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Friday, July 31, 2009

Martin Luther King and James Russell Lowell: Two Intellectual Giants

"Poetry is something to make us wiser and better, by continually revealing those types of beauty and truth, which God has set in all men's souls."
--James Russell Lowell

Listen up. Today, The Daddy is feeling Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an activist minister and one of the greatest intellectuals of the 20th century. And a brutha is feeling deeply one of Dr. King's favorite, the quotable words and infinite wisdom of poet James Russell Lowell. You may recall that, during what many consider his greatest speech, "It's Time to Break the Silence," delivered in New York City at Riverside Church, Dr. King not only gave an anti-war speech. He made a scathing indictment of U.S. foreign policy. Though Time Magazine called it "demagogic slander" and "a script for Hanoi," Paul Rockwell, a seminary student in New York at the time, said he walked away from the speech feeling "inspired and drenched from the intensity of the event." And as he walked away he could still hear Dr. King reciting the words of Lowell saying, “Though the cause of evil prosper, yet tis truth alone is strong.”

"Once to every man and nation comes a moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth and Falsehood, for the good or evil side,

Some great cause, God's new Messiah offering each the bloom or blight,
And choice goes by forever "twixt that darkeness and the light.
Though the cause of evil prosper, yet 'tis alone is strong.

Though her portions be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong.

Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown
Standeth God with the shadow, keeping watch above his own."

James Russell Lowell
Born on February 22, 1819 in Cambridge, Massachusetts Lowell became an influential figure in 19th-century America. Part of a well-established New England family. he attended Harvard, graduating in 1838 and taking a law degree there in 1840. After the publication of his first volume of poems, "A Year's Life" (1841), he gave up law to devote himself to literature.

After the success of his second volume of poetry in 1844, he married Maria White, an abolitionist, and became an editor of an abolitionist journal called the Pennsylvania Freeman.

Lowell became an established social critic with the publication of the Biglow Papers, which attacked the war with Mexico as an attempt to expand slavery. Lowell served as the editor of the newly-founded Atlantic Monthly from 1874 to 1872 and ambassador to Spain from 1877 to 1880 and England from 1880 to 1885. Lowell died in Cambridge on August 12, 1891.


Lowell and social justice


The fact that Dr. King quoted Lowell liberally should not be surprising. Lowell was well known by social activists from the abolition movement through the civil rights struggle. For example, when the NAACP began its newspaper, it named it the Crisis, after one of Lowell's poems.
In his speech "Our God is Marching On," Dr. King skillfully mixes quotes from Lowell with other famous quotations with which to connect and inspire his audience. And notice how the audience responds to his rhetorical question "How long?"

"I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, (Yes, sir) however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, (No sir) because "truth crushed to earth will rise again." (Yes, sir)

How long? Not long, (Yes, sir) because "no lie can live forever." (Yes, sir)

How long? Not long, (All right. How long) because "you shall reap what you sow." (Yes, sir)

How long? (How long?) Not long: (Not long)

Truth forever on the scaffold, (Speak)

Wrong forever on the throne, (Yes, sir)

Yet that scaffold sways the future, (Yes, sir)

And, behind the dim unknown,

Standeth God within the shadow,

Keeping watch above his own.

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. (Yes, sir)

How long? Not long, (Not long) because:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; (Yes, sir)

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; (Yes)

He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword; (Yes, sir)

His truth is marching on. (Yes, sir)

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; (Speak, sir)

He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat. (That’s right)

O, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant my feet!

Our God is marching on. (Yeah)

Glory, hallelujah! (Yes, sir) Glory, hallelujah! (All right)

Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah!

His truth is marching on. [Applause]"

Have you heard of the poet James Russell Lowell?

6 comments:

Vigilante said...

I was not aware of James Russel Lowell's part in Dr. King's wordsmithing and political consciousness. (Thanks for the lesson!)

Back in those days, I was partial to Henry David Thoreau whose words I taped to my mirror:

Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right [...] is essentially revolutionary [...]. It not only divides States and churches, it divides families; ay, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine.

I should reaffix them to today's mirror.

MacDaddy said...

Vigilante: Thanks for the lesson Thoreau. Loved him and Emerson.

Somebodies Friend said...

It's funny how after "A Years Life" he gave up law, to do something that he felt inspired to do instead, to write and inspire others. He had just finished college a couple years before that, and he completely switched gears and went with his heart instead of a paycheck. There aren't many that do that anymore.

I wish we had Dr. King here for we could use another speech like "It's Time to Break the Silence." Even in the best of times these last few years we could have used someone to speak up about this countries foreign policy. No one has had the balls to do it, with the Repulicans that were just in office calling anyone that didn't agree with their foreign policies "Un-American" or even worse, making them feel threatened.

Thank God it's time for a change in this country, and that Obama is steering the ship now. In the end we all will be much better off. Even if it takes a while to get his policies in place and get the country back on track.

R.J. said...

I have not heard of him, and I'm glad you brought him to us.

Rob Velella said...

Thanks for writing about Lowell's influence in the 20th century. I find him fascinating as a person, and I think he would have been honored to be an influence on Dr. King.

MacDaddy said...

Rob: Thanks. Your first time here? Feel free to come back. We do a lot of history and literature. Blessings.