The 1960’s were rife with struggle for civil rights in America. Thomas Merton was closely watching the unfolding scenario, and made several attempts to articulate his thoughts on racism in the United States. From the beginning he was captivated by the actions and spirituality of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr:
“Reading Martin Luther King [Jr.] and the simple, moving story of the Montgomery Bus boycott. Especially interested not only in the main actions but in the story of his own spiritual development. Certainly here is something Christian in the history of our time.” (“Turning Toward the World”, May 16, 1961, p. 119)
“… Martin Luther King – who is no fanatic at all – is perhaps one of the few really great Christians in America … “(“Turning Toward the World”, June 1, 1963, p. 325)
In 1963 he wrote an essay, “Letters to a White Liberal”, in which he interpreted the efforts of Martin Luther King to solve the race problem by Christian nonviolence. This was followed by several other essays: “From Non-Violence to Black Power”, “Religion and Race in the United States”, “The Hot Summer of Sixty Seven”, and “The Meaning of Malcolm X”.
“In the Negro Christian non-violent movement, under Martin Luther King, the KAIROS, the “providential time, met with a courageous and enlightened response. The non-violent Negro drive has been on of the most positive and successful expressions of Christian social action that has been seen anywhere in the twentieth century. It is certainly the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States. (“Religion and Race in the United States”, p. 130)
Like Dr. King, Merton was convinced that the escalation of the war in Vietnam had a lot to do with the violence at home. Like Dr. King, Merton knew that the problem of racism and the problem of war were intertwined.
“It is perfectly logical that the America of LBJ should be at once the America of the Vietnam war and the Detroit riots. It’s the same America, the same violence, the same slice of mother’s cherry pie.” (“From Violence to Black Power”, pp. 123-124)
Though they never met, Martin Luther King and Thomas Merton were each well aware of the other. Some suggest that Merton was advising King on nonviolence, but this is unlikely. Merton communicated with King mainly through his friends, June and John Yungblut, who directed a Quaker house in Atlanta.
In March, 1968 John Yungblut was attempting to arrange a retreat at Gethsemani for Martin Luther King. Thich Nhat Hanh was to join them. The retreat, however, was delayed because of King’s travel to Memphis. Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
King’s death affected Merton deeply. He was anxious to show his solidarity with his Bardstown Negro friends, Colonel Hawks, and his daughter Beatrice Rogers, the Willetts. These were close friends of my family too. Merton writes in his journal:
“Hawk with his arm around me saying, “This is my BOY, this is my FRIEND.” … I could cry.” (“The Other Side of the Mountain”, p. 78)
Merton had written a series of eight poems about faith and brotherhood, "The Freedom Songs". These poems were intended to be set to music and sung by black tenor, Robert Williams, at a concert to be held in November 1964 as a tribute to President John F. Kennedy and as a celebration of the commitment and contribution of black people to American culture.
Though set to music, the songs had never been used.
Merton offered the songs to Coretta Scott King, to be used at the funeral of Martin Luther King. The songs were first performed on August 20, 1968, at the National Liturgical Conference in Washington DC. Dr. Alexander Peloquin conducted the Ebenezer Baptist Choir (from Atlanta), in a memorial tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
[See: a secret grace: a chosen people
my 2006 MLK blogpost is here.]