From The Christian Index
December 2023 Issue
Is it not time for us to move beyond Martin’s dream?
By Othal Hawthorne Lakey
In a sermon at the CME Unity Summit in New Orleans a few days before the commemorative March on Washington marking the 60th Anniversary of the 1963 March, Bishop Sylvester Williams used an illustration that provides an appropriate lens for viewing both events. He said that the human tendency is picture events as a still photo rather than a video. Though the photo brings forth precious memories it does not capture the circumstances that brought it about nor subsequent events it might have precipitated. A biblical text validating the truth of the bishop’s illustration is Matthew 17:1 – 4, known as the transfiguration of Jesus.
Jesus had carried Peter, James, and John to a mountain where he was “transfigured”: clothing become as bright as the sun, and Moses and Elijah appeared with him. The biblical meaning is that Jesus fulfills the Mosaic law and the message of the prophets. When the disciples awoke from shock, Peter cries out, “Lord, let us build three shrines here: one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Peter wanted to capture the moment, make it a holy shrine to which they might come and worship. But Jesus said, “No”. He knew that the realities of the valley below, as well as the powers and principalities of a world beyond, awaited them.
In many ways our commemorations of that August 28, 1963, reflect Peter’s desire on the Mount of Transfiguration. Like him, we want to capture that moment when 250,000 black Americans caught, at least for a little while, the attention of a nation, for an instant pricked its conscience, and, maybe for a moment, inspired its soul. There is no blame for the insatiable desire of a people so beleaguered and oppressed to capture the ethos of that day, erect a shrine around its memory, and enhanced by his martyrdom, listen incessantly to Martin Luther King’s memorable, “I have a dream!”. But as Bishop Williams cautions, that memorable scene at the Lincoln Mall is not a still pht0; and as Jesus curbed Peter’s impulse to enshrine his moment of revelation, the vicissitudes of history bids us to move beyond Martin’s dream.
In 1963 segregation by race was legal in the South and a de facto reality in many other parts of the nation. “Colored” or “White Only” signs designated if and where Negroes, as we were known, could eat, ride, live, go to school, get care when sick -and even use the rest room.
Though a significant part of the population, Negroes were virtually invisible in public arenas such as movies and television Roles in movies were as menial servants or comedic buffoons. Television, coming into its own was Lilly white, as per Leave it to Beaver” and The Brady Bunch epitomized. And black faces in advertising commercials were unheard of. The national presence of Negroes was primarily through Ebony magazine Jet.
In the world of professional and collegiate sports African American participation was tokenism for the one and virtual non-existent for the other.
Presence in the body politic consisted of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Charles Diggs, Jr. in congress; no black senators; nor the Supreme Court.
In 1963, the major cities of America— New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, Chicago— all had white mayor and dominated by white city councils even though populations were becoming increasingly black.
These were the realities in 1963 when 250,000 Negroes gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. It was within that context that Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed a dream, deeply rooted in the American dream, that one day America would live up to its creed, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal." His dream of the day his children would be judged by the “content of thein character rather than the color of their skin” moved, all who heard to rejoice and be glad. And his cry, “Let freedom ring” from Stone Mountain, Georgia to Look Out Mountain, Tennessee, bespoke for a people a hope though unