martin luther king jr
The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, election, and aftermath provide some data with which to diagnose how America is measuring up — not only to her to her founding principles but, for American Christians, to our confession of Christ and the laws of God.
I believe some from the older generations who were a part of the civil rights era have forgotten their roots in civil disobedience. Instead of inviting young people to be a part of planning, they speak from podiums, give grand introductions, tout their lengthy titles and positions held. Many are resentful and critical of younger activists. They believe the news media’s portrayal of Black Lives Matter instead of getting to know who these young people are.
If we see our interests and needs as more important than the interests and needs of others, then we’ll never have peace in our personal lives or in our world. Peace requires a recognition that we’re all equally beloved children of the same loving God.
It involves recognizing that we all matter equally — and then doing some introspection to see if we’re living up to it in our various relationships.
As the #BlackLivesMatter movement reminds us, the civil rights struggle is far from over. The blood, sweat, and tears of our 20th-century civil rights heroes must be followed up by the clear-eyed resolve of a new generation. Ideally, celebrations like Martin Luther King Day should help to sustain this resolve, energizing us for the hard work ahead.
That being said, I suspect that King would not be too thrilled about MLK Day.
I grew up in a household run by a woman of the civil rights movement. My mother, born Sharon Lawrence in 1948, was a teenager when she joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1966, one year after Dr. King’s legendary march from Selma to Montgomery and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. With the foundations of progress and protection laid, there was still much work to be done. My mother was based in Philadelphia, where she helped establish one of SNCC’s embattled northern offices.
A few years back, as I fished through boxes brimming with old papers and notepads, I discovered handwritten notes from James Forman to my mother. Forman offered detailed instruction to the then 18-year-old young woman who would become my mother only a few years later. Her job was much like mine is now: church outreach. The way she tells it, there were only a few churches in Philadelphia willing to offer their pulpits for movement people to speak. It was her job to secure those pulpits when giants like Forman, Stokely Carmichael, and others came to town.
I grew up aware of the women of the civil rights movement — my mother was one of them.
Perhaps that’s why I was so struck by the rare effort made by the film Selma to highlight the roles of women in that struggle, which by many accounts was the high-water mark of the civil rights movement.
Just as Selma opened in wide-release I began to receive requests for advice on how to lead churches and faith communities through discussions of the film. Years ago, I used to lead these kinds of dialogues in my capacity as the Greater Los Angeles director of racial reconciliation for a college-based parachurch ministry. Some of our most fruitful conversations came after we saw films like Selma or read a book together or had a common experience of racial injustice that we needed to process.
The film Selma is an incredibly helpful dialogue centerpiece at the moment. But like all things, other dialogue opportunities will rise and take center stage in the coming weeks and months. Other films will be released, helpful books will be published, and public events will provoke us to need to dialogue again. When those opportunities surface, I recommend using the format below as a template for similar dialogues moving forward. I’ve collected my Top 5 recommended resources to help guide your community dialogue on racial justice and Selma.
In the first moments of Selma, I feel butterflies rise in my stomach as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) practices his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize speech while trying to tie his ascot. Butterflies rumble in my soul. I am almost fearful as we step into the world of Selma, because I am a student of the Civil Rights era. The movement’s lessons have shaped my life. I feel like I am about to meet my heroes.
So, King fiddles with his ascot in Oslo, Norway, and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) comes close to comfort him, and little girls descend into the bowels of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and butterflies rise and my soul sits at attention. I know what is coming: hell … and glory.
The film still haunts me. Every performance is nuanced, textured, and humanizing. Director Ava DuVernay’s technique is breathtaking. Her eye translates words into feelings into images — moving images that never leave you. Brutality and reverence occupy single frames. At once, the audience is horrified and awe-struck. I have no doubt Selma should win Oscars.
It is an amazing film, but it doesn’t haunt me because of its excellence. As I sat in the dark watching the movement unfold before my eyes, it was not the past that haunted me. It was the present.
Are we waiting for another Dr. King? As I collect my thoughts to write these words, I’m mindful that I don’t honestly know what discrimination is. I have never (consciously) experienced discrimination because of my race, the color of my skin, or where I come from. I have never had to say, like Solomon Northup, “I don’t want to hear any more noise.” In the film, 12 Years a Slave, Solomon refers to the cry of those being beaten and separated from their children. I speak here with a profound sense of respect and fear. Who am I, or maybe even you who read, to speak about a tragedy and a pain that we have never experienced? I only speak out of a sense of duty and a calling from God.
