Walking Toward the Dream
Presented by Rev. Peter Connolly
Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green
January 10, 2010
This coming Friday, January 15, would have been the 81st birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who died on April 4, 1968, at the tender age of 39, by an assassin’s bullet. His life and work are honored by many of us who remember televised images of him on black and white TV sets and many whose memories, indeed, lives, do not go back that far.
The memory of his life and work was institutionalized as a national holiday by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. That proclamation first went into effect in 1986, though not every state was quick to grant that distinction.
Only four American federal holidays have ever been instituted to honor individuals, the others having been Lincoln’s Birthday, Washington’s Birthday and Columbus Day. Columbus’s achievement of discovering “America,” now a fairly controversial claim, occurred in the late 15th century. Washington was born in the first third of the 18th century; Lincoln in the early 19th century.
Martin Luther King, Jr., then, is the only individual, American or otherwise, to have lived and worked in living memory, to be acknowledged by a federal holiday. Quite an honor.
Some interesting facts about Rev. King: He was born “Michael King, Jr.” after his father “Michael King, Sr.” and went by that name for the first five years of his life. He traveled with his family to Germany in 1934. Michael King, Sr., a Baptist minister, was so impressed by what he learned of the 16th century German theologian, Martin Luther, that he changed his own and his son’s names to align them both with this champion of the Protestant Reformation of the Catholic Church.
Imagine changing your name at the age of 34, never mind changing the name of your son. No wonder that young MLK felt himself destined for the ministry. In fact, his father was the minister of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and his mother was the daughter of A.D. Williams, “a successful minister,” according to MLK (A, p. 3). His grandfather was also a minister, as was an uncle. Was there ever any doubt?
Well, yes, as we’ll see in a minute or two.
The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. is not an autobiography in the traditional sense. Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Papers Project, approached the surviving family members of Rev. King in 1992, with a request that he be allowed to assemble appropriate documents from that collection to create a volume that would allow for popular access to a narrative treatment made up of Rev. Dr. King’s reflections on his youth and early life and writings illustrating his effect on national events.
In this volume, Rev. King waxes poetically about the blessings of his early life: He says that he was “an extraordinarily healthy child… The doctors pronounced me a one hundred percent perfect child, from a physical point of view” (A, p. 2). He says that he had a “marvelous mother and father” and says that “it is quite easy for me to think of a God of love mainly because I grew up in a family where love was central and where lovely relationships were ever present. It is quite easy for me to think of the universe as basically friendly mainly because of my uplifting hereditary and environmental circumstances. It is quite easy for me to lean more toward optimism than pessimism about human nature mainly because of my childhood experiences” (A, p. 2-3).
He describes his character as “both militant and moderate, both idealistic and realistic,” believing that “my strong determination for justice comes from the very strong, dynamic personality of my father, and I would hope that the gentle aspect comes from a mother who is very gentle and sweet” (A, p. 3).
Here is Dr. King’s account of his “conversion experience” (if you can call it that): “I joined the church at the age of five… Our church was in the midst of the spring revival… On Sunday morning the evangelist came into our Sunday school to talk about salvation, and after a short talk on this point, he extended an invitation to any of us who wanted to join the church. My sister was the first one to join the church that morning, and after seeing her join, I decided that I would not let her get ahead of me, so I was the next. I had never given this matter a thought, and even at the time of my baptism I was unaware of what was taking place. From this it seems quite clear that I joined the church not out of any dynamic conviction, but out of a childhood desire to keep up with my sister” (A, p. 6).
Another reading from the “Early Years” section of the Autobiography gives a further glimpse into Dr. King’s early development that may prove enlightening:
The lessons which I was taught in the Sunday school were quite in the fundamentalist line. None of my teachers ever doubted the infallibility of the Scriptures. Most of them were unlettered and had never heard of biblical criticism. Naturally, I accepted the teachings as they were being given to me. I never felt any need to doubt them—at least at that time I didn’t. I guess I accepted biblical studies uncritically until I was about twelve years old. But this uncritical attitude could not last long, for it was contrary to the very nature of my being. I had always been the questioning and precocious type. At the age of thirteen, I shocked my Sunday school class by denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Doubts began to spring forth unrelentingly. (A, p. 6).
In the Autobiography, Dr. King recalls his first encounters, as a child, with racial discrimination, with prejudice, with segregation and with bigotry. It is strong and convincing testimony. I recommend to you that you pick up a copy at your leisure and spend some time with it, perhaps during the month of February, which is celebrated as “Black History Month.”
