Spirit of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 2009
I want to begin today by thanking you for inviting me to address this auspicious occasion today. I am aware that we stand on the threshold of not only of a new year but a new day in this nation, a day when the spirit of Dr. King is present to us more powerfully than perhaps at any time since his death, a day when we recognize more keenly how prophetic his message was, when we see that the vision that he laid out for us in the cadences of scripture of how this divided nation might be healed were not simply a preacher’s happy talk, that all those working to realize the beloved community have cause to labor still. For we gather less than two weeks before the first African-American in our nation’s history will be inaugurated as president of the United States.
It is an event that surely Dr. King himself, even with his powers of foresight, could not have imagined would have come at this time. And yet, I can imagine him on the dais in Washington on January 20th, where he surely would be, just five days after his 80th birthday, stooped with the weight of age but his eyes bright as his voice rings out once more calling each of us, black, white, brown, yellow, red, to our duties to one another and calling this country to fulfill its destiny as a land of the free.
I imagine him harkening back to his first great address in Washington at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, lo these 46 years ago (more years than King himself had on this Earth). I can hear him recalling having traveled from the early civil rights battlefields in the South, coming, in his words, to cash a check guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution that all people, black as well as white, would be guaranteed “the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and refusing to accept America’s claims that it had “insufficient funds” to honor that check.
I imagine him recalling the hallmarks of those struggles – the attack dogs, the fire hoses, the narrow jail cells, and those, white and black, who were martyred to the cause, whose deaths shook America to its core and forced it to confront the terrible truth of the racial injustice that it condoned.
I can imagine him recalling the victories won in those struggles, the legislation adopted and the court decisions won. And I can imagine him running down the list of cities and towns, counties and states where racism once ruled that in the years since have seen African-Americans elected as mayors and aldermen, governors, senators and congressmen, places where, to read the electoral results at least, freedom truly does ring.
And then, how might he size up the phenomenon of Barak Hussein Obama: Harvard law graduate, junior senator of Illinois, son of a Kenyan father and a mother of Scotch Irish roots with traces of Cherokee blood, winning the largest Democratic majority in a presidential election since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 (the last election in which King himself actually voted) and what it portends for our nation? Well, it is beyond my skill to guess. I only wish that we could hear it. But, of course, I know that we won’t.
Dr. King surprised many in the audience four years after the March on Washington at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3rd, 1967, the night before he was gunned down on the porch of the Lorraine Motel, by telling them about warnings he had received of threats from, in his words, “our sick white brothers.”
But he dismissed those concerns. “I’m not concerned about that now,” he said. “I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land.”
The reference was unmistakable to that church-going crowd. The image he was conjuring that night was that of Moses standing on Mt. Nebo looking out on the land of Canaan that God had told him he would not live to visit. What brought that image into his mind that night we can never know. But in the years since Dr. King’s demise it planted the question in the minds of many of his followers whether somehow, some day, someone might take up the mantle that his historic words set the stage for, that of the figure that the Bible says was called to completed Moses’ work, that of Joshua.
In the Hebrew scriptures, of course, Joshua is the leader chosen by God after the Exodus generation had died away to lead the Jewish people across the Jordan River into the Promised Land, the land of Canaan. His reign marked the moment when a people, after years of wandering and oppression, had finally come into their own.
Obama himself made the reference in March 2007, only weeks after he had launched his presidential campaign. The crowd at the Brown Chapel AME in Selma, Alabama, organizing point for the historic march that helped win the Voting Rights Act, was curious to hear what this rising star, raised in a white family, too young to have known that struggle directly, would say. And he hit exactly the right note: he acknowledged the debt that owed to many others. “I’m here because somebody marched,” he told the crowd. “I’m here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants.”
In that speech, he paid tribute to what he called “the Moses generation,” leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, men and women, who, he said, for all their struggles, “didn’t cross over the river to see the Promised Land.” He thanked them, praised them for their courage, and said that the next stage of the work was passed on to his, what he called “the Joshua generation.” He said that life had improved, “but we shouldn’t forget that better is not good enough.” Discrimination is not dead. Schools remain underfunded. The American safety net of government protections is frayed, and too often it is African-Americans who are falling through.
The remainder of his campaign, though, Obama soft-peddled the issue of race, at least until the controversial words of his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, compelled him to meet it head on. Once again he converted a potentially divisive moment into a victory.
A year after speaking at Selma, he stood in Philadelphia at Constitution Center, where the Declaration of Independence was first read, a document, he told the crowd, that for all its poetry and power “was stained by this nation's original sin of slavery,” Barak Obama called for Americans, despite their disagreements and disappointments, their anger and their frustrations to come to see themselves not as divided, but as one. For his part, Obama told the audience, “I can no more disown (Rev. Wright) than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother—a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street.”
