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Dirty Hands and Moving Feet

Tomorrow we commemorate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Fittingly, the inauguration of the first African American president will follow on Tuesday. If only Dr. King were alive to witness it. Surely, his presence will be felt. Without his tireless, sometimes seemingly superhuman efforts, such an inauguration would likely not be taking place.

Martin Luther King Jr. lobbied presidents and marched with workers. He worshiped with people of many faiths and inspired oppressed people around the world. He wrote from a Birmingham jail and literally breathed dignity into the lives of millions. NPR news analyst Juan Williams opines that King’s greatest legacy might be his push to enforce Civil Rights legislation, that once passed, was largely ignored. President Kennedy favored waiting, rather than enforcing the law. He cautioned against Dr. King summoning hundreds of thousands of African Americans to Washington for that famous gathering August 28, 1963. It was only after King’s speech had gone peacefully that President Kennedy invited King and some of the march organizers to the White House for lemonade. [1]

How far we have come.

My friend Carol’s husband, Slim is still out of work. Like millions of other Americans.Slim is a tall black man, with a glint of gold from a tooth that flashes when he smiles. He grew up in rural Tennessee, spent some time behind bars, got out, set himself straight. Toiled hard at the manual labor he could find. Loves and respects his folks back in Tennessee. But as my friend Carol sums it up, more pithily than filmmaker Michael Moore, "People are afraid of a big black man who speaks his mind."

Recently on "This American Life," an actress named Elna Baker recounted her experience selling realistic baby dolls at F.A.O. Schwartz. The dolls, displayed in a pseudonursery were adopted by little girls who answered questions and filled out adoption forms after selecting their baby of choice. A hot item, these $120 dolls began selling out. Suddenly, no white babies were left other than the defective demo model with a too heavily weighted head that flopped backwards and webbed fingers. Well-to-do mothers refused to buy African-American looking dolls for their white daughters.

Reluctantly, mothers bought Asian and then Hispanic-looking dolls and the lone white demo doll. Black babies at F.A.O. Schwartz don’t sell. Though it is certainly historic, the inauguration and presidency of Barack Obama will not usher in all the change we need.

It is good to affirm and rejoice in how far we have come. For many of the women and men, even children, who walked and worked alongside Dr. King, the results of this election were unimaginable. But as the theologian James Cone pointed out in a recent interview, white supremacy is not over. "We’re not talking about the Ku Klux Klan. One African American in the U.S. Senate," exclaimed Cone. "That’s white supremacy."

The day after the inauguration, Slim will find it just as hard to get a job. About fifty percent of the males incarcerated in the United States will still be African American, and one in three African American males between 20-29 will still be under some form of criminal justice supervision. [2]

How far we have come is notable, and for many white Americans, downright redemptive. I am one of the millions who will watch televised coverage of the inauguration and weep. I tear up thinking about it. And as gratified as Martin Luther King would be, I suspect he would say after the speeches and parades, the distance we have traveled as a nation is not far enough.

In that truth-telling for which he was known, lies a summons for us. What made Martin Luther King Jr. a modern-day prophet was his unflinching insistence on speaking truth to power, giving voice to the exhortations of biblical prophets long unheeded. If we mark a singular day to honor Dr. King, let it be a day where we are literally encouraged to speak truth to power, to dare to hear the truths still being revealed.

We have come far enough to look across the valley to see where we have yet to go.

As a denomination, we have made strides towards equity. We, too, have an African American president of our association of member congregations, Bill Sinkford, and reflective of the larger culture, ministers of color still have more trouble securing ministerial settlement than their white colleagues. There is an active organization for ministers and seminarians of color called DRUUM, which stands for Diverse and Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries. All current candidates for ministry must show competence in anti-oppression and multicultural studies. There is in general, a commitment, espoused if not fully embodied, to anti-racism within Unitarian Universalism—intended to address our historical ambivalence on matters of race and class.

We are after all, religious descendents of a longstanding liberal tradition, one that recognizes the inherent worth and dignity of the individual and applies critical reasoning to the issues of the day. But as UU theologian Paul Rasor cogently points out, our religious liberalism contains intrinsic challenges.

