Martin Luther King, Jr. is a hero for the Atlanta community. We celebrate his birthday on the third Monday of January, even though his birthday is January 15th. We opt for convenience and consistency over accuracy. Cultural note to self.
It’s a high holy day in my hometown on Atlanta. Back in the day, it was command performance for me at Ebenezer Baptist Church on historic Auburn Avenue in the downtown area. I used to get a special kick out of the long service as ministers and politicians just can’t seem to help themselves. They go way on beyond the five minutes some meeting planner has written on the program agenda. You know, the Holy Spirit and all, just takes a’hold of you and won’t let you go. Or, at least it won’t sit your sweet self down. I’ve been afflicted myself with the disease, but only when I was a visiting preacher at some Holy Spirit filled church that would have been offended if I did not “go on”. In my Episcopal Church, the folks start looking at their watch at twelve minutes. Lunch may call Baptists, but brunch beckons Episcopalians.
In the King Day services, the preachers and politicians go on and on, causing distress in the bladders of the older ministers who are in the seats of honor at the front of the church. They start by wiggling, shifting the weight from one cheek to the other. The betting pool among the young ministers is significant as to which old lion will excuse himself first. i won a few of the betting pools. The key is watching who is getting their fill of coffee prior to the service.
Now, I am of age now that I would be someone to bet upon in a positive or negative way, but due to mobility, I am seated in the back or at home in front of the television. No problem.
Martin Luther King Day means that Federal and State offices are closed. No banks, No mail. I have appreciated that some organizations have tried to turn King Day into a day of giving, an intentional day of service that follows the example that Martin set with his life. It’s a good day for caring for those in need. I always tried to plant a tree, symbolic of caring for the generations to come, after I am long gone. It’s a sacrament of our connection if done with mindfulness.
Odd thing to me is that racists take a King Day holiday, rather than protesting by going to work. Another note to self.
I read an article posted on MLK Day recounting how hated King was back when he was active. I remember from my childhood the intense hate that would flow when Martin’s name was merely mentioned. I have told the story of being in a barber shop on Lee Street in South Atlanta. It is the same street that runs by the former Fort Mac where Tyler Perry has his new studio. The people in the barber shop were on a variety of rants about this black man whom they called a number of bad names. Rabble-rouser was the least offensive name used, as I remember. The N word was interspersed as if an article or conjunction. In my home, that word was capital N Never used, which meant that it was shocking to my young ears. Give me some time in the South and it would still trouble my soul but sound more familiar.
My grandfather, an Atlanta cop, got me up out of my seat in the barber’s chair, and we left that shop, never to return. His simple action of rebellion made an impression on me, a kid. It said to me that you stand up for what you believe. His stance was not fueled by a recent surge in civil rights but an old commitment that he had taught me, the value of all human life. His respect for King and his fight for equality came naturally out of his commitment to God’s Kingdom, and it put him at odds with some of his church friends. But that was a lesson he taught me then, and is still teaching me today, as racism finds odd bedfellows in the Christian ranks. I found it alive and well in East Texas when I pastored there in the belt buckle of the Bible South.
I remembered my first King Day March in downtown Tyler with a smattering of people. The police had been warned of violence and were positioned on the tops of the downtown buildings, rifles with scopes, as we made our way to the Roman cathedral for a King Day celebration where I was speaking.
A few years later, Rabbi Art Flicker sent a video for my fortieth birthday celebration in which he bestowed honor on my name as the man who taught him how to walk in an MLK Day march. He then held up a bulls eye target on his chest, and laughed. It’s funny, only in the rear view mirror.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was and is a deep cultural symbol for the best of what being a Christian means. He embodies the old adage of “walk your talk”. He put flesh and bones on cellophane concepts of love and being nice, polite. We have tried to tame him, to domesticate this tiger of Christian faith, and to some degree, our culture has succeeded. We have relegated him to a park, a busy street name, even a statue. The image is more of a person leading Kum ba yah rather than a pressing yell, scream, demand of equality. But for me, every MLK Day re-minds me of the deeper truth about the man and his dream.
Truth is, when I first started learning New Testament Greek, the typical path of pedagogy was to start, to throw you into the cottonpatch of “easy” Greek, that is, I John, or First John, or in current President speak One John, the winner John.
The Greek indeed is easy to translate. And the message seems clear. “If you say you love God but hate your brother, you are a liar.” Simple enough.