Coming to see America as one, he said, will not be an easy path. “For the African-American community,” he said, “that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past.” And for the white community it means acknowledging that “what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination (is) real and must be addressed.” In the end, he said, it means finding “that common stake we all have in one another.”
The speech turned the corner for his campaign, widening his appeal, bringing on board pivotal figures like former Secretary of State Colin Powell. People were saying he was a new kind of candidate, one who transcended race. Yet, we can be pretty sure that Obama himself never lost sight of what was at stake.
The story is told that on August 28th he was rehearsing the speech at Mile High Stadium in Denver where only hours later he would accept the Democratic nomination for president. As he worked his way through the speech, Obama came to a passage paying homage to the March on Washington, which had taken place forty-five years earlier to the day, when hundreds of thousands of people gathered near the Lincoln Memorial to, in his words, “hear a young preacher from Georgia speak of his dream.”
But suddenly, Obama stopped. He couldn’t get past the phrase “forty-five years ago.” “There was a catch in his voice,” his advisor David Axelrod recalled. Obama excused himself and took a short, calming walk around the room, telling his aides that it was “really hitting me... what a big deal this is.”
It will be an even bigger moment on January 20 after he takes the oath as president of the United States and steps forward to address the nation before an audience stretching out on the lawn before him and on television likely to reach into the billions.
As thrilled as I am to contemplate that moment, I must confess that I worry as well. I worry about what lesson Americans will draw from this historic event. Will they conclude that our nation’s centuries-long struggle for racial equality is over? That with Barak Obama’s election those championing for racial justice and reconciliation can declare victory and go home? That this young Joshua with his community organizer’s, Internet-savvy campaign caused the trumpets to sound and the walls of Jericho, historic walls of hatred and oppression, of division and denial, of race baiting and institutional stone-walling, came a’tumbling down?
Oh, I hope not.
We have come too far, accomplished too much to let ourselves get caught up in such glib, happy talk. That separate drinking fountains, back-of-the bus rules and racist housing covenants are gone is only a start. That schools are desegregated and black entertainers and sports figures are super-star, multi-millionaires is a small step. That African-Americans now head multi-national corporations, police departments, school districts, city governments, army divisions, the Department of State, yes, even the most powerful nation on Earth is just a beginning.
For, as Barak Obama has said, the truth is that we remain a divided people, and divided in ways that many people, and, let’s be frank, most of them white people, still do not understand. These are people who have never seen a shopkeeper’s suspicious glance, or a car dealer’s false smile, or been pulled out of a car by a police officer and forced to stand spread eagle for no apparent reason.
These people, white people like me, have a hard time putting themselves in that place and understanding how much more work we have to do. I can only claim to know about such things because I have heard African-Americans tell me, on this campus and at my home church, during sessions of our community anti-racism program, “Building Bridges.” And I can tell you something about white people’s lack of knowledge because in each session I have attended I have seen them stare in open-mouthed disbelief at the testimony they hear from their African-American brothers and sisters, people they have come to like, people they have traded jokes and family stories with and who, they now realize, they truly know so little about.
It is an eye-opening experience, and for many an unsettling one as well. All of our lives this had been going on and we turned a blind eye to it. From our earliest days, we learned not to look, and we not only closed our eyes, we closed our hearts. The face of the good person in front of us, though, disrupts our denial, and the scales start to fall from our eyes. I am grateful for those in this community who continue to dedicate their time and energy to this work, still going strong in the midst of, I believe, its 17th year.
It is the most concrete indicator I know of how the work of racial healing and reconciliation, the work that Dr. King charged us with, is far from over. But it’s true that the nature of this work is different from what it was. Given the reins of government, the Obama administration will have the power to shape how we as a nation respond to those marginalized by oppression. The less glitzy and in many respects much harder work will take place in cities and towns like ours where we work to chip away at decades of mistrust and weave together a community.
Barak Obama had it right in Philadelphia when he observed that, “In the end, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world's great religions demand—that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother's keeper... Let us be our sister's keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another.”
It was, in a sense, another way of observing what Dr. King did a generation before, that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
We cannot prosper, we cannot live in peace as a divided people. We are, in the end, inescapably involved in one another. Let Martin Luther King, Jr. be our Moses in this work, keeping our eyes focused on the prize of equality and justice, and may we all be of the tribe of Joshua, those who labor to bring that promised land of reconciliation nearer as we greet this bright new day of hope with firm resolve.