Thursday, January 16, 2003

The Dream Lives On-In chapel this morning, a local pastor gave a solid homily combining Martin Luther King’sI Have a Dream speech with 2 Chronicles 7:14’s call for repentance and healing. We hear the last part of that speech regularly, and we'll most likely hear the end of it this weekend as we get ready for King's birthday on Monday. However, it's worth looking at that speech to see how far we have come from that day in August of 1963 and how far we still have to go.
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity. But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.
Where are we 40 years later? Is the black community still shackled. Somewhat, but the segregation and discrimination is no longer institutionalized or legal or popularly accepted. Not every heart has been changed. The black community has begun to evacuate Poverty Island, but the internal demons of crime and single mothers have replaced the external ones of the Klan and Jim Crow. Bigots no longer have an active blockade of the island, but a few pirates of bigotry still patrol the waters. To the extent that Poverty Island hasn't been evacuated, blacks still are in the corners of society, but slowly getting into the mix of a broader society.
In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I recall Jefferson saying that he shuddered for America when he thought of God's justice. The Founding Fathers dreamed big, but the actual fruition of that egalitarian dream has come slowly. We might not be able to pay interest due, but we can cash that note today.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check -- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God's children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.
It wasn’t insufficient funds but insufficient will. We've found a good deal of good will in the last 40 years to begin to cash that note.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 helped change a lot of that. It didn’t end the poverty or the heart-bigotry of a lot of people, but citizenship rights were restored. Despite cries of disenfranchisement on the left, those rights are there; the fights are over making sure people who show up at the polls are eligible to vote at those places. Yes, Republicans are often a bit zealous in checking ID’s in black areas and abuses of that zealotry need to be punished; however, denial of citizenship rights is a local malfunction of the system rather than a design of the system.
But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.
King’s heirs in black leadership haven’t always lived up to that. We've seen an anti-white bigotry in the black community that equals the Klansman in its toxicity. We've also seen a bitterness that sneers at bourgeois morality and education; this bitterness translates into a rage against the larger culture and helps to trap people on King’s Poverty Island.
And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
The worst parts of this have been met, for blacks now can get a motel room and eat in restaurants; when discrimination does occur, as in Denny’s a few years back, it is taken care of forcefully. While the ghettoes are overpopulated, mobility to the suburbs is a reality, albeit not as much as we'd like. Voting rights have been established, although that New Yorker that has nothing to vote for might still be true, but not due to racism. Righteousness isn’t flowing like a mighty stream yet, nor is it ever likely to be in a fallen society, so all of use will continue to have to be on guard for injustices.
I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.
We've four decades removed from those struggles. The Lott affair reminded us of a not that distant past when states were voting for avowedly segregationist presidential tickets, not just in 1948 but 1968 as well. People died and were wounded fighting to cash those checks the Founding Fathers wrote. When we look at some of the less-than-edifying modern activist, remind yourself that it was a brave and godly bunch that King was heading up; the Spirit-led guts of the black church made that movement possible without an ethnic Civil War.
I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."
We've made some good strides in that direction. We're egalitarian in theory; putting it into practice is the trick.
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.
I'm not sure about the red hills of Georgia, but the sand hills of Florida at Warner Southern have blacks and whites interacting well. Racial cliques are still there; the black students still tend to hang out together, as do the Latinos, but black-white and Anglo-Latino relations seem good. You see interracial couples hand-in-hand on campus or a Latina flirting (in a manner appropriate for an evangelical campus) with an Anglo guy. I can’t testify to the rest of the country, but there’s a lot more fellowship than meets the eye. Racial fears are more in the abstract than in the people you know; once someone becomes a person rather than a stereotype, the bigotry tends to lessen.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
To call 2003 Mississippi an oasis of freedom and justice would be laying it on real thick, but that Jim Crow heat wave has dissipated, with the bigotry thermometer seeming to only get up into the low 80s rather than 110. However, the air conditioning of civil rights law and the cooling showers of greater public opprobrium of racism helps to make the bigotry a bit easier to live with.
I have a dream that my four 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.
Forty years later, it’s the conservatives who are using that line to fight positive discrimination for blacks. Today, the legal fight isn’t about being discriminating against blacks but whether to discriminate for them. This might bring in some liberal flamage, but it seems that it is modern conservatives who want to look at people as individuals where it is modern liberals who want to look at people as members of demographic groups, giving preference to the ones who were discriminated in the past.
I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor's lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.
Little kids tend not to be racist; they have to be taught that by their elders. It’s the big boys and girls that have to learn how not to fall prey to racial stereotypes and treat each other as children of God. It’s a lot better than it was 40 years ago, but it still needs a lot of work. I don’t know if Alabama is there yet, but it’s improving.
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 with which I return to the South. 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.
This is a tough passage to digest, for the second paragraph has a eschatological feel that will only happen when Jesus returns. The third paragraph stops short of that eschatology and focuses on God transforming the South and the nation. To the extent that we have repented of racism, God has healed our land. We haven’t fully repented yet, thus our land hasn’t been fully healed yet.
This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring." 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 snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks 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 every molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
We're almost there. From a legal perspective, we are there, but from a personal standpoint, we've still got a ways to go. There are still parts of the country that are hostile to blacks and still people that look down upon them, so freedom isn’t fully implemented. Freedom is ringing, but we need the bigots to shut up and let it be heard.
When we let freedom 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!"
We are free not to be bigots in 2003, for doing so impoverishes us all. We may never fully get there, for bigotry dies hard, and we may always have Klan sympathizers. However, as we see blacks become a greater part of the broader society, those racial stereotypes will slowly fade away. Just as we look at the blatant racism of the 50s with disbelief today, our grandkids will look at the low-level racism, income inequity and de facto segregation of the 00s as equally archaic. King’s dream’s still alive and kicking. Once we get past the racial opportunists of the left trying to turn his message into one of black tribalism and the racial opportunists of the right trying to write King off as a philandering commie, we have an godly vision of a color-blind America. Yes, King was a bit of a socialist, especially in the late 60s just before he died, but that shouldn’t discount his dream of a color-blind America.

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