January 19, 2020
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15th 1929. Had he lived he would have celebrated his 91st birthday last week.
People of his generation were born between the two world wars, raised during the Great Depression and tragically enough, tempered in and by what was an apartheid society.
African Americans who began their lives in the years between 1920 and 1940 were more than likely to have descended from grandparents and great grandparents who had been held in bondage, in a most pernicious form of chattel slavery that ended a little more than 60 years before Martin King’s birth.
The period of Reconstruction, a time when those formerly held captive, and the republic itself, made significant strides in positive directions.
The humanitarian natures of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution of the United States extended legal protections to the four millions of Black former slaves.
A mere 52 years before Martin King’s birth the country began to move in a radically different direction. A backlash occurred in response to and as a result, in great part, of the social, economic and political gains enjoyed by Black Americans. There were those who sought to return to the past, a sinful, misguided and evil movement to “make America great again.”
They aggressively sought and worked relentlessly to return societal norms and practice to an unfortunate time when one group convinced of its inherent superiority, oppressed, suppressed and restricted, “by any means necessary” the upward mobility of people of African descent.
Those tyrannical efforts to dominate and arrest and smother the progress of the newly emancipated people of this country, manifested themselves in codified restrictions, constraints and malevolent exploitation.
In the years leading to the end of the 19th century, the widespread passage of local and state so-called “Jim Crow Laws” provided for vile mechanisms designed to keep Black people “in their place,” in total submission, in a state of “second class citizenship.”
In 1896, only thirty-three years before Alberta Williams King gave birth to her middle child, her first son, then named Michael, the United States Supreme Court held in Plessy v. Ferguson that racial segregation laws where public facilities were concerned were constitutionally acceptable as long as the segregated facilities were equal in quality.
Although the facilities never were, the doctrine of “Separate but Equal” conceived in infamy opened the virtual flood gates for de jure segregation in all of the former confederate and slave states and de facto segregation elsewhere. Racial segregation and discrimination was the law of the land.
Protest and rebellion against these monumental assaults on human decency, integrity and justice and peace were routinely addressed with savage, violent, often deadly acts at the hands of “domestic terrorist” groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.
In the four decades prior to the future drum major for peace’s birth several thousands of 5 African Americans were lynched. Lynching was the cowardice, ominous, disgusting, and murderous tool employed as a means to control, by raw torture and terrorism, every aspect of the lives of citizens of African descent in the “land of the free and home of the brave…”
Twenty-nine years before the future pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama, the imminent writer, scholar, activist, author, Dr. W. E. B. DuBois in his “Address to the nations of the world” shared the following: “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line, the question of how far differences of race-which show themselves chiefly in the color of skin and the texture of the hair-will hereafter be made the basis of denying to over half the world the right of 6 sharing to their utmost ability the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization”
That same icon of the struggle for freedom was one of the founders of the oldest civil rights organization in these United States, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, just 20 years before King’s birth. This in the same year the so-called Atlanta Race Riot occurred and described by the French newspaper Le Petit Journal as “a racial massacre of negroes” It was one of many in the 20th century…
A mere 16 years before the future founding president of the Montgomery Improvement Association arrived in the world, the president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson who oversaw the re-segregation of federal agencies 7 bluntly stated, “There are no government positions for Negroes in the South. A Negro’s place in the corn field.”
Three hundred ten years after the arrival of the first Africans were brought involuntarily to the Virginia shores, the child whose birthday, 90 years later, we now celebrate was welcomed into his parents’ home on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia.
In the one-hundred fifty third year in the life of the republic, the future leader of a movement toward freedom, was born into a society that was not free–for some. The nation, this nation that espoused in its founding principles the notion of equity and egalitarianism for too long not had not practiced to what it preached.
The “gloomy past” that James Weldon Johnson spoke about in his poem “Lift every voice and sing” spoke of the content of the character of a country that had failed to truly live up to the lofty ideals it purported to champion.
In January 1929, mere months before the world was plunged into the economic disaster of what was the Great Depression, God brought upon the scene one who would challenge this country to search the very depths its conscience.
Well into the 20th Century, for far too long the conduct of institutions of this society fell short of reflecting the principles of love, peace, unity and justice for all people. For far too long sinfulness and blatant hypocrisy accurately described the unsustainable nature of the content of this nation’s character.
“Stony the road we trod, Bitter the chastening rod, Felt in the days when hope unborn had died” For generations the oppressed, the suffering, those held in bondage, in times about which James Weldon Johnson so eloquently shared, cried collectively in anguish, HOW LONG? How long must we endure the inhumanity, the pain, the injustice?
The late American Religion scholar, Dr. James Noel, maintained that the unique African American theology, unlike those native to Africa or to Europe, was itself born in the dreadful holds of slave ships on the Middle Passage.
Imagine the collective cry: “God, HOW LONG will we be forced to bear this degrading, miserable and escalating hardship at the hands of those who profess to follow in privilege a fair and just God?”
For generations before the third decade of the twentieth century the answer was elusive and uncertain… Although the child King, the son and grandson of prominent and devout Christian ministers was nurtured in the relative comfort of a middle class home and family, he was nevertheless raised within a wider social setting, one characterized by the racial, social and economic tension and distress of the times.
Exactly thirty-five years before Grammy winning hall of fame artist Sam Cook recorded his prophetic song, “A change is gonna come,” the future standout Morehouse College student came into a world that was in flux and its inhabitants about to experience profound and radical social change.
