Note: These are my prepared remarks from the No Walls University event, "Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Dreamer and His Dream", held at Mosaic Church in Lynchburg, Virginia on April 14, 2018.
In the 37th chapter of the book of Genesis, we first meet Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, whose prophetic dreams revealing God’s plans for his life drew the hatred of his brothers. In Genesis 37:19-20, it reads:
“Here comes that dreamer!” they said to one another. “Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.”
Of course, we know that his life was spared, and he was sold into slavery instead, and after 13 years marked by bondage, temptation, false accusations and imprisonment, he rose to become one of the most powerful men in Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh himself. His vision of his entire family bowing down to him came to pass when they traveled to Egypt looking for food during a famine that ravaged the region. After his father’s death, his brothers feared Joseph would retaliate against them for the wrongs they had done to him, but he forgave them declaring “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).
This Biblical story came to mind as I was preparing my remarks to commemorate the assassination of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. fifty years ago this month, on April 4, 1968. He is famous for being a dreamer, too. His speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963 was not the first time he had spoken about the dream, and most of his speech, initially titled, “Normalcy, Never Again”, was about civil and economic rights. After all, he was speaking to over 250,000 people at a “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Toward the end of his speech, however, Mahalia Jackson, a famous black gospel singer, yelled out from the crowd, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” And thus began one of the greatest oratorical moments in American history, and some scholars consider it the top American speech of the 20th century.
Less than five years later, the dreamer was silenced by an assassin’s bullet. “Come now, let’s kill him…Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.”
We’re going to talk today about the dream and where it stands today. I want to get personal, however, and describe my journey during the time of Dr. King and afterwards, and how his dream played out in my life. The first part of my journey is taken from a chapter in my book. This chapter is entitled “Innocent Bystander”, and I called it that because that’s what I was during the civil rights movement – a bystander. It greatly affected some of the conclusions I reached about the state of race in America, but it sets the stage for my education later in life, and I’m hopeful that the lessons I learned can be exported to others as well. So if you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’m going to read from a portion of that chapter:
While my parents are both black and were both born and raised in America, because of our travels as a military family, and where we lived most of the time, I wasn’t exposed to the civil rights movement during my formative years. By the time I was born in 1959, the U.S. armed forces had been integrated for just over a decade. That time period roughly coincides with the early years of the newest military service, the U.S. Air Force, which was established in 1947. My dad enlisted in the Air Force in 1957.
Although I was born in Louisiana, the state was more of a way station for us, a place where we’d camp out between my dad’s duty assignments. Because of our nomadic lifestyle, I didn’t spend a lot of time in the South during the 1960s. When Dr. King led the March on Washington in 1963, I was a four-year-old toddler in Alaska. When “Bloody Sunday” occurred in Selma, Alabama, I was a kindergartner in Kokomo, Indiana. When the Black Power movement started to take hold in 1966 and riots broke out across the country in 1966 and 1967, I was an elementary school student in Japan.
I had no sense of black consciousness growing up because the world in which I lived didn’t really call attention to my blackness as an issue or a cause. The civil rights movement wasn’t a topic of discussion where I went to school and I don’t recall talking about it at home with my parents. I went to integrated schools, lived in integrated housing, had many white friends and witnessed my parents entertaining blacks and whites in our home, all of them apparently enjoying each other’s company. The only times I recall being more aware of race was when we were in Louisiana, since just about all the people I knew there were black, whether they were family or friends.
All of that changed for me in 1968 when my mother, my siblings and I stayed in Louisiana for a time while my father was finishing up his tour of duty in Japan and preparing for our next assignment to Idaho. I spent the latter half of third grade and most of fourth grade in Lake Charles and my life there was nothing like the Rockwellian experience of my previous years. Every face I saw at school—students, teachers and administrators— was black or brown.
Blacks lived on the north side of town and whites on the south side. The only time their worlds intersected was at work or when there was business to be transacted. The occasional white face would pop into our home if a friend of the family from one of our previous duty stations was passing through, but that was the extent of our social interaction with whites during that time.
Even then, I don’t recall being conscious of why things were that way. I was idealistic and naïve, and didn’t sense that anything was amiss other than we were in a different place. I simply expected everything would go back to normal when we transferred to my father’s next assignment.
My awakening to the civil rights movement came right at the time it changed forever. I was in my grandparents’ home the evening of April 4, 1968 when a special news bulletin flashed on the television screen and the reporter announced that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. I remember my grandparents and my mother reacting with great emotion and I knew that something terrible had happened, but I didn’t understand the magnitude of it.