In this book, also, though, are accounts of the determination of King’s father and other mentor-figures to resist this treatment, remarkable acts of courage in the face of bigotry. One story concludes with King’s father saying to a policeman “Let me make it clear to you that you are not talking to a boy. If you persist in referring to me as a boy, I will be forced to act as if I don’t hear a word you are saying.”
Dr. King says that “The policeman was so shocked in hearing a Negro talk to him so forthrightly that he did not know how to respond. He nervously wrote the ticket and left the scene as quickly as possible” (A, p. 8).
Just before going to college, young MLK spent a summer working on a tobacco farm in Connecticut. He was gratified to find that in the North, he could eat even in the fanciest restaurants, making it all that much harder to return to the South—Atlanta, in this case—and be subject to the whims of the Jim Crow policies.
He says that “The first time that I was seated behind a curtain in a dining car, I felt as if the curtain had been dropped on my selfhood” (p. 12). This statement, I find to be the most poignant of all. How do we experience our life on the Earth more intimately than through our sense of selfhood? What must it be like to feel oneself cut off from that—one’s very essence? Let’s sit with that for a minute.
In 1948, at the age of 19, he entered Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. Here he took up a serious study of philosophy as well as theology, reading “the ethical and social theories of the great philosophers, from Plato and Aristotle down to Rousseau, Hobbes, Bentham, Mill and Locke” (p. 18). He says that Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis “left an indelible imprint” on his thinking, though he took issue with his “cult of inevitable progress”: in other words, he was learning to think critically.
He spent the Christmas holidays of 1949 studying the works of Marx as well as interpretive studies of Marxism and Leninism. He rejected their materialist interpretation of history; he “strongly disagreed with communism’s ethical relativism;” he “opposed communism’s political totalitarianism;” and says that its “deprecation of individual freedom was objectionable” to him (A, p. 20).
Still, he found himself impressed with certain aspects of the theory: “communism grew as a protest against the hardships of the underprivileged;” it “emphasized a classless society, and a concern for social justice” (p. 20-21). He says “The Christian ought always to be challenged by any protest against unfair treatment of the poor” (p. 21).
King saw truths in both the communist view that a classless society holds the best hope for just social relations and that a Christian stance includes protest against injustice perpetrated against a society’s weakest members. He decries the atheism of communism and celebrates a theism with the personal view of God his warm home life allowed him to believe could exist.
He saw a connection between injustice and a courageous moral stance based on the precepts of Christian teaching. He understood that the kind of power necessary to transform unjust laws and customs comes from providing witness and providing challenge.
While at Crozer, King was first exposed to the power of pacifism at a lecture of Dr. A.J. Muste. Muste was “enrolled as a minister with the Society of Friends,” was a volunteer for the American Civil Liberties Union, and the author of Non-violence in an Aggressive World (1940). At the time, he was also executive of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
King says that he was “far from convinced of the practicability of his position.” He thought that “while war could never be a positive or absolute good, it could serve as a negative good in the sense of preventing the spread and growth of an evil force. War, horrible as it is, might be preferable to surrender to a totalitarian system—Nazi, Fascist, or Communist” (p. 23). (This is a topic we addressed in our fall Building Your Own Theology” group.) King says
Perhaps my faith in love was temporarily shaken by the philosophy of Nietzsche. [As a church, we are currently studying the philosophy of Nietzsche at the Adult Forum on Sunday mornings.—P.C.] I had been reading parts of The Genealogy of Morals and the whole of The Will to Power. Nietzsche’s glorification of power—in his theory, all life expressed the will to power—was an outgrowth of his contempt for ordinary mortals.
He attacked the whole of Hebraic-Christian morality—with its virtues of piety and humility, its otherworldliness, and its attitude toward suffering—as the glorification of weakness, as making virtues out of necessity and impotence. He looked to the development of a superman who would surpass man as man surpassed the ape. (A, p. 23)
One Sunday afternoon, King took a train from Chester to Philadelphia to hear a talk by Dr. Mordecai Johnson, President of Howard University. Dr. Johnson had just returned from a trip to India, and spoke on the work of Mohandas Gandhi, the Indian Mahatma.
King says that “his message was so profound and electrifying that I left the meeting and bought a half-dozen books on Gandhi’s life and works.” He says “As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform” (p. 23).
Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a larger scale. Love for Gandhi was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation.
It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking. The intellectual and moral satisfaction that I failed to gain from the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, the revolutionary methods of Marx and Lenin, the social contracts theory of Hobbes, the ‘back to nature’ optimism of Rousseau, the superman philosophy of Nietzsche, I found in the nonviolent resistance philosophy of Gandhi (A, p. 24).
And King discovered liberalism as a counter to the fundamentalism of his upbringing; sometimes it was refreshing, sometimes it was shocking to the system. He says:
Liberalism’s superficial optimism concerning human nature caused it to overlook the fact that reason is darkened by sin. The more I thought about human nature, the more I saw how our tragic inclination for sin causes us to use our minds to rationalize our actions. Liberalism failed to see that reason by itself is little more than an instrument to justify man’s defensive way of thinking.
Moreover, I came to recognize the complexity of man’s social involvement and the glaring reality of collective evil. I came to feel that liberalism had become all too sentimental concerning human nature and that it leaned toward a false idealism. Reason, devoid of the purifying power of faith, can never free itself from distortions and rationalizations. (A, p. 25).
Of course, there is one phase of liberalism that I hope to cherish always: its devotion to the search for truth, its insistence on an open and analytic mind, its refusal to abandon the best light of reason” (A, p. 25).
King did his post-graduate work at Boston University. Here he wrestled with the work of Rheinhold Niebuhr, such as Moral Man and Immoral Society; Hegel’s philosophy, especially as expressed in Phenomenology of Mind; Philosophy of History and Philosophy of Right. His dissertation was entitled “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.”
By the time of his graduation from the BU School of theology, King was convinced, theologically. “Our world hinges on moral foundations. God has made it so! God has made the universe to be based on a moral law…” To bolster this belief, he quotes Carlyle: “No lie can live forever.” And William Cullen Bryant: “Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.” He quotes scripture: “You shall reap what you sow.”
In the midst of his deliberations, he received a letter from the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama, saying that they were without a minister and would be pleased if King would speak when he was next in that part of the country. They had heard of him through his father in Atlanta.
King preached there over the Christmas holidays when he returned home. His choice to take that position when it was offered was to lead him to a path that would lead to a change in the history of race relations in this country. King began attending meetings of the NAACP, through which he came “face-to-face with some of the racial problems that had plagued the community.”
Just as importantly, King was made aware of the Alabama Council on Human Relations, “an interracial group that used educational means to address human relations in Alabama.” He became its vice-president. He speaks about how surprising it was that others thought this dual interest was inconsistent.
It’s a testimony to King’s insistence on the complexity of the dialectic to address social problems that both his education and his work in the world can move forward formed by the “dynamic interaction of philosophies and experiences.” The work of raising a family in the racial climate of Montgomery on the one hand, and King’s leadership through the wonderfully inspiring bus strike there in 1955, is further proof of the value of living the dialectic.
December 20, 1956: The bus integration order reached Montgomery. King’s assessment:
Montgomery marked the first flash of organized, sustained, mass action and non-violent revolt against the Southern way of life. In Montgomery there emerged courageous and collective challenge to and protest against the American order, which promised so much for all, while perpetuating indignities and brutalities on the oppressed minority. (A, p. 98).
The Montgomery Negro had acquired a new sense of somebodiness and self-respect, and had a new determination to achieve freedom and human dignity no matter what the cost. (A, p. 98).
Time magazine published a cover story on the movement in February, 1957. King says that he thought he observed a lessening of tensions and feelings towards himself and the movement as a result. During the summer of 1957, the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) made plans for a Crusade for Citizenship to turn into action the recently enacted Civil Rights law—it would “be meaningless unless it was translated into action by Negroes exercising the right to vote” he said.
In 1958, King was stabbed in Harlem.
In 1959, King spent time in India and had dinner one night with Prime Minister Nehru. The philosophy of non-violence was on the menu.
In 1960, the lunch-counter sit-in movement began and King spoke at the founding conference of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. King was arrested in Atlanta at a sit-in. He discussed civil rights with the Democratic nominee for President, John F. Kennedy.
In 1961, King was arrested with more than 700 other protesters of the Albany movement. Racial violence erupted. In the tradition of Gandhi, King calls for a Day of Penance to atone for the violence.
