Epiphany 2C (MLK)
The year 1963 was a tumultuous one in this country. Issues of civil rights dominated the news, beginning in January when George Wallace was sworn in as governor of Alabama declaring, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
That declaration was put to the test not only in Alabama, but in other Southern states where court-ordered desegregation of schools was met with protests and violence.
That spring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Birmingham to lead marches protesting the segregation of downtown businesses and restaurants. On Good Friday that year he was arrested, and spent 11 days in jail where he wrote a letter on freedom and civil rights that has become one of this country’s most important civic and religious documents.
After King’s release the protests continued. The month of May brought “the children’s campaign.” On the first day, 1,000 students skipped school, and gathered at the 16th Avenue Baptist Church, from which they marched two by two in protest of the racist Jim Crow laws of their city. They were immediately arrested.
But that was just the beginning. Over the next days waves upon waves of protesters, many of them children, marched forth from the church, where they were met by police with fire hoses and snarling police dogs lunging at them – pictures of which horrified the nation.
The next month civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated in front of his home in Mississippi.
It was against this backdrop that civil rights leaders called for a march on Washington in August 1963. From across the country more than 250,000 people descended on the nation’s capitol to add their voices to calls for racial justice and freedom.
Our second reading today was an excerpt of King’s speech from that day, August 28, 1963, commonly called the “I Have a Dream” speech.
King begins with an assessment of the current situation in our nation. He notes that 100 years earlier, Abraham Lincoln, whose memorial he stands before, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, a decree that came “as a great beckoning light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity,” King said.
“But 100 years later the Negro is still not free,” King said. “One hundred years later the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.
“One hundred years later the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.
“We all have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now,” King said. “Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlight path of racial justice.
“Now is the time to change racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice ring out for all of God’s children.”
And then comes the heart of King’s speech, what makes it one of the best known speeches in our country’s history.
“Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow I still have a dream,” he said. “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 … are created equal.’
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.
“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
“I have a dream that 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.
“I have a dream today.
“I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
“I have a dream today.
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and before the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
King’s dream is, of course, rooted in God’s dream.
Like the Old Testament prophets before him, King looks at the reality of the world that is, and calls us to the world as God would have it.
God invites us to dream of a world that never has been, but has always been promised, a world where all are free and equal, and live in harmony and plenty; a world where we are not divided by walls of hate and injustice.
As theologian Verna Dozier said, “God has paid us the high compliment of calling us to be coworkers with our Creator. The urgent task for us is to reclaim our identity as the people of God and live into our high calling as the baptized community… that the dream of God for a new creation may be realized.”
The fulfillment of God’s dream cannot happen without us working to bring it to reality.
All we have to do is look around us or turn on the news to see how far we are from that world. Merely dreaming it does not make it so, as King knew all too well.
Less than a month after his speech, Birmingham’s 16th Avenue Baptist Church was bombed on Sunday morning, killing four little girls and injuring many others.
Before the year was over, the youthful president who inspired dreams in many, was assassinated.
But King knew that such setbacks cannot kill a dream that has been inspired by God. It is in such difficult times, times that seem to dash all hope and dreams, that we are called to keep God’s dreams alive, no matter how outlandish they may seem.
God’s dreams, God’s hopes, are kept alive by faith, by a willingness to believe that today’s reality does not have to be tomorrow’s.
“This is our hope,” King said. “This is the faith that I go back to the mount with.
“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 genuine discords of our nations 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 forever, knowing that we will be free one day.”
It is because of that faith and that hope, that knowledge that although we may not be able to complete the work we are not free to abandon it, that gave King the strength to end his speech with these famous words, words that still call us today to work to move God’s dream closer to reality:
“I say to you today my friends, let freedom ring. From the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire, let freedom ring. From the mighty mountains of New York, let freedom ring.
“Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!
“Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!
“But not only there; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
“Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain in Tennessee!
“Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill in Mississippi
“From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
“And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
“’Free at last! Free at last!
“Thank God almighty, we’re free at last.’”