Monday, January 15, 2007

Martin Luther King, Jr.

I don’t remember the first time that I heard the name Martin Luther King, Jr. I think, but I’m not certain, that he led a march in my hometown sometime during the mid-sixties. My first clear recollection related to him is from the night he was assassinated. I was a fourth grader and was parked, as was the case most nights, in front of the television set, so I heard the news as soon as the networks got it. Even though I had only a vague notion of the importance of Dr. King, I remember being troubled by the news.

The Lamar County, Georgia school system was consolidated and desegregated in the fall of 1969, at the beginning of my 7th grade year. I had attended school with a handful of African-American students who, in retrospect, showed great courage in attending our previously all-white school. I had never, however, had an African-American teacher until that 7th grade year. My high school history teacher was Mr. C. E. Julian, a most dignified (and tough) man who was a proud graduate of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. I mention Mr. Julian in this context because in class one day he played an LP (that’s the abbreviation for a long-playing vinyl record album, for all you young readers) of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. That was the first time I had ever heard it. I find it amazing now that so many years had passed between the time he delivered it and the time that I heard it. I vividly recall being mesmerized by Dr. King’s vocal style but being even more mesmerized by his words. It was and remains a truly remarkable speech.

During my freshman year at Mercer University, I took Introduction to Political Science with Professor Gary Johnson. That was in 1976. It was not until twenty years later, when I read Will Campbell’s book The Stem of Jesse, which was about happenings at Mercer during the Civil Rights era, that I found out that Professor Johnson had been among the first black students to attend Mercer. One beautiful spring day he took our class across the street from the campus to Tattnall Square Park. We were sitting in a circle, discussing some political theory or another, when a preschool class came walking by, laughing and dancing and just generally having fun. In the group were black and white students, some of whom were holding hands. Our college class, which was not nearly so integrated as that preschool group, smiled and laughed. Professor Johnson said, “Dr. King would have really gotten off on that.” Dr. King’s words from that most famous of his speeches came back to me.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."

It was quite a dream. It is quite a dream. Today is a good day to hear it again and to dream it again, not only because Dr. King, whom I admire, declared it, but because the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, whom I serve, demands it.

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