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24 Jan 2014

The first Watch Night, poetry, and the answer to racism (part two)

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January 24, 2014 Category: Diaspora Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO: Waiting for the Hour


(Photo: Waiting for the Hour, Carte de Visite–Courtesy of Mamie Clayton Museum)

Poetry about Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and America

In January we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Day, to honor the man who is loved for his bravery, sincerity, and enormous energy in fighting for social and economic equality for all people.  And soon after, we celebrate, too, the life of Abraham Lincoln, for ending the murderous injustice of slavery.  History records that Lincoln said, “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do signing this paper. If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”

In various ways Dr. King expressed esteem for Abraham Lincoln. In a 1962 speech he stated: “Lincoln achieved immortality because he issued the Emancipation Proclamation… [which]  dealt a devastating blow to the system of slaveholding and an economy built upon it.”

Dr. King himself was outspoken about current events, speaking early and steadily against America’s brutally unjust war in Vietnam:

“This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows,…cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Dr. King led the Poor People’s Campaign to end poverty, marched and was jailed with many others seeking the right to vote, and was killed in Memphis while speaking in behalf of the livelihood and dignity of striking sanitation workers.

In my travels interviewing unsung pioneers for “The Force of Ethics in Civil Rights,” oral history project, I’ve been privileged to be invited into the homes of people—black and white. Frequently, on the walls are images of Abraham Lincoln and of Dr. King.  I believe the reason for the enduring relation of these men is explained magnificently in poems by Eli Siegel. I quote two instances here from Hail, American Development (1968), his second volume of poetry.

In “Litany of Presidents, Mostly Unfortunate” there are these lines:

And we come now to the most fortunate President of all: fortunate in death.

Abraham Lincoln had America speak well of him in a time of uncertainty and pain.

There was something in Abraham Lincoln that saw what America hoped for.

He is a fortunate President.

In these quiet, yet passionate lines, Eli Siegel, with simplicity and musical exactitude, explains the greatness of Lincoln and why he is loved to this very day. With all that our nation and Lincoln himself endured in the Civil War, including death by an assassin’s bullet, he is described as “fortunate” by Mr. Siegel, three times in four lines. To have America speak well of the man elected our president in a time of uncertainty and pain, and to feel he had seen what America itself hoped for, is a mighty and rare thing.

In 1968, just hours after Martin Luther King’s assassination became known, Mr. Siegel, in an Aesthetic Realism class, read his poem “Something Else Should Die.” I had the immense privilege of being in that class, and will always remember Mr. Siegel’s emotion as he read it and spoke of Dr. King’s large meaning.

Something Else Should Die: A Poem with Rhymes 

In April 1865  

Abraham Lincoln died.  

In April 1968  

Martin Luther King died.  

Their purpose was to have us say, some day: Injustice died.

Stark facts, stated simply, musically, make for large emotion. Two men of different races, in different centuries, are shown to be akin, united in opposition to injustice.  This poem has us feel both men are alive, warm, near.

What would it mean for injustice to die? I think it would mean that every person — world leaders and private citizens — would honestly try to answer the question Mr. Siegel asked: “What does a person deserve by being a person?” Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln tried to answer it in a way history sees as true, beautiful, undying.

“Injustice will die,” Mr. Siegel wrote, “only when an individual no longer can feel that individuality is more served by injustice than by justice; by ugliness rather than non-ugliness.”

When America studies Aesthetic Realism there will be a new celebration, and we will no longer have to ask, “How long, Watchman, how long?”

Alice Bernstein is an Aesthetic Realism Associate, journalist, and oral historian of civil rights, who “unearthed” several speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King, described as significant by King scholars. To learn more, visit

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