Many nineteenth century Unitarians embraced Social Darwinism. According to Rasor, "this view had the practical effect of justifying the positions of those already in positions of power." After passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, many white liberals were unwilling to address the underlying issues of poverty and class. Rasor quotes theologian James Cone who "suggests that whites often avoid talk of racial justice because it implies a radical redistribution of wealth and power." Rasor adds that as religious liberals, we lack the language to speak about racism as a systemic evil because we lack a theology of evil. We prefer to focus on possibility and progress, our potential to do good, rather than exploring the depth of our capacity to perpetrate, collude or idly witness evil. Paul Rasor concludes,

"We liberals are often better at formality and abstraction than getting our hands dirty and our feet moving. We sincerely want things to be right in the world but we also want them to be tidy." [3]

But there is more to our history, thankfully. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee offers a legacy of moving feet and dirty hands, of courage and action while many Americans sat on the sidelines. In February of 1939, acting on behalf of the American Unitarian Association, Waitstill Sharp, the minister in Wellesley Hills, and his wife Martha, a social worker, went to Prague to assist the refugees pouring into the city as Nazi troops advanced. For several months, they worked to rescue people, get them employment and visas, and fund various relief organizations. In May of 1940, the Unitarian Service Committee began as a standing committee of the American Unitarian Association. The Sharps continued their service work across Europe. By 1945, the Universalist Service Committee formed and the two merged in 1963. [4]

According to an archivist at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, the Unitarian and Universalist Service Committees were "among the few organizations and individuals who worked to save Jews and others from Nazism." [5]

We have heard the heartrending stories of ships filled with Jewish refugees being forced to turn around in the New York harbor. Today, it would be unthinkable to turn those ships around, or to turn fire hoses on African Americans trying to vote. But at the time, many Americans looked the other way. As humans, we do not always embrace the messy, uncertain yet morally imperative choice that lies before us.

Easy as it seems to discern right from wrong, to know it is neither civil nor just to ignore people escaping genocide who seek a safe haven on our shores, as clear as it is that denying democracy based on skin color is not only wrong but absurd, future generations may glare at us wondering about a U.S. president who led our nation to war ostensibly to bring democracy to Iraq while disregarding the civil liberties and legal rights of detainees held in the black hole of Guantanamo.

We can predict but not be assured how history will judge us. Will we overlook what will be obvious to our descendents, or will we step boldly to the edge and do not what is practical or expedient, but what we deem to be right?

Because there is relatively little agreement of how right manifests we can rarely depend on someone else’s moral compass as a guide. Earlier this week I listened to two eminent legal scholars vigorously disagree about the usefulness and moral importance of prosecuting President Bush and others in his administration for war crimes. The soulwrenching miasma in Gaza brutally portrays the elusiveness of moral clarity as each side justifies its actions across an ever-growing tally of dead, dying, and displaced civilians. Where is the civility in that?

At its best, Unitarian Universalism summons us to follow the example of Martin Luther King Jr., of Martha and Waitstill Sharp who not only acted but led others to act based on their own certainty that inaction would constitute a singularly unacceptable course. Life calls upon each of us, in big ways and small, to discern for ourselves what we know to be true. And in the absence of truth, we may be called to act on what we believe—in.

Not long ago, a fellow I know from my days as a volunteer jail chaplain, wrote to say he was about to be released from prison. For six years we have corresponded and I have noted with respect his growth, his deepening honesty, his commitment to change. Recognizing this about someone is easy. Knowing what to do with it is hard. Frank, who is white will face challenges finding employment, and housing if he wants to move out of his parents’ home.

Frank served time for a sex crime. His name goes on a registry and that alone is enough to arouse most people’s deepest suspicions and fears. I offered to be a character reference for Frank. A friend of mine trained as a school psychologist cautioned me. Rightly so. I cannot say with assurance what Frank will or will not do in the future. I believe in the sincerity of his inner work, but more so, I believe it is only in an uncondemned state that one can change.