Sam Cooke sang, “It’s been a long time, a long time coming But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will” During Martin King’s formative years, thousands of African Americans migrated out of the brutally segregated agrarian South seeking jobs, some semblance of freedom in the industrial centers of the North, even during depths of the Great Depression.
That mass exodus increased following the entry of the United States into World War II. Employment opportunities were suddenly available as never before for African Americans and women of all hues.
People of all ethnicities and racial origins were forced to work together and function as teams, in ways and fashion unimagined in prior decades.
The year before Martin King began his college studies in 1943, the Vice President of the United States Henry Wallace shared: “We cannot fight to crush Nazi brutality abroad and condone race riots at home. Those who fan the fires of racial clashes for the purpose of making political capital here at home are taking the first step toward Nazism…”
The time and need for the ruling elite and certainly all American society to thoroughly reexamine itself and its fundamental principles was upon itself. “Are not those people whom we have subjected to all manner of humility, inhumane treatment, indignities and discrimination even AFTER 246 years of chattel slavery, UNHAPPY? Why in God’s name are they rioting?”
HOW LONG? Not long because the back of Jim Crow was breaking. Equal opportunity in the work place was gradually becoming the rule rather than the exception.
African American veterans returning from battles across the oceans in a war against despots whose platforms for war were founded on notions of racial superiority, were eager to win on two fronts–both abroad and at home. HOW LONG? Not long because the back of Jim Crow was breaking.
The United States military was, by presidential executive order, forced to desegregate six months after the Morehouse College graduate Martin King celebrated his nineteenth birthday and two months before he entered Crozier Theological Seminary. Following his initial theological training, the Reverend King undertook his doctoral studies at Boston University.
Given his educational background, elegance and style the young Dr. King could have stayed in the less hostile environs of the North. Any number of prestigious pulpits or professorships in major population centers were available to him, including right here in Cincinnati. But, his God, our God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah and Rachel called him back to the South, “in times like these” of the early 1950s.
HOW LONG? It was not long before in 1955 the mother of brutally beaten and lynched fourteen year old Emmet Till allowed tens of thousands of people to file past his open casket to witness up close and in person what evil deed had been inflicted upon her child. This following her permission for a photograph of the corpse to appear in Jet magazine.
When the self-admitted killers were acquitted of the crime of murder, the African American community was stunned, not surprised, but angry, indignant and exasperated.
Mere weeks later, in Montgomery Alabama a Black seamstress named Rosa Parks expressed the mood of the Black community there locally, and even nationally, when she was TIRED, refused to vacate a public bus seat for a white man. In her humble weariness Ms. Parks certainly “broke” the decidedly asinine “Jim Crow Law” but perhaps unwittingly participated in the culminating assault on systematic and institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination.
This act was an important defining catalyst for the birth of the movement to which God called the young but well prepared minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to labor in a major leadership role.
HOW LONG? Not long was our brother Martin, the true conscience of this nation destined and allowed to love us and serve us. A mere years was he allowed to bravely challenge the nature of this country’s transgression.
He sought to cause all people to love unconditionally one another as we love our selves created equally by and in the image of our God; the God he sought so ably to serve. It is the same God by whom we are indeed judged by the content of our character as expressed by our faith and conduct.
A little more than 56 years after the “Dreamer” shared his dream with a nation on the threshold of the doors to reformation, rehabilitation and reconciliation, and 52 years since he was violently taken from our presence, the dream lives on. Thank God.
James Weldon Johnson ended the first stanza of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” thusly: Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us, Facing the rising sun of our new day begun Let us march on till victory is won.
65 years later in Montgomery Alabama at the conclusion of the March from Selma, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, “spake” all these words, saying: “Last Sunday, more than eight-thousands of us started on a mighty walk from Selma, Alabama. We have walked through desolate valleys and 19 across the trying hills. We have walked on meandering highways and rested our bodies on rocky byways. Some of our faces are burned from the outpourings of the sweltering sun. Some have literally slept in the mud. We have been drenched by the rains. Our bodies are tired and our feet are somewhat sore.” “Now it is not an accident that one of the great marches of American history should terminate in Montgomery, Alabama. Just ten years ago, in this very city, a new philosophy was born of the Negro struggle. Montgomery was the first city in the South in which the entire Negro community united and squarely faced its age old oppressors” “They told us we wouldn’t get here. And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies, but all the world today knows that we are here and we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, ‘We ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around.’ Once more the method of nonviolent resistance was unsheathed from its scabbard, and once again an entire community was mobilized to confront the adversary. And again the brutality of a dying order shrieks across the land. Yet, Selma, Alabama, became a shining moment in the conscience of man. If the worst in American life lurked in its dark street, the best of American instincts arose passionately from across the nation to overcome it.” “The battle is in our hands. And we can answer with creative nonviolence the call to higher ground to which the new directions of our struggle summons us. The road ahead is not all together a smooth one. There are no broad highways that lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. But we must keep going.” “Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding. We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man. I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ Somebody’s asking, ‘How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?’ Somebody’s asking, ‘When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?’ Somebody’s asking, ‘When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?’ I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because ‘truth crushed to earth will rise again’ How long? Not long, because ‘no lie can live forever.’ How long? Not long, because ‘you shall reap what you sow.’ How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” AMENSource: PRESBYTERY OF CINCINNATI Martin Luther King Jr. Service on January 19, 2020 at Covenant First Presbyterian Church, Cincinnati, Ohio.