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Substitute Courage for Caution: MLK's "Eulogy" and the Charleston Church Shooting

Toward the end of his remarks on the shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church, President Obama quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Eulogy for the Martyred Children”, written in memory of the four little girls who were killed in a bombing at a black church in Birmingham, AL. Indeed, Mother Emanuel's nine victims died as nobly as those little girls. King’s words ring true more than ever today as they did half a century ago. Although he wrote specifically about Birmingham, he could have been writing about Charleston fifty years into the future. The passage from which Obama quotes speaks not only to the martyrdom of the victims, but also the bigger picture of the system that needs to change. And, as always, King calls for peace and hope.


These children—unoffending, innocent and beautiful—were the victims of one of the most vicious, heinous crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.

image from www.beacon.orgYet they died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. So they have something to say to us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans. They have something to say to every Negro who passively accepts the evil system of segregation, and stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about WHO murdered them, but about the system, the way of life and the philosophy which PRODUCED the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly to make the American dream a reality.

So they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. The Holy Scripture says, “A little child shall lead them.” The death of these little children may lead our whole Southland from the low road of man’s inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood. These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color. The spilt blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed, this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.

So in spite of the darkness of this hour we must not despair. We must not become bitter; nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. We must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and worth of all human personality.

From A TIME TO BREAK SILENCE. All material copyright © Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.; all material copyright renewed © Coretta Scott King and the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.