Dr. King wrote, “So many of our forebears used to sing about freedom. And they dreamed of the day that they would be able to get out of the bosom of slavery, the long night of injustice … but so many died without having the dream fulfilled.” (A Knock at Midnight, p.194)
To this day, millions of African Americans in our country still dream about getting out of the bosom of slavery. Slavery today is masked behind the social, financial, political, and even religious systems that deny the dignity and full integration into these systems to people of color. Solomon Northup cries out in the film saying, “I don’t want to survive, I want to live.” The struggle of African Americans is a struggle to live. So far, they have only survived.
Right after 9/11, I asked a kid in my neighborhood what we should do in response. His answer: “Those people did something very wrong ...” He thought pensively and continued, “But two wrongs don’t make a right.”
As Martin Luther King taught us, you cannot fight fire with fire, you only get a bigger fire. You fight fire with water. You fight violence with nonviolence. You fight hatred with love.
As a Christian, a follower of Jesus the Prince of Peace, I am deeply troubled about the possibility of a military response to the violence in Syria. Jesus consistently teaches us another way to respond to evil, a third way – neither fight nor flight. He teaches that evil can be opposed without being mirrored, oppressors resisted without being emulated, enemies neutralized without being destroyed.
What’s happening in Syria is awful. You see the pictures and your heart breaks. It’s horrific. Lakhdar Brahimi, U.N. special envoy to Syria, said Wednesday that, “With what has happened on the 21st of August last week, it does seem that some kind of substance was used that killed a lot of people: hundreds, definitely more than a hundred, some people say 300, some people say 600, maybe 1,000, maybe more than 1,000.”
The Huffington Post has a slider with the title, Syria War In August (Warning: Graphic Images). Of course, every life matters, but as a father with three young children, seeing the picture of a Syrian man crying out in pain as he carries the body of a young girl – words fail.
Violence and Justice
My wife knows that we promote nonviolence at the Raven Foundation, and that I lean toward pacifism. Wednesday night, as we discussed Syria and Bashar al-Assad’s continued threats of violence, she asked me, “Well, what do we do if a government uses chemical weapons against its own people?”
The question haunts me. These are times that try the soul of anyone committed to nonviolence. We all want justice. We all want the violence to stop. We don’t want any more people to cry in pain as they carry the body of a lifeless child.
And so President Barack Obama seems to be ramping up the war machine. Ironically, as he plans for possible military strikes, on Wednesday he delivered a talk honoring the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “I Have a Dream.” As we hear the drum beat of war, we are reminded of King’s dream of justice. In his speech King said:
We must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. … We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. … [We] will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Our popular understanding of “justice” is mired with violence. For King, true justice was always based on love and nonviolence, because violence always carries with it a fatal flaw. As he wrote in his book Strength to Love, “Violence brings only temporary victories; violence, by creating many more social problems than it solves, never brings permanent peace” (18).
We’ve spent the last few days recalling the anniversary of the March on Washington and listening again to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., talk so powerfully about his dream of a land that is full of love and free of hatred. Stirring words. Inspiring words. Spirit-infused words. We’re also reminded that they’re only words until they produce action.
It’s one thing to be inspired when we hear something, another thing to respond to the inspiration and to do something.
Powerful words play a big role in our lives, challenging us and leading us. God is love. Love one another. Be compassionate. Love your enemies. Whatsoever you do to the least. Your brother‘s keeper. An instrument of your peace. Give to all. The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Blessed are the poor. All men are created equal. The common good. Government of, by and for the people. I have a dream. Be the change. Make justice a reality for all God‘s children.
Those and so many other words inspire us to raise our lives and our world to new heights. But they remain words until we commit ourselves to live them. Then they acquire real power.
Even with the scores of marches on Washington since 1963, we all still know what we mean when we say the March on Washington.
