This morning I was driving up to Chicago for meetings on Immigrant Ministry, in what has become, in my opinion, a spiritual successor to the Civil Rights Movement. Today I’m reflecting on his famous I Have a Dream Speech and wishing I was in Washington to celebrate, but alas the work of fighting against injustice marches on, as does time, and so I cannot march today.
I am remembering that Wyatt Tee Walker told Dr. King: “Don’t use the lines about ‘I have a dream,’… It’s trite, it’s cliché. You’ve used it too many times already.” I’m so glad King didn’t follow Walker’s advice. I’m also recalling several quotes from that speech that are less known. Here they are, quotes that have influenced me to this day:
5 Lesser Known Quotes from “I Have A Dream.”
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
“The difference between a dreamer and a visionary is that a dreamer has his eyes closed and a visionary has his eyes open.”
“We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”
“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.”
“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.”
If you would like to read more about the words of Dr. King today I’d point you to his Letter From Birmingham Jail. Recently my denominational magazine posted this summary of my series on the Letter From Birmingham Jail and I repost it here, with links to the entire 5-part document below:
In the spring of 1963 eight white clergymen in Birmingham, Alabama, wrote an open letter with a thinly veiled reference to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as an “outsider” provoking their community. This was the occasion of the historic Letter from Birmingham Jail, which King wrote in reply 50 years ago when I began writing this piece. The Letter was smuggled from the jail, in bits and pieces written in the margins of newspaper print and on scraps of paper. It was later pieced together.
The Letter went on to become perhaps the single most important document of the Civil Rights era, and continues to be studied today. But how should we respond to the letter, since no formal response was formulated to the letter in 50 years? Here are five ways we can respond to the Letter from Birmingham Jail:
[What follows is a brief summary of a longer treatment of these matters that can be downloaded in one file by clicking here.]
Celebrate the Progress
One of the first ways I think we can respond to the letter is to celebrate the progress since the 1960s. Was the Civil Rights Movement a success? In many ways, yes. The movement has successes in law, public opinion, leadership, politics, and nonviolence to show for itself.
In his letter King stated: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” Perhaps the most telling sign of public opinion success is how we see “little black boys and girls… holding hands with little white boys and girls” all the time… and it is not out of the ordinary. Our children play together, worship together, and study together. There is still work to be done–but so much progress has been made on this front. Plainly, racism has lost most of the battles since 1960, and we have King and his movement to thank for much of that.
Confess the Sins
Personally, I have found myself to have racist attitudes and behaviors. I have pre-judged people based on their skin color alone. I have felt unexpected danger and fear that is only explainable because of prejudicial attitudes. I have avoided some races over others and have been drawn to support and associate based on racial divisions. I have personally not advanced, selected, or favored those from other races, preferring my own kind at many times in the past. I have not personally been a part of the solution for much of my life–and have committed not only these acts of commission above but also thousands of acts of omission, where I might have been a help to racial division and inequality. I confess all the above and would love to be informed of other ways I have sinned. I not only confess those I omit but I am also willing to confess other sins I have committed at a future time (you need only help me see the failing). This is my confession, with sadness and shame, but with hope for forgiveness from God and those I have sinned against.
It is timely that our denomination has been part of a broader effort to acknowledge our sins of commission and omission during the Civil Rights Movement in particular. Exactly 50 years after The Letter was written, Dr. Jo Anne Lyon, General Superintendent of The Wesleyan Church, said, “Dr. King’s letter must not be forgotten. It is a prophetic timeless message.” The letter includes such famous statements as, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Church representatives gathered in Birmingham, April 14-15, 2013, on the anniversary of the event to present a response to The Letter. Dr. Lyon participated from the beginning in the drafting of the response document. The response includes confessions from each distinct Christian Churches Together family, including one from our Evangelical/Pentecostal family:
“…together, we confess with sadness and shame that we were at best silent and often even hostile when Dr. King led the historic movement against racial injustice. We also confess that it has taken us far too long, in the intervening years, to acknowledge pervasive racism in our midst and begin to repent and change. Even now our people often fail to grasp the complex realities of structural racism.” [More information on the Response to the Letter from Birmingham Jail can be found online at christianchurchestogether.org]
Continue the Struggle
“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.” – The Letter
As a leader, I ask myself four guiding questions about racial prejudice and how it could influence unfairly:
1) Who is leading? Who is making the decisions, who is in power, and who has the right to set the direction?
