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By the beginning of April, ABC’s story about Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s “God damn America” sermon was more than two weeks old, but apparently the furor over this sermon and others in which Sen. Barack Obama’s former pastor denounced America had yet to die down.

Boston talk radio station WTKK used the fortieth anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, to ponder how King would have reacted to Wright’s angry rhetoric. About five minutes and fifteen seconds into the podcast of this show, morning host Michael Graham said that King would have walked out.

He does not qualify that statement with words or phrases like “probably,” “most likely,” “I think,” or “my guess is that . . . ” Michael Graham has no doubt whatsoever that he knows how a man who died four decades ago would behave today. He provides no evidence to support that claim, but neither can anyone else provide any evidence to refute it. No such evidence exists on either side of the question.

Graham makes a half-hearted attempt to back up his idle speculation with more idle speculation from columnist Juan Williams, who asked in The Wall Street Journal what Jesus would have done in such a situation. I will say what I say every time I hear this question posed or read it on a bumper sticker: I have no idea what Jesus would have done. Unlike Graham or Williams, I would not pretend that I do.

If either of them had provided some supporting documentation for their predictions on the actions of Jesus or MLK, it might have helped. I came across one online citation that said King had grown frustrated by white indifference to black suffering and to the continued prosecution of the Vietnam. That site also referred to King’s fear, in an earlier speech, that America was going to hell.

The Memphis Commercial-Appeal pinned down the exact quote, when and where King said it, and in what context. “And I come here to say that America is going to Hell, if we don’t use her wealth,” King said in Memphis on March 18, 1968, in support of a strike by city garbage workers who wanted better wages.

I hope to have more information soon on the following two additional topics:

  • Whether this sentiment (that America might suffer eternal damnation) formed the basis of the sermon King was working on before he was murdered
  • The meaning of the James Brown song “The Big Payback,” which Michael Graham played on the same 4.4.2008 broadcast cited above
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