And while my friend cautions against falling prey to the liberal inclination to focus on one’s capacity for good, I know I must act in accordance with the truths that challenge and permit me to be my better self.

Part of what makes it so darn hard to live ethically is the ambiguity that permeates. There is more than one side. There are multiple perspectives, competing values. As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm that diversity, but we cannot let it immobilize us. There will always be a way to rationalize a particular action or inaction. Surely, the Southern police who aimed hoses at African American voters, who released dogs and tear gas felt justified. President Kennedy, who tried to dissuade Dr. King from amassing a quarter of a million African Americans at the Lincoln Memorial, who dragged his feet enforcing civil rights legislation, had his reasons.

Our task is to discern when our justifications and rationalizations serve our own interests or capitulate to our fears. Moral courage requires that kind of truth-telling. We can always find a cohort to camouflage our behavior. We can blend in with those who consume or condemn or collude in the ways that comfort us, that fail to call us to fullness.

We must each determine what forms the core of our decency. We set a bar for ourselves we cannot ignore. Each of us decides when inaction is no longer optional, when the U necessary to create justice does not refer to someone else.

It is not to a false optimism that we are called to commit; but rather to the both/and of the human condition. We possess the capacity for coalition in the midst of factionalism, for bravery in the face of danger, for truth-telling in the presence of our own limitations and the egregiousness of power—precisely because we live in the both/and.

We commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. because he embodies the ideals to which our nation aspires. He symbolizes perhaps more than any other twentieth century icon the humanness that defines us. He, too, stumbled on occasion, but his missteps did not prevent him from moving his feet. He marched, he stood in solidarity, traveled tirelessly, and offered himself up as a prophet for the God he loved. He allowed himself the humanness of justifiable anger in the omnipresence of racism in its most pernicious forms. And he recognized and vocalized the interrelatedness of classism, militarism, imperialism. He was non-violent but not naïve.

As the first African American president moves with his family into a White House built by slaves, and assumes an office held eight times by men who owned slaves during their presidency, and another four who owned them before, a new day dawns for America. [6] In that streaming light, let us rekindle our commitment to a dream articulated by Martin Luther King Jr. still awaiting its fulfillment.

We have elected and will inaugurate Barack Obama, under the heaviest security ever. We live in the both/and; to it, let us give our best selves while acknowledging our worst.

Our legacy invites us to look within. To acknowledge what frightens us, what raises our hackles, what causes us to turn away. If we fail to acknowledge what is yet to be done, we cannot accomplish it.

Our legacy as religious liberals compels us to look inward and outward, to observe honestly our world, to name its and our brokenness, to step one tentative foot at a time into the fray.

[Sound clip of Dr. King]


Closing hymn is 168, One More Step

Closing words: In his newest volume, Hope On a Tightrope, philosopher and educator Cornel West writes,

On the one hand, my dear brother Barack in the White House would be the great example of the American Dream come true. One the other hand, it could be the grand exhaustion of the dream built on the success of any one individual. The juxtaposition of a brilliant black man in the White House and suffering poor people along with the downward mobility of the middle class reveals the bankruptcy of a narrow American Dream.

May each of us find within ourselves the clarity and courage to restore and fulfill the Dream.


  1. Weekend Edition Sunday, National Public Radio, January 4, 2009
  2. "The Crisis of the Young African American Male and the Criminal Justice System" Marc Mauer, The Sentencing Project ,Prepared for U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
  3. Paul Rasor, Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century, pp.169-179
  4. Unitarian Universalist Service Committee History
  5. Jonathan Beasley, Harvard Divinity Today, Fall 2008, Vol. 4, No. 3., p.1
  6.; Which U.S. President Owned Slaves? and
    CNN Article: Slaves helped build White House, U.S. Capitol

About the Author

  • The Rev. Leaf Seligman is the minister of First Parish Church Unitarian Universalist of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, and the author of Opening the Window: Sabbath Meditations (Bauhan Publishing, 2011).

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