Beyond “I Have a Dream”

On August 28, I joined thousands of people on the National Mall in Washington, DC to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March for Jobs and Freedom during which Martin Luther King, Jr. gave one of the most famous speeches in American history popularly known as “I Have a Dream.” That day in August of 1963 is remembered as one of the high points of the civil rights movement. Some 250,000 people gathered to protest the injustice of racial segregation and its accompanying economic impact and to lift up a vision of a more just and equal society. Yet as that day recedes into history, it is easy for it to be mythologized or trivialized by forgetting the great cost paid by thousands of people who persisted in the struggle for justice. During the 50th anniversary ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial, there was a powerful symbol to remind all of us of that cost. At 3:00PM a bell was rung to recall the exact time when Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous speech. Yet that bell was not just any bell. It was recovered from the wreckage of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Al. where four precious young girls (Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair) were killed when the church was bombed on September 15, 1963, just a few weeks after the momentous gathering on the National Mall. After the euphoria of the March for Jobs and Freedom, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave another speech in the face of the devastating pain and loss of September 15. Dr. King gave the “Eulogy for the Martyred Children” during the funeral service for three of the four girls killed in that terrible bombing. I want to share some of his words from that very difficult day, words not as familiar as “I Have a Dream,” but words that show the foundation of faith in Christ that enabled people to persist in the struggle for justice under almost unthinkable conditions:

“So in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter; nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. We must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and worth of all human personality…I hope you can find some consolation from Christianity’s affirmation that death is not the end. Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance…Let this daring faith, this great invincible surmise, be your sustaining power during these trying days.”

The power of Christ’s forgiveness and resurrection that enabled people to persist in the struggle for justice 50 years ago is the same power that enables us to persist in the ongoing struggle for justice today. As we face daunting issues such as war, immigration reform, health care, the criminal justice system, poverty, and others; we are called to deeper faith in Jesus Christ and deeper commitment to living the way of Jesus in our day and time, no matter what the costs. Intentional practices of spiritual growth and commitment to in-depth Christian community put us in the position to discern and follow God’s call to justice in our day. It is not enough to remember and honor those who paid the cost of living the way of Jesus during the struggles of 50 years ago. We honor and benefit most from their witness as we join the great cloud of witnesses who follow the way of Jesus’ non-violent, self-sacrificial, inclusive love whatever the cost. Through the power of the resurrection, the One who paid the cost for all of us provides the power to live His way today.

Dr. Jim Melson, Director of Spiritual Formation

PS. The four girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church were recently awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. As Dr. King quoted in many of his messages, “The moral arch of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” 




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