In 1963, after violating a state circuit court injunction against protests, King is arrested in Birmingham. He composes his famous testament, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” on April 16. On June 11, President Kennedy announces a new civil rights proposal. On June 12, an assassin kills NAACP leader Medgar Evans. On June 22, King meets with Kennedy.
Change was in the air. The two political leaders, one elected by Constitutional process, the other by the will of his people, came together to find a creative way to channel the energies for change that had been made possible by public witness: the non-violent actions that were captured nationwide on television: the whole general public were the witnesses this time to brutal treatment in response to peaceful protest.
It was the so-called “dean of Negro leaders,” A. Philip Randolph, who suggested that the time was right for a large-scale public action. The right place was in the nation’s capitol. The right participants were all the organizations nationwide that had been mounting this struggle and the people, the common people, who had had enough and were ready to take direct, non-violent action for social change and racial equality.
More than 200,000 persons participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, according to police count; the organizers of the march guessed that the total was more like 300,000. King uses the term “nearly 250,000 people.”
Today, we know the speech of August 28, 1963, as the “I Have a Dream” speech. Clayborne Carson calls the March on Washington “the most significant and moving demonstration for freedom and justice in all the history of this country.” Any of us would be hard-pressed to name a rival.
There are a couple of websites that contain famous American speeches by ranking, 1 to 100. “American Rhetoric” is one. It and at least one other website name the “I Have a Dream” speech the most effective speech of the 20th century.
This speech is effective because it coalesces the thought and work, the discipline and challenge, the anger, pain and conviction necessary to inspire change. Rhetorically, of course, it is masterful, using repetition and an appeal to emotions as well as facts and values.
It lists alternatives to his solution and refutes their viability; it proposes change, it argues for change, it demands change. It uses symbols like the roaring of mighty streams that cannot be held back and does so in the rhythms that evoke those mighty streams. It argues from the perspective of civil government and the rights it should ensure and the Biblical sources that say justice is imbedded in God’s creation. It was both carefully composed and at its rousing finish, in all probability, spontaneous.
More than one source states that as Dr. King was nearing the end of his speech, the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who had heard him speak of his “dream” on another occasion, shouted out “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” King departed from the prepared text and launched into what may be called his preaching voice to say: [Excerpts from the “I Have a Dream” speech]
On August 28 of 1963, I was a week away from my twelfth birthday. The passion of that summer was collecting baseball cards. Carl Yastrzemski was the prize of the year, but he came out in the First Series, back in the late spring. The Seventh Series was out now. No hope, but through a trade. I got the Roman Mejias card that Paul Gorski wanted so badly, though, up in a store in Plum Island that had had trouble selling out its stock. Paul Gorski gave me the Yaz card and a passel of others for the Roman Mejias. What a haul that was.
Eight months earlier we’d moved from Elmont St. in one section of the Dorchester neighborhood in Boston to Roslin St., where I met Paul who became my best friend. The section of Dorchester we moved from would soon be called “North Dorchester.” It was a way to telegraph the new demographic: this was now the “Black” section of Dorchester.
I remember the dynamics of the change as it played out in our house. My Uncle Jack had walked over from his house on Radcliffe Street, a couple of blocks away to deliver the news: the “Jew doctor” as he called him, who lived next door to Jack and his family had sold his place to so-called “niggers.”
“What are you going to do?” my father asked.
“What can I do?” Jack replied. “I have to sell as soon as I can before the neighborhood goes downhill.”
(This I could not understand. What could the addition of one Black family to the neighborhood do to change our familiar little play patterns?)
“Who are you going to sell to?” my father asked. “Will you sell to the Blacks?”
“Of course, I’ll sell to the Blacks! Who else will buy it now?”
So began the shameful episode in Boston’s troubled racial history called “The White Flight” or “The Great White Flight.” Choose your poison.
Before the year was out, my parents had found a place far enough, they thought, from the creeping pestilence of the Negro take-over. Other families were fleeing further south into the suburbs. Safe distance. This phase of the racism of the North played out differently than in the South, which may be seen as the “front lines” of the battle for racial equality and justice.
The Northern version, at least as I experienced it, was evil and pernicious rather than evil and vicious, but evil it surely was, filled with venom and rancor, fear and loathing, hatred and subtle violence.
I enjoyed my new neighborhood. It was exciting to take a longer bus ride to school and watch as the neighborhoods changed whenever I looked up from the homework that I inevitably had to finish because it did not get done at home. I carried the shame of our reactionary move with me, but lightly. My new world preoccupied me.
