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”…. 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…. 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. (1)
“Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.” (2) Good solid advice from any pastor under any circumstances; but in this case, a radical pledge by anyone wanting to join the nonviolent Civil Rights movement under Martin Luther King, Jr. This was the first “commandment” on the pledge card that every volunteer had to sign. Other pledges on the card: “Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love”; “Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free”; “Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free”; “Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy”; “Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world”; and “Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.” (3) This was to be a revolution-but one of complete nonviolence, of love, and finally of justice.
Forty years ago this April 4, while it is still debated who was ultimately responsible, this Baptist pastor who preached freedom and unity in Christ’s name was shot and killed. This year as well marks the forty-fifth anniversary of his powerful address to the multitude gathered in Washington, D.C., “I Have a Dream,” which some hail as one of the greatest speeches of the twentieth century. This is also the forty-fifth year of his book, Why We Can’t Wait-a landmark work that contains his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written on April 16, 1963, after he and Ralph Abernathy were arrested during the nonviolent Civil Rights demonstrations in the largest and most segregated city in Alabama (lest we forget: separate restrooms, drinking fountains, schools, parks, sections on the bus, churches; blacks forbidden to sit at store lunch counters, to eat in “white” restaurants, or stay at “white” hotels). What is surprising is not his usual persuasive eloquence, but the fact that this letter was King’s defense to the accusative clergy for his motives.
“I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly….”
“In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? …Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists. There was a time when the church was very powerful-in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer what they believed . In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society….Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent-and often even vocal-sanction of things as they are….”
“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.” (4)
In several important ways, the Civil Rights Movement was a success-although American society has by no means reached the top of that mountain. We have journeyed a great distance in the past forty years, but we have many valleys and steep rocky slopes yet to overcome-even within the Body of Christ.
I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?”…Somebody’s asking, “When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?” I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.” How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.” How long? Not long, because “you shall reap what you sow.” (5)
Next year commemorates the nine tieth anniversary of Dr. King’s birth. While there is little hope we can solve all our racial problems by next January 15, each of us can personally-and collectively-do our part as Christians. With the psalmist, we also ask, “How long, O Lord?” The answer today is still, “Not long.”
1 [ Back ] "Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream," Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963
2 [ Back ] Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can't Wait (New York: Penguin Books, 1963), pp. 63-64.
3 [ Back ] King, pp. 77, 91-92, 95.
4 [ Back ] Martin Luther King, Jr., "How Long, Not Long," Montgomery, Alabama, March 25, 1965.