I am in the middle of reading a book by Martin Luther King Jr. titled, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? It was written 51 years ago in 1967, a year before Dr. King was assassinated. In it, he wrestles with and articulates a way forward for our nation: the black community and the white community. I find it prescient, challenging, and haunting for the struggle that he saw lying ahead and the undaunting hope that he embraced.
Most of us are familiar with the work that Dr. King did for racial equality, and most of us have heard some of his most famous quotes. But few of us would know that he was a brilliant thinker, an educated theologian, and a pastor of great compassion. I find myself humbled by his insight and convicted by the clarity of his moral conviction. He did not just see with an eye toward justice for all; he saw with an eye toward the kingdom of God in which righteousness, peace, and joy dwell.
Here is a excerpt of one of his thoughts:
‘The church has an opportunity and a duty to lift up its voice like a trumpet and declare unto the people the immorality of segregation. It must affirm that every human life is a reflection of divinity, and that every act of injustice mars and defaces the image of God in man…
Court orders…are of inestimable value in achieving desegregation, but desegregation is only a partial, though necessary, step toward the final goal which we seek to realize, genuine intergroup and interpersonal living. Desegregation will break down the legal barriers and bring men together physically, but something must touch the hearts and souls of men so that they will come together spiritually because it is natural and right. A vigorous enforcement of civil rights will bring an end to segregated public facilities, but it cannot bring an end to fears, prejudice, pride, and irrationality, which are barriers to a truly integrated society. These dark and demonic responses will be removed only as men are possessed by the invisible inner law which etches on their hearts the conviction that all men are brothers and that love is mankind’s most potent weapon for personal and social transformation.
In the final analysis the white man cannot ignore the Negro’s problem, because he is a part of the Negro and the Negro is a part of him. The Negro’s agony diminishes the white man, and the Negro’s salvation enlarges the white man.”
What strikes me again and again with King’s thoughts is how he faced reality and always looked to hope; how he saw conflict but always preached non-violence. He seemed to have a powerful internal sense of the spirit of the Kingdom of God.
Another book that I finished over the holidays and could not put down is: Kennedy and King – the President, the Pastor, and the Battle over Civil Rights by Steven Livingston. It is an historical perspective of the relationship of Dr. King, Robert Kennedy, and President Kennedy. Robert Kennedy was the Attorney General at that time and one who had a powerful transformation in understanding the plight of Black America. This understanding shaped the conviction of his elder brother, the President.
Here is an excerpt:
“Bobby was having an intellectual growth spurt; he was seeking a deep awareness of black disaffections, as if he were asking himself, ‘What is really the cause of this? Because obviously I’ve missed something here, and I don’t like missing anything. I need to know.’ To [Harry] Belafonte, Bobby was undergoing ‘one of the most profound transformations I have ever met in any human being…He was moving towards a new moral horizon…I found in Bobby Kennedy a man wrestling with profound moral questions and always coming down on the right side of the answer.’
This ‘profound transformation’ in Robert Kennedy lead to John Kennedy’s own transformation:
Like his brother Bobby, President Kennedy had finally come to view the black predicament through the eyes of a black citizen…President Kennedy said this in a national address: ‘Who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his (the negro’s) place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?’ Martin Luther King Jr. was present in the president’s voice, in his words, and in his conscience.”
February is Black History month. The role of Black America in American history has been marginalized in the shaping of our country, yet it sits in the midst of our existence as a nation. We all have read of slavery and the Civil War, yet are we aware of the impact of Black America on our cultural values, economics, and laws? Yes, there are still many – too many – barriers that must be honestly faced, but to have a greater sense that we are creating our own history right now, can help us to wrestle, as Robert Kennedy wrestled fifty years ago, with ‘profound moral questions’ in the hope that we may ‘move toward a new moral horizon.’ It can help us to stand on the shoulders of giants like Martin Luther King Jr. who saw, with great moral clarity and an unflagging hope, a better America. For these reasons, I have become a student of black history and I believe I am the better for it. It is opening my eyes to the profound challenges and profound hope that remain a part of our cultural make-up. Black history is all our history.
Although we weren’t able to schedule this in February, we are hosting a viewing of a documentary titled ‘13.’ It is about the 13th amendment that abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime. While that may seem to be in the past, there are still practices in state laws that keep many in an underclass. It is an enlightening documentary. We will view the movie and hold a brief discussion time. I invite you to participate.
“He has shown you O man, What is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?” – Micah 6:8