2) Who is chosen? There are times I have a choice to make–a hiring decision or an appointment. I have worked to find ways to build relationships across ethnic lines in particular so I have a better group to choose from.
3) Who is visible? It is all about the faces. If all the faces on my print materials, all the people giving testimonies in my videos, and those singing and speaking on stage are white, there is a problem.
4) Who is coming? Those of us leading churches want “our congregation to be more diverse” or we want “the church to be less segregated on Sundays.” I need to engage in the previous three questions before pushing on the fourth one. Demographics do matter–if my church doesn’t “look” like my community, there are likely deep-seated reasons for it.
Finding the New Fights
The church is the greatest power to fight evils in our culture. However, all too often the church looks the other way (as it too often did in the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s) with only the more active churches and Christian leaders as exceptions. At other times the church is actually complicit in the cultural evils itself, as it was in American Slavery from the beginning and right up until the Civil War. Only a few abolitionist movements (like the Wesleyans) have been exceptions. But when the church is at its best (as it was among abolitionist churches and Civil Rights Movement churches), there is no more powerful force on earth for change.
In part because of the example of The Letter, I feel compelled to find the new fights that come our way as evil reinvents itself in every age, especially when these injustices work their ways into the laws of the land. But how do I make these decisions on principle and with accountable authority, without becoming a relativist who makes up my own rubric for right and wrong?
Dr. King gave us three invaluable principles in The Letter for making these decisions:
1) Unjust Laws Lack Harmony with God’s Moral Law
2) Unjust Laws Falsely Degrade Some and Inflate Others
3) Unjust Laws Institutionalize Oppression of One Over Another
When we find that our laws t are crafted to protect the power of the powerful, so that a caste system of ethnicity, economics, or education is in place, we are beholden to overthrow that system. When our cultural evils make it “okay” to allow a majority to make a minority “fall in line” and “keep quiet,” then we are institutionalizing our oppression. The calls to be “law-abiding” fall on my deaf ears, because the law itself is broken.
In these times, we must follow King’s example from The Letter and quote Scripture, convey our philosophical and theological calls for reason, revive the best of each of our religious traditions, and even share stories from our own experience that penetrate the hearts if not the minds of our foes. By following this pattern we can change even the laws of the most powerful countries that have ever ruled this earth—even the United States. The church has done it before, and we can do it again.
Be Ever Vigilant
King said that he was “initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist” but over time the moniker grew on him as he considered that all those he admired most were considered extremists, starting with Christ:
“Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’” – The Letter
After this King marched through extremists who shaped our doctrine. He started with the shepherd Amos, “an extremist for justice,” reminding us of his refrain, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Then Apostle Paul: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Then Martin Luther: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And even John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.”
As I look to be vigilant in response to The Letter, I wonder: What is the Christian faith if not a counter-cultural movement that calls us to question the overall beliefs and preconceived notions of the larger culture in our or the world?
I am reminded, when reading The Letter, that change is always the greatest foe for the world. But for us, a status quo of sin causes us to be ever observant, and to embrace change. Change is just another way to spell Christ, or the church that embodies his mission. Where there is Christ, there is change of heart; where there is church, there is change of culture. Where there is no change of heart, we search for Christ and cannot find him; where there is no change of culture, we seek the true church and do not find her either.
I must respond to The Letter as an extremist who is ever attentive to my own prejudice, and the racism and injustice that power so blithely enables without conscience. I must be on constant vigilant watch in my choice between the two extremisms:
“So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?” – The Letter
*All references to The Letter are all to The Letter from Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
David Drury is chief of staff to the General Superintendent of The Wesleyan Church.