift, we walked onto the wards - 10 minutes early, as Ms. Duffy required - we were met with a sight none of us ever imagined we'd ever witness.
There was Ms. Duffy - in the medication closet - and she was weeping. The door was closed - locked, as it always was - but we could see her through the window on the door. She was bent over the counter, her starched white collar embedded in a spot under her jawbone. Her shoulders were slumped and shook as she sobbed into her arms.
Eventually, she stood up, threw her shoulders back, blew her nose, fixed her hair, and then noticed us, all gathered 'round the window, watching her. Doctors. Nurses. Nursing Students. Lab technicians. Secretaries.
She smoothed her starched uniform and straightened her nursing cap and then opened the door, passing through us like Moses parting the Red Sea.
When she got to the end of the crowd, she turned and said, "A great man has been taken from our midst. It is right to grieve and mourn. But we do his legacy no honor by standing around, sleep walking through our grief. So, dedicate everything you do tonight, to his honor. Be especially tender and kind and compassionate to the poor you care for. Dr. King would be most pleased by that."
Here was a woman - a white woman - who had served in the military on the front lines in Korea and Viet Nam, an admitted "hawk" who was mourning the loss of a man of peace.
Then, she said something I'll never forget. She said, "Dr. King was against the war in Viet Nam. He preached on it just this Sunday. I suspect this is, ultimately, what got him killed."
Someone among us gasped.
She paused and then said, "In his sermon Dr. King said we need to 'learn to live together as sisters and brothers or we will die together as fools'. He also said, 'I can't be what I ought to be unless you are what you ought to be'. So, let's help each other be the best we can be. That's just the way God made the world."
And then, she picked up her clip board, cleared her throat, and said, "Carry on."
I think, in many ways, Ms. Duffy was right. Many thought Dr. King had gone too far. That he should have stopped when the Civil Right's Amendment was passed. But, he wouldn't. He was in Memphis to help to organize a worker's strike there. He was planning another March on Washington. A "Poor People's March".
He was called a Marxist and a Communist for those activities.
But, criticizing the War in Viet Nam put him over the line, in the view of his opponents. He mentioned this in his Palm Sunday Sermon:
One day a newsman came to me and said, "Dr. King, don’t you think you’re going to have to stop, now, opposing the war and move more in line with the administration’s policy? As I understand it, it has hurt the budget of your organization, and people who once respected you have lost respect for you. Don’t you feel that you’ve really got to change your position?" I looked at him and I had to say, "Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I’ve not taken a sort of Gallup Poll of the majority opinion." Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.It is the challenge that faces us, still.
On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?
There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right. I believe today that there is a need for all people of goodwill to come with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "We ain’t goin’ study war no more." This is the challenge facing modern man.
We are now engaged in three wars - Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya. I believe that, if Dr. King were alive today, he would be speaking out against those wars and calling us to study peace.
And, I believe Ms. Duffy would be in the front row, cheering him on in her own quietly dignified but powerful way.
We would all do well to listen to or read Dr. King's sermon today. You can find it here. You can either read it or listen in.
It's time to take the position that is not safe or politic or popular. We need to do what our conscience tells us is right.
We need, as Dr. King preached, "to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands".
We can not afford to sit around, killing time, waiting to do what's right. The waves of altruism call to us from a sea of nobility, beckoning us to swim for our lives and the life of the world.
We dare not be caught sleeping through the revolution which is sweeping the Middle East. The time is always right to do what is right. We need to end these immoral wars, not because it's easy or expedient - because it is decidedly neither. We need to end these immoral wars because it is the right thing to do.
The time has come and now is for us to learn how to live together as sisters and brothers in a global Beloved Community, lest we die together as fools.
Here's how Dr. King ended that Palm Sunday Sermon:
We’re going to win our freedom because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands. And so, however dark it is, however deep the angry feelings are, and however violent explosions are, I can still sing "We Shall Overcome."I delight to imagine Ms. Duffy and Dr. King in heaven.
We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
We shall overcome because Carlyle is right—"No lie can live forever."
We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right—"Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again."
We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right—as we were singing earlier today,
Truth forever on the scaffold,With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair the stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
Wrong forever on the throne.
Yet that scaffold sways the future.
And behind the dim unknown stands God,
Within the shadow keeping watch above his own.
Thank God for John, who centuries ago out on a lonely, obscure island called Patmos caught vision of a new Jerusalem descending out of heaven from God, who heard a voice saying, "Behold, I make all things new; former things are passed away."
God grant that we will be participants in this newness and this magnificent development. If we will but do it, we will bring about a new day of justice and brotherhood and peace. And that day the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy. God bless you."
I have this sneaking suspicion that, when she walks into a room in the heavenly palace, everyone - including Dr. King - stands up.