“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Growing up in the 1960’s I assumed that my experience was a universal experience. When I would go to the doctor’s office, there were two waiting rooms – one for “whites” and one for “colored.” When my family went to Sears, there were two bathrooms for men and two water fountains outside of the restrooms, again, one for “whites” and one for “colored.” I did not understand why this was the case. I only knew that I sat in one waiting room at the doctor’s office and drank out of one water fountain at Sears. The elementary school that I attended was all white. There were no black teachers in my school. The only black person I saw at school was the janitor.
When it was time to go to our high school, we had a few black students, but not very many. My eighth grade shop teacher, C.B. Hall, was black, and he genuinely cared about every student in the class. My church was all white, but I do remember one occasion when a black family attended our church on a Sunday morning. That evening our minister expressed his appreciation to the congregation for being hospitable towards our “visitors” that morning.
A couple of years later I remember riding with my grandmother’s friend to a place I did not even know existed. We were off of a main road and riding on dirt roads when all of a suddenthere were about ten homes – shacks, really – in close proximity to one another. There were black families living in these homes. My grandmother’s friend knew these families, and he was a friend to them, too. That was the first time I remember seeing poverty. I would later learn that one of the reasons our school system had so few students of color was that our city officials would not annex into the city limits neighborhoods that were poor, a practice that primarily affected low-income black families.
As I reflect on what otherwise was an idyllic childhood, I am pained by the fact that the church was not advocating for persons of color and for equal rights. After all, the Bible is clear that human beings are made in the image of God, and the first two commandments say to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” And, if the Bible is not clear enough, what about the Declaration of Independence, which explicitly expressed that “all men are created equal”? During my childhood the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum in the United States. One of the primary leaders of that movement was the Baptist minister Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
During those days in the early 1960’s nearly everyone in the country tuned in to one of the major network stations each evening to watch the news. Dr. King was one of the primary figures in the news then. There were marches and protests in major cities. Occasionally we would see peaceful protesters being sprayed with fire hoses or tear gas or being beaten with Billy clubs. These actions were not pictures of our nation at its best. During the five-day, 54mile march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, King and the marchers were met by the state police as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Instead of rallying the marchers to violence, Dr. King had the marchers kneel in prayer. Following their prayers, Dr. King turned the march back towards Selma. Dr. King advocated non-violence and never wavered from it; however, it put him at odds with militants who thought that change would be made faster through intimidation and violence. On March 15, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson addressed Congress, identifying himself with the demonstrators in Selma in a televised address: “Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome” (Johnson, “Special Message”).
In 1968 King was tiring of the struggle and remarked, “I’m frankly tired of marching. I’m tired of going to jail. Living every day under the threat of death, I feel discouraged every now and then and feel my work’s in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.”
Dr. King lead a battle against racism in the North and the South. He was pushing the government to address poverty, income inequality, structural racism and segregation in cities like Boston and Chicago. He was also calling for an end to the Vietnam war that was draining the national treasury of funds needed to finance a progressive domestic agenda.
On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
Dr. King was an imperfect man, a man of clay, yet he chose to use his life to promote a cause greater than himself – equality for all races. He was a man of faith, guided by higher principles.
As we observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2020, let’s give thanks that Dr. King committed himself to a quest for equality, economic and social progress that started this nation on the road to full integration – the most dynamic step forward in the status of the races since the Civil War. His courage to stand firm against the racial taboos and opponents of integration through a peaceful revolution made America a better nation. In today’s political climate, it is remarkable to think that we have a national holiday honoring a man whose convictions, words, and actions were based on his firm belief that the code of justice was rooted in God’slaw, not man’s law. In his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” he wrote, “A just law is a manmade code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is out of harmony with the moral law.”
I am thankful that my children and grandchildren will never go into a store and see one water fountain for African-Americans and one for whites. I am thankful that my church is integrated and that all are baptized into one faith and Jesus unites us together (Galatians 3:24-29). I am extremely blessed to share my life with people of various races and to love them and be loved by them.
Perhaps the best known speech of Dr. King has been called the “I Have a Dream” speech. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to nearly 200,000 people, King spoke:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification,” one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day…And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that: Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children – black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics – will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” (August 28, 1963; I Have a Dream Address, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963).
I have a dream today, too. It is a dream for all of us who love and serve Jesus – that we would “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is love your neighbor as yourself. There is no greater commandment than these” (Mark 12:30-31). And our neighbors include those who may be different from us.
Build a Bridge to all,