In our collective memory, we see black-and-white images of immaculately dressed men and women wearing hats, ties, and dresses, marching in dress shoes. We see a sea of people stretching from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument. And we see Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., frozen in time, smiling and waving to the crowd of a quarter million people. We see King’s passion, mouth open as he bellows words that sear the conscience of a nation and ignite its imagination. His arm is outstretched over the podium. He is surrounded by men and women who are also there to plead with a nation to “let freedom ring!”
These images are seared into our nation’s memory, even though most of us were not there.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of both the issuing of Emancipation Proclamation and the battle of Gettysburg. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. All three moments marked major turning points in the fundamental American struggle to actualize the divine dream of life, liberty, and equality for all. That dream has been especially powerful through the struggle for African-American freedom.
From a biblical perspective, American slavery and Jim Crow segregation not only subjugated the body. For about 300 years, from Virginia’s first race-based slave laws in the 1660s to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the legal binding of black hands, feet, and mouths also bound spirits and souls. Both slavery and Jim Crow laws denied the dignity of human beings made in the image of God and forbade them from obeying God’s command to exercise Genesis 1:28 “dominion” — in today’s terms, human agency.
So, the Emancipation Proclamation and passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were cause for jubilee worship in black churches and among other abolitionists. Likewise when the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, churches across the nation erupted again in worshipful jubilee.
Now, nearly 50 years after the second American jubilee, African Americans are being stripped of dignity and constitutionally protected freedoms like we have not seen since Jim Crow.
In towns all across America, streets are not named after them. School children do not learn about them. No one waits in line to see the homes where they were born. They are ... simply forgotten.
They weren’t necessarily bad men. They weren’t unimportant men. They were men of influence, men with a voice and the respect of their community. Most would have agreed; they were good men, according to one, “men of genuine good will.” While evil men are remembered and great men are enshrined, these men … just forgotten.
They are forgotten for being on the wrong side of history. Men forgotten for being silent when “a word fitly spoken” could have made a difference. Men who are forgotten for valuing comfort and stability over justice and compassion. Forgotten because they were unwilling to call out the status quo, and show it for it was … cruel and unjust.
These are the eight men on the other side of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The recipients. Eight well educated white pastors, priests, and rabbis who by God’s providence led reputable congregations in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963.
"The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice," proclaimed the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It may bend towards justice, but it does not bend gently. It bends behind sweat of the brow, creativity of the mind, and love from the soul of those who believe that every living soul not only desires justice and equality, but has a right to it. You see, justice is not a passive pursuit. The moral arc will not bend without encouragement.
Dr. King was a living example of the kind of person who encourages the moral arc of history to bend toward justice. He is also an example of the only effective way to bend that arc — non-violently. We cannot hope to bring about justice by unjust means. Might, physical confrontation, and other forms of domination will ultimately only result in nurturing an understanding that domination is an ineffective way to resolve issues of justice — and domination is the exact opposite of justice. As King says, "Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love."
WASHINGTON — President Obama will take the oath of office with two Bibles that once belonged to a pair of civil rights icons: Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.
King’s “traveling Bible” was provided by his family, while the Lincoln Bible is from the Library of Congress and was used during the 16th president’s inauguration on March 4, 1861; Obama also used the Lincoln Bible during his first inauguration in 2009.
The Lincoln and King good books will be used during this year’s public swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 21, the Presidential Inaugural Committee announced. King’s Bible will be stacked atop Lincoln’s.
“President Obama is honored to use these Bibles at the swearing-in ceremonies,” said Steve Kerrigan, president and CEO of the inaugural committee. “These Bibles are rich in tradition and reflect the great American story that binds our nation.”
For many pundits and observers, last week’s election proved that a “new normal” has emerged in America: record numbers of women and ethnic minorities were voted into the House and the Senate, and the House will also see its first Hindu representative in January. Voters in Maine and Maryland approved same-sex marriage, and a diverse coalition of social minorities came together to re-elect the nation's first black president.
But for black theologians, the election has also been an occasion to reflect on how the black church faces an identity crisis, losing track of its mission to lead the way in issues of justice and liberation.
“Something happened to the black church after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968,” said Dr. Gayraud Wilmore, one of the founders of black theology, adding that when King died, it seemed that in black congregations, the enthusiasm for black history and racial identity also died.
And for Wilmore, the last 44 years — even the election and re-election of a black president — have done little to abate this crisis.