Across the nation there are those who are stopping to remember an icon of the Civil Rights Movement. I use the word icon intentionally. The Civil Rights Movement is broader than Dr. King, but he gave voice to the movement in a way that caught the ears of the nation. His assassination at the age of 39 helped cement his status as symbol of a movement that transformed the American psyche. He played a significant role in the passage of two key pieces of legislation that guaranteed certain rights that had been previously denied to people of color, but it took a willing partner in President Johnson and leaders in Congress to make that happen. With the election of President Obama, some in the United States felt they could declared Dr. King's dream fulfilled. But, in the years since President Obama's election we have discovered that such a declaration of victory was much too premature.
On this Day of observance of Dr. King's Birth, let us not forget that the journey is not yet complete. In fact, many of the protections enacted a generation earlier are being dismantled. Dr. King was committed to changing the status of African Americans, but he was also committed to ending poverty and ending war. It is important to remember that he lost allies in the Civil Rights Movement by opposing the Vietnam War. At the time of his death he was in the process of devising a new movement that would lift up the poor -- no matter their color. Once again he risked losing allies.
I write this as a middle class white man. I have never had to worry about being stopped by a police officer simply because of my color. I've never had the "talk" with my son. I am aware that I cannot simply "step into the shoes" of another. I can listen and learn, and that I shall do.
What I have heard lately is much despair. There is a sense that we have taken great steps backward in recent years. We are more divided than we had been in many years. We have watched as young black men have been killed both by the police and by vigilantes. We have seen how economic disparity has impacted people of color disproportionately. We have heard that the growing unemployment among young people of color is feeding a sense of despair. It looks dark. I feel it, but am not always sure how to be engaged. But perhaps we can gain some needed insight and perspective by reflecting on these words shared the night before Dr. King's murder. He reminds us in the sermon/speech of an earlier stabbing that had threatened his life -- had he sneezed he would have surely died. He didn't sneeze and he went on to participate in many important steps toward liberation. He looked forward to continuing efforts -- should that be offered to him. But, that night, perhaps sensing that the end was coming, he shared his contentment that whether or not he made it to the promised land, he had been blessed to be part of the journey. So, even as we may feel that there is no hope, perhaps these words can instill in us a renewed hope for tomorrow.
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. [King Jr, Martin Luther (2013-08-20). The Essential Martin Luther King, Jr.: "I Have a Dream" and Other Great Writings (King Legacy)
(Kindle Locations 2956-2957). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.]
Note on image: © Martin Luther King of Georgia (1929-1968), Brother John Lentz, OFM, Courtesy of Trinity Stores, http://www.trinitystores.com/