That seals the deal for me. It is what is at the heart of all Martin King taught. Clearly, he expanded it, filled it out, with the moral implications and philosophical sophistication. But this is it. Love is at the heart of it all. It finds form in justice. Paul Tillich explicated it in full and King used it in his doctoral dissertation.
Martin Luther King, Jr. saw the gap between what we said in church on Sunday with how we lived Monday through Friday, and he had the courage to call us out. It remains a damning fact that the 11:00 o’clock hour on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in our country.
He also saw the gap with what we aspired to in our Constitution, All Created Equal, with how certain folks were not given their civil rights or allowed to vote.
The context for his most famous I Have A Dream speech seems to be faded in the background. At the time he called for this gathering, America lived within a social caste system that would shock those fresh to the scene, and is even hard for those of us who lived through it to remember. Tweleve million of nineteen million black lived in the Jim Crow South where segregation laws maintained separate hotels, bathrooms, restaurants and infamously drinking fountains. I remember when the pool at Oakland City park in Atlanta was integrated and white folks stopped coming, except for me and my grandfather.
A decade after the historic Brown v. Board of Education that I read about in my first civics course with Miss Allen, school desegregation was on hold, where fewer than one-half of 1 percent of black children attending public schools with white children. These Southern states openly defied the court ruling. Some counties in the South barred blacks from voting. Violence was a ready means used to suppress voter registration. The lynching tree remains a powerful symbol of our past that haunts, though video of unwarranted violence of police on blacks claim current headlines and consciousness.
While signage announced separation in the South, segregation was a reality in the North as well. Neighborhoods keep the lines drawn by redlining by banks and real estate “agreements”. Business was also segregated, limiting black access to parts of the economy.
The beginning of a movement to right this culture of separation is usually noted to have begun with the Bus Boycotts in Montgomery n 1955, with Rosa Parks exercising her rights to sit anywhere on a municipal bus. At the age of 26, young Martin Luther King was elected the president of a group of ministers in that city to support this boycott. He had been a pastor there for about a year, bringing a notion that religion should function within to society to improve the common life rather than merely blessing the status quo. King brought with him a deep connection to the prophetic tradition that felt a call from God to “speak truth to power”. On that night, he began with these words: “As you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression”. While beginning in Montgomery, this young pastor would follow his vision all the way to Washington, DC. in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
There in the national Capitol, in front of the appropriate Lincoln Memorial, with crowds pressing, lining the Reflecting Pool, King followed a series of speakers, including a young John Lewis who electrified the crowd with pragmatic political demands, under-girded by his oratory. After Gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson sang, it was time for King to speak.
King began with a pointing back in history to the man whose monument now provided shade but had begun liberation, Abraham Lincoln. King then rehearsed the foundational principles contained in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution., a promissory note of rights for all people. He continued with his prepared text, talking of democratic principles that flowed from the ethical presuppositions, recounting the atrocities, the trials and tribulations of being a black person in America.
It was in a pregnant pause of his speech that Mahalia Jackson, the singer, interjected a profound prompt: “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
King left his prepared text and started to preach: I dream of a 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.
And he punctuated the vision, the Dream, with a personal point, that one day, one fine day, his “four little children will live in a nation when they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”
It is arguable as to what made the change in this country happen, to the extent that it did. Was it the legal mind and courage of Thurgood Marshall who battled using the courts? Or was it an unlikely Texan, Lyndon Johnson, whose political skills maneuvered the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act through Congress?
Or was it this man, the preacher man from my home town who touched the hearts of the people with a vision, with a dream? He literally gave up his life on the balcony of a Memphis motel, spilling his blood for a people and country he loved. And we give him a day, some of us, twenty-four hours to remember the man, this King for a day.
This year, I watched a cadre of high school and college age students from Atlanta present a dramatized presentation of Martin’s written words for a Birmingham jail. It was a diverse group by design, to symbolize the mixed culture we live within in this country. I was moved to tears by the youthful earnestness that reminded me of my own self in days and dust past. Martin’s words pressed again. And the most pressing were those that lamented those in the Church who remain silent, quiet in the face of injustice.
I find my tears dry, and that I resolve, again, to work for that dream he articulated so well. And I am thankful for this day, each year, comes round to call to heart and mind this dream for our land, a promise still awaiting fulfillment. These young people, black, white, brown, red, yellow incarnate King’s dream and gives me hope that it is still alive.