The Common Good

The Legacy of Martin Luther King: A Watering Hole Moment

[Editor's Note: In anticipation of the anniversary of the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, God's Politics will feature a series of posts on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. Continue to check the blog for more reflections each day this week.]

If any one day defines the civil rights movement for our culture, it is August 28, 1963, the day of the March on Washington. We may not remember the journeys of hundreds of thousands to our nation's capital to be present on the Mall facing the Lincoln Memorial that day. We may not remember all the speeches and all the songs and all the logistics of that day. But we do remember the speech.

Dr. King's oratorical flourish adeptly mixing prophetic poignancy with hope-filled imagery still has the power to send a shiver down our spines. Through the speech, and through the compelling images of the throngs of people who showed up, we all know that something good, something right, something beautiful happened on that hot summer day.

The broader canvas was anything but beautiful. A few months earlier, dogs had attacked young children in Birmingham. A few days later, four little girls would lose their lives while attending Sunday School in that very same city. Meanwhile, in nearby Mississippi, Fannie Lou Hamer and hundreds like her experienced dehumanizing treatment on a daily basis just for challenging white supremacy.

The men and women who gathered on the Washington Mall were, to borrow a phrase from Clayborne Carson, "in struggle." They were in the midst of a long battle and fight for justice, jobs, desegregation, and voting rights. They were tired and weary. They had achieved no major federal legislative victories (those would come in 1964 and 1965). They were hungry and thirsty for hope. They needed rest. They needed encouragement.

In many ways, I think of the March on Washington as a watering hole moment during a long struggle. If only for a few short hours, the weary and forlorn received refreshment for tired feet, weary minds, and parched souls. The day elicited hope, inspiration, and the strength to stay in the struggle.

Certain moments transcend time, and the March on Washington is one of those rare moments. Amazingly, King's "I Have a Dream" speech was not only a watering hole moment for those gathered in August 1963, or for all who heard or watched the speech that day, or for all who struggled during the long journey of the Civil Rights Movement. Miraculously, not only King's speech, but the courage and sacrifice of the hundreds of thousands of souls it symbolizes, has become a watering hole from which many of us continue to drink as we continue to be in struggle for righteousness, justice, and peace.

Let's be honest. Many who struggle for peace and justice in the world today are tired and even a little disillusioned. Many have given decades in the hopes of seeing a just and positive peace in Israel and Palestine, only to be disappointed again and again, and it is hard to hope again in the recently announced peace talks. Many who have been working to significantly cut and even eliminate abortion are discouraged by the number of pregnancies terminated every day. Many who have worked tirelessly over the past 18 months, and some for the past few decades, to see just, humane, and God-honoring comprehensive immigration reform are weary and tired and feel like giving up.

Several months ago, I joined nearly 200,000 in Washington, D.C. to call for a more just and loving federal immigration policy. I have blogged, preached, and organized to try to see the United States take a posture toward immigrants that reflects the love of Jesus. And on its face, little has changed. In fact, following Arizona's SB 1070, things seem to have gotten worse.

Last month I joined around 100 immigration organizers for a strategy session in Chicago. Filled with bright, talented, committed people who have traded their lives for months on end for the hope of immigration reform, the room was understandably discouraged, tired, and teetering on despair. An underlying question that burdened many was, "Why bother? Why keep going?"

But as we met, commiserated, shared meals, and even enjoyed some karaoke, we experienced a bit of a watering hole moment. We caught a taste of that hope and purpose and possibility that kept the civil rights workers going half a century ago. We heard stories of those continuing to have their families ripped apart, and we realized we cannot give up.

So we began to dream again. We began to recapture a vision for what is possible. We began to talk of further work, further sacrifice, and further efforts so "we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, [documented and undocumented,] 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 are free at last.'"

Troy Jackson is senior pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati and a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, and earned his PhD in United States history from the University of Kentucky. He is author of Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader (Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century) and a participant in Sojourners' Windchangers grassroots organizing project in Ohio.

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