Martin Luther King Jr., George Floyd, and the awful grace of God
By PATRICK S. WOLFE
The heart flag is ubiquitous throughout the city. It is a symbol of hope in difficult times.
So was the Silent Minute. Instituted by Wellesley Tudor Pole during the Dunkirk evacuation, it gained millions of participants as the Second World War continued, particularly during the Blitz when the BBC drew attention to one minute’s silence when Big Ben sounded at 9 p.m.
Different eras also have symbols of horror. The Holocaust extermination camps are one example. The recent public “execution” of George Floyd, the handcuffed black man forcibly held on the ground by three Minneapolis police officers, one of whom pressed his knee down on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, is another.
Although George Floyd was not a well-known figure like Martin Luther King, Jr., his death reminds me of that of the civil rights leader on April 4, 1968.
In perhaps the most important speech of his life, Senator Robert Kennedy broke the news of King’s assassination to a largely Black audience in Indianapolis. Speaking extemporaneously, Kennedy quoted Aeschylus’s Agamemnon: “ And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget, / falls drop by drop upon the heart, / and in our despair, / against our will, / comes wisdom by the awful grace of God.”
Despite being deeply moved by those lines, for a long time I was unable to accept the word awful as an adjective for grace and I quarralled with the notion of wisdom coming against our will. But I found resolution in an even more remarkable speech, the one King gave the night before he was killed, and in which he intimated that he knew he was soon to die.
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” he intoned. “But it doesn’t really matter with me now because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.”
Tudor Pole, who died at 84 six months after the 39-year-old King, has been called a spiritual “master.” On April 19, 1968, he wrote to a friend that King “was told about his imminent departure and accepted it, but did not know the way in which the end would come. He was a seer and very selfless, and he asked that the sacrifice of his earthly life would be used to forward the cause for which he had striven.”
Although King’s murder was devastating, it elevated his moral example and leadership and enshrined them for all time. But the initial means to these ends, what are they if not the awful grace of God?
Like the circumstances of King’s death, a similar stunning clarity attends George Floyd’s “lynching.” Was it another occasion of the awful grace of God?
The repeated acts of violent racism and resulting rioting and looting recall Robert Graves’ evocative line: “Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud, hatch out.” But the far larger meaning lies in the enormous, worldwide, peaceful “Black Lives Matter” protests.
There was rioting in 110 cities after King’s assassination but not in Indianapolis. The audience that heard Kennedy speak heeded his call to avoid division and hatred, violence and lawlessness, and to pursue instead love, wisdom, compassion, and justice. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, it appears wider and deeper positive repercussions are occurring.
We are challenged to see with new eyes in 2020. We might consider that God—whether we believe or not; whether God is just a notion or ultimate reality—can also be viewed as a symbol of humanity’s common interests. As with those ubiquitous heart flags and their message of gratitude, good will and hoped-for healing, it is up to us how we make use of that symbol.
It is God’s law, Aeschylus tells us, “that he who learns must suffer.” Humanity is certainly suffering now. May we also be learning.
Text copyright © 2020 Patrick S. Wolfe
All rights reserved. Short segments may be quoted with due attribution.
An author and historian, Patrick Wolfe lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
- A shortened version of this commentary appeared in the Victoria Times Colonist’s “Faith Forum” section on Saturday, July 11, 2020, D10, under the title “Times of crisis can lead to goodwill and healing.” ↑
- Jack Knox, “Two on the Upside, outside and on the lighter side,” Victoria Times Colonist, Sunday, May 31, 2020, A3. ↑
- Patrick Wolfe, “Wellesley Tudor Pole and the Big Ben Silent Minute” – https://patrickswolfe.com/2019/11/07/wellesley-tudor-pole-and-the-big-ben-silent-minute/ ↑
- Lawrence Martin, “America is burning—and with good reason,” The Globe and Mail, Saturday, May 30, 2020, A10 (U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the killing an “execution”). ↑
- My Dear Alexias: Letters from Wellesley Tudor Pole to Rosamund Lehmann, edited by Elizabeth Gaythorpe, Foreword by Rosamund Lehmann, Neville Spearman, 1979, 203. ↑
- Robert Graves, Claudius the God, 523 ↑
- Evan Thomas, Robert Kennedy: His Life, Simon and Schuster, First Touchstone edition, 2002, 368, 367. ↑
- This line immediately precedes those from Agamemnon quoted earlier. ↑