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Book Review: The Trumpet of Conscience


It’s amazing how, sometimes, old words have new meaning.

Take, for example, a classic play or novel. Take, for example, a favorite poem that a great-grandfather tucked away in a family Bible, a story set in another era, or a letter written by a long-gone ancestor.

The words inside it might seem quaint and stiff. The format may not be familiar to you at all. You might not have known the writer but though the times are different, verses and thoughts put to paper 100 years–or even three generations–ago still shout their meaning.

And in the re-released book “The Trumpet of Conscience” by Martin Luther King Jr. (c.2010, Beacon Press, $22.00 / $25.00 Canada, 80 pages plus audio CD) you can hear some of them all over again.

When, in 1967, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. asked Martin Luther King Jr. to present a series of Massey Lectures for their listeners, King was told that he could speak on any topic that interested him and that was relevant to anyone in the world who might be listening.

He, of course, chose topics that were closest to his heart: protest, civil disobedience, human rights for people of all races, and his dismay over the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

In his lectures, Dr. King explained to his Canadian listeners what Canada meant to Black Americans. Spirituals, he said, so widely sung in American fields were made in code, and slaves sang of heaven.

“Heaven,” he said, “was the word for Canada…”

In thoughts that seem to reach out to protesters today, King explains activism as he saw it nearly 40 years ago, lauding those who participate in nonviolent protest.

“… we must begin now to work, urgently, with all the peoples, to shape a new world,” he said prophetically.

On the Vietnam War, King spoke of travesty:
“And so we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and White boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.”

First released in 1968, “The Trumpet of Conscience” is moving and powerful, a nice reminder to an older generation who grew up with King’s words in their ears.

The thing to remember is that people of a younger generation will need guidance with this book, mostly because parts of it are barely relevant to them. King discusses youth of the 1960s, as well as the Vietnam War, which was five years from ending when he gave these lectures. That information is good, but it may be lost on youngsters.

Still, these words are almighty, and it’s hard not to hear King’s voice behind them. The good news is that that voice is on the accompanying audio CD, which makes this a great package for reflection and teaching.

If you’re looking for something to mark Dr. King’s birthday, this is just about perfect. Despite its age, “The Trumpet of Conscience” is still laden with meaning.