When I flunked out of Latin School and transferred to Boston Technical, I had more Black kids in my classes, played more inter-racial basketball (though we hardly thought of it in those terms) and cultivated more friendships across racial lines.
“Shep” was a cool dude, easy to get along with and great to have on your team during gym class. Jimmy Jones was slow, loping, with a slow shy smile and a wry sense of humor. He was cool, too. “Stanley” was from the Caribbean somewhere. He had a great accent and was a whiz at history.
It was not hard to get along with the Black kids. What was up with the adults? Not too much imagination there. Not too much Christian action. Not too much patience with change.
I carried the shame of the “White Flight” with me for years, aware of the sin of racism, which I saw as just another aspect of reactionary thinking and behavior. I was aware that I owed reparations, but did not know what form would materialize, if any. But life has a way of offering opportunities, sometimes.
When I was hired by Kit Clark Senior Services in April of 1993, it was to start up a congregate living program for folks who were homeless. It will come as no surprise that the city’s Black population was “over-represented” as they say, in this demographic.
The Harbor Point community where this project was located was now a “mixed income” community. It had once been a mostly Black housing project called Columbia Point, where drugs ran rampant and poverty was a way of life. Poverty and drug abuse are also “over-represented” in the Black community.
Here was an opportunity to address some of the wrongs that my little life, in circumstances beyond my direct control, had helped to bring about in my family’s irrational fear of racial integration. Our little program of nine individuals was thoroughly, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, integrated. We shared tasks, we shared meals, white folks from Charlestown and Black folks from Alabama shared apartments—not always amicably, but it was part of the work to confront the causes of the racist attitudes.
Five years later, I was asked to start another program, which I did. This one was in North Dorchester, two houses away from the Florence Nightingale Community Garden, which sat at the former site of the Florence Nightingale School which I had attended for kindergarten; three blocks from the Elmont St. house we had fled from 35 years earlier.
I also took over a program at Ditson St. in Dorchester. Less than a block away was the Leroy St. house that my aunt and uncle and cousins had fled from. Now there was not a white family on the street. But we integrated the neighborhood with our programs.
White folks and Black folks, and an occasional Native American walked the same streets with little trouble. The Black folks in the neighborhood seemed less threatened by our presence than our parents had been by theirs. In the language of Martin Luther King, the social panic we call the “White Flight” was a sin, a collective sin of the people of the white race in Boston and wherever else such things occurred.
Sin is rectified through action which addresses the damage done. The result is a redemptive act. My sixteen years of work with the poor of all races in the neighborhoods of Boston was redemptive work. The results of the sin have not been eradicated, but they have been, in some measure, addressed and all involved are better for it. Moral action uplifts the spirit.
Have we solved the problems of racism in this country? I don’t think many of us believe we have. Have we come a way down that path to justice and reconciliation? I can name you a dozen ways that race relations have improved. Is there still work to do? You bet.
Black folks are not over-represented only in the categories of poverty and drug abuse and poverty-related criminal behavior, but also in the prevalence of one-parent homes, homes headed up by single moms whose husbands or boyfriends have fled the scene. One of the results is a greater representation of foster kids in the Black community.
Irene Parker, our musician for our Christmas Day service, is starting a small program to organize court-appointed special advocates (CASAs) for foster kids who otherwise have no one to represent them when they get into court. Claudia Hanes has signed up for the training. Others of us here may have the time to make that offering, to do that bit to move to the fulfillment of the dream of racial reconciliation.
There are no end of opportunities. Do you know one that’s open to all of us? To look directly into the face of the persons that we meet who may be of another race. To let your eyes meet those eyes. To smile, nod your head, show some respect, acknowledge equality. For every sin there is a path to redemption. We can redeem our relations through our relations, person to person, one step at a time, walking toward the dream.
- Claybourne Carson, ed., 1998. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Warner Books, New York.
- Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia: “Martin Luther King, Sr.;” “Martin Luther King, Jr.;” “I Have a Dream Speech;” “Federal Holidays in the United States;” “A.J. Muste”
- American Rhetoric (on-line): “I Have a Dream Speech”
- King Jr., Martin Luther, 1968. “Sermon Delivered April 3, 1968” (“I’ve Been To the Mountaintop”). Rpt. in American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King, Jr. The Library of America. New York. 1999.