Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the sermon “The Death of Evil upon the Seashore” on May 17, 1956, to 12,000 people. The venue was the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, the headquarters of the Episcopal Diocese of New York State.
The occasion was an ecumenical program commemorating the second anniversary of the Supreme Court school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education. As the Montgomery bus boycott was still going on, this was early in this phase of the civil rights movement.
King had preached this sermon at least twice in the past, based on the biblical story of the exodus from Egypt, comparing the Israelites’ captivity with the plight of African Americans. The scripture text was: “And Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the seashore.”-Exodus 14: 30
I try to find sermons by MLK for the holiday that are both well-regarded yet largely unfamiliar.
There is hardly anything more obvious than the fact that evil is present in the universe. It projects its nagging, prehensile tentacles into every level of human existence. We may debate over the origin of evil, but only the person victimized with a superficial optimism will debate over its reality. Evil is with us as a stark, grim, and colossal reality…
But we need not stop with the glaring examples of the Bible to establish the reality of evil; we need only to look out into the wide arena of everyday life. We have seen evil in tragic lust and inordinate selfishness. We have seen it in high places where men are willing to sacrifice truth on the altars of their self-interest. We have seen it in imperialistic nations trampling over other nations with the iron feet of oppression. We have seen it clothed in the garments of calamitous wars which left battlefields painted with blood, filled nations with widows and orphans, and sent men home physically handicapped and psychologically wrecked. We have seen evil in all of its tragic dimensions…
[The telling of the Red Sea story in Exodus]
This story symbolizes something basic about the universe. It symbolizes something much deeper than the drowning of a few men, for no one can rejoice at the death or the defeat of a human person. This story… symbolizes the death of evil. It was the death of inhuman oppression and ungodly exploitation.
Notice how we have seen the truth of this text revealed in the contemporary struggle between good, in the form of freedom and justice, and evil, in the form of oppression and colonialism. Gradually we have seen the forces of freedom and justice emerge victoriously out of some Red Sea, only to look back and see the forces of oppression and colonialism dead upon the seashore.
[Statistical analysis of colonialism and how it was slowly breaking down.]
What we are seeing now in this struggle is the gradual victory of the forces of freedom and justice. The Red Sea has opened, and today most of these exploited masses have won their freedom from the Egypt of colonialism and are now free to move toward the promised land of economic security and cultural development. As they look back, they clearly see the evils of colonialism and imperialism dead upon the seashore.
The struggle in the United States
In our own struggle for freedom and justice in this country, we have gradually seen the death of evil. Many years ago, the Negro was thrown into the Egypt of segregation, and his great struggle has been to free himself from the crippling restrictions and paralyzing effects of this vicious system. For years it looked like he would never get out of this Egypt. The closed Red Sea always stood before him with discouraging dimensions. There were always those Pharaohs with hardened hearts who, despite the cries of many a Moses, refused to let these people go.
But one day, through a world-shaking decree by the nine justices of the Supreme Court of America and an awakened moral conscience of many White persons of goodwill, backed up by the Providence of God, the Red Sea was opened, and the forces of justice marched through to the other side. As we look back, we see segregation caught in the rushing waters of historical necessity. Evil in the form of injustice and exploitation cannot survive. There is a Red Sea in history that ultimately comes to carry the forces of goodness to victory, and that same Red Sea closes in to bring doom and destruction to the forces of evil.
This is our hope. This is the hope and conviction that all men of goodwill live by. It is… the conviction that all reality hinges on moral foundations and that the whole cosmic universe has spiritual control. It is, therefore, fitting and proper that we assemble here, just two years after the Supreme Court’s momentous decision on desegregation, and praise God for His power and the greatness of His purpose, and pray that we gain the vision and the will to be His co-workers in this struggle.
Let us not despair. Let us not lose faith in man and certainly not in God. We
must believe that a prejudiced mind can be changed and that man, by the grace of God, can be lifted from the valley of hate to the high mountain of love.
Let us remember that as we struggle against Egypt, we must have love, compassion, and understanding goodwill for those against whom we struggle, helping them to realize that as we seek to defeat the evils of Egypt, we are not seeking to defeat them but to help them, as well as ourselves…
I prefer to live by the faith that the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of our Lord and His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever,
The full text is here.