I was eight years old and, to my recollection, this was the first time I remember hearing his name. In the days to come, I became fully aware of Dr. King’s legacy and martyrdom. My teacher had us all do a scrapbook of newspaper articles on the life of Dr. King. On the day of his funeral, regular instruction was suspended and televisions were wheeled into the classrooms so we could watch the proceedings. I didn’t think about it at the time, but I now presume the white children on the south side of town were having a normal school day with no acknowledgement whatsoever of Dr. King’s life and death. In the days and weeks that followed, I did what I usually did when I wanted to learn more about something. I went to the library and checked out as many books as I could about Dr. King and the civil rights movement.
One of the interesting footnotes of the night of Dr. King’s assassination was the response of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was campaigning for president at the time. Emotions were high as the news spread of Dr. King’s death, and riots broke out in more than one hundred U.S. cities, killing 35 and injuring more than 2,500, and approximately 70,000 Army and National Guard troops were called out to restore order.
Senator Kennedy, who was slated to visit an inner-city neighborhood in Indianapolis, Indiana was warned against fulfilling that commitment, with aides telling him it wasn’t safe, and the chief of police said he couldn’t guarantee his safety if the crowd began to riot. He rejected their concerns, however, believing that it was his duty to speak to the people and give them hope in the midst of this horrific news. As it turned out, his announcement that night was the first that many of them had heard of Dr. King’s murder, and the news sent shock waves through the crowd. His impromptu five-minute speech, however, came from his heart, as he described his own anger and anguish at the murder of his brother a little less than five years prior, and he said:
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
He said he believed the nation needed and wanted blacks and whites to come together, and he implored the crowd to “dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of this world.” After asking them to pray for the nation and its people, the crowd returned quietly to their homes.
Some of Dr. King’s associates, still in shock at his murder, had been watching Senator Kennedy’s speech on television and it represented to them the passing of a torch from their slain leader to the brother of another leader taken by violence. Just 68 days later, however, Senator Kennedy’s life was taken, and I remember as a child going to bed in fear, thinking the world was coming to an end because all the good people were being killed. Some would say our idealism as a nation died with Senator Kennedy on June 6, 1968.
My life after those traumatic events of 1968 was fairly uneventful, and the idyllic environment I described – integrated neighborhoods, integrated schools, intact family and safe streets - was my norm. After all, we lived on military bases, which were essentially gated communities with heavily armed guards and barbed wire! I grew up in a family with liberal political leanings but socially conservative beliefs and values, and going into adulthood, it was those conservative values that eventually determined my political and social stands as well. The reason my book is entitled, SELLOUT: Musings from Uncle Tom’s Porch, is because it’s a memoir of growing up to be a conservative person of color in America, and those labels were often affixed to me and others who believed as I do. My affections for various conservative candidates and causes have waxed and waned over the years, and I’ve been enthusiastic about some and less enthusiastic about others.
At my core, though, I believed in, and still believe in the American Dream, and I believed that it is within everyone’s grasp. I believe in personal responsibility and accountability and that the formula for success in life is knowable and accessible to everyone.
In recent years, however, through a variety of experiences and timeouts, the Lord has convicted me of my pride in assuming my experiences are the metric by which others should be measured. I have begun to listen more and lecture less, and I realize that I won the lottery in life – raised by two parents who are together to this day and will be celebrating their 59th wedding anniversary in a couple of weeks, in a safe home and community with good role models and teaching all around.
The Lord has pointed out to me how little I had to do with the circumstances which increased my chances for success. What if I had been born to a single mother in Ferguson, Missouri or West Baltimore, Maryland? What if my only male role models were the neighborhood gang members? What if school was not about learning, but about simply surviving the day, every day? Where would I be today if that had been my life?
Because of this, I have empathy for those who struggle to claim the American Dream & I'm learning more about the plight of others whose experiences are not my own. This journey has taught me the holes in the American history I learned in school, the ferocity with which many fought to maintain dominance over others based solely on race, and how nearly 500 years of tortured history can leave multi-generational scars that are hard to heal.
As a result, I've been suggesting that we all should listen more and lecture less, that we should consider the impact of multi-generational trauma on an entire people, and that the church should be leading this conversation as the conscience of the nation.
I have often asked this question in the past: “We have no problem understanding how childhood trauma, unless eventually confronted and the cycle broken, can damage a family from generation to generation, so why do we struggle so much with the idea that collective trauma inflicted against a people can have a similar impact on an entire culture?”
Regrettably, as my perspective on the topic of race in America has evolved, I’ve annoyed and even enraged some of my conservative friends and followers, and those who proclaim the name of Christ and would fight to the end for unborn children, sex slaves or hungry people, suddenly become indignant when the conversation turns to race.
I’m admonished because they think my call for the church to be as active in combating racism as they are any social ill is trying to fix the world without the Gospel. Their contention is that it's strictly a sin problem and all we need to do is preach the Gospel and as hearts change, racism will diminish. To suggest we should engage, listen to and esteem marginalized people is apparently heresy. They want to be activists in every other arena of worldly pain, but not this one.
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, Dr. King said, “In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues which the gospel has nothing to do with’."
He spoke of a white pastor who wrote:
All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but is it possible that you are in too great of a religious hurry? It has taken Christianity almost 2000 years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.
Dr. King wrote eloquently of the church’s power throughout history when it confronted injustice in every culture in which it found itself. He said:
There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators." But they went on with the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven" and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated."
They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest.
Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter 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 often vocal sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.
If you have never read Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, I encourage you to go online and read it today. What impressed me most about this letter, and I hope you picked up on it as I was reading portions of it, is that it is still very relevant today.
It is a masterpiece and an eloquent rebuttal to those who say the church shouldn’t be involved in social issues and should limit itself to teaching the Gospel and allowing time and changed hearts to improve society.
Dr. King deliberately cited the church in Rome in his letter because it was the early Christian church that upended the Roman empire, not just because they preached the Gospel, but because they lived it out in the streets of Rome, caring for the sick that had been abandoned by their families during the plague, rescuing unwanted children who had been tossed into the streets, feeding hungry people, and otherwise caring for the hurting and marginalized of their community. In addition to ministering to the needs of the sick and the poor, they stood against social ills like abortion, infanticide, human sacrifice, the brutality of the gladiator games, and the degradation of women.
The last pagan emperor of Rome, Julian, complained about the Christians’ social action:
These impious Galileans not only feed their own, but ours also; welcoming them with their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted with cakes…Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors. Such practice is common among them, and causes contempt for our gods.
There is a reason Julian was the last pagan emperor of Rome. The Roman Empire was overcome by the power of Jesus Christ, not through the ways of the world, but the ways of God. It was these extraordinary acts of obedience to the Gospel which led Romans to inquire about what manner of God the early Christians worshipped, and over time, they came to know and worship Him, too.
Some in the modern church would have us believe that growing individual faith and collectively doing good works are conflicting objectives, but Jesus’ brother James knew better; he wrote:
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (James 2:14-17).
Our works should be an outward manifestation of an inward change, and as that which breaks the heart of God breaks our hearts, too, we should be energized to come together as Christians, black and white, to show America what a nation with Christ as Lord looks like, “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”
Dr. King dreamed of a church that wouldn’t rest until “justice rolled down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream", and while he didn’t live to see it, that doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t happen. We know the gates of hell will not prevail against the church of Jesus Christ, and through the No Walls Ministry and others like it, we can prevail against the scourge of racism that has burdened our nation for far too long.
Dr. King said, “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.”
It will be hard work, and that is all I can guarantee. And yes, there is still work to be done. Since Dr. King’s death, the black community has seen improvements in educational attainment and economic status, but still lags behind whites, and in home ownership, unemployment and incarceration, their lot has either not improved or gotten worse in the past 50 years. Right here in Lynchburg, a recent study suggested a direct correlation between the past practice of redlining and the location of our city’s most impoverished neighborhoods today.
Many would argue that these are problems of personal responsibility, and we should never deny that people have agency over their lives. We are all made in the image of God, and we all have free will. There are many inspiring stories each one of us can tell of someone who overcame difficult circumstances to flourish in life. What I’ve learned as I’ve allowed myself to be teachable, however, is that, as Dr. King once put it, “It’s alright to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” It’s only been a little more than half a century since the 1964 Civil Rights Acts became law, and a law declaring one’s freedom doesn’t change hearts or structures overnight.
It’s like setting a man free from prison after decades of incarceration and saying to him, “you’re free now – go and live well,” but you leave him without the means or a community of care to help him stand on his own. Every child that is born into the combat zones that many of our neighborhoods have become is imprinted with the despair that comes with being cast adrift without guidance or hope, and the cycle continues.
We can do better. In my humble opinion, our politics have failed us because the prevailing directive in the political arena is the zero-sum game - for one side to win, another side must lose. Culture has failed us because it has taken our diversity, which should be a cause of celebration because it illustrates the beauty of God’s creation, and made it into a weapon that we use against each other, even in the church, where we are all called to complete unity in Jesus Christ. The time for the church to be the church is now.
The church can be a thermostat, as Dr. King described it, and can set the tone for harmony among all people but, as I’ve indicated, not everyone who says to Him, “Lord, Lord” is willing to acknowledge the need to act on this issue compared to the many other social causes which seem to have no trouble capturing the attention and engagement of our congregations.
But if a bystander like me, with the grace and humility of the Holy Spirit working inside of me, can learn the language of the dream and take it to heart, there are others out there for whom we can have hope. We must dethrone all other idols that keep Christ from His rightful place on the throne of our hearts, and come together in sweet communion with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as Jesus prayed we would thousands of years ago. I believe with all my heart that if we truly put Christ first above all things, reconciliation is not only possible but inevitable. Then we will truly see what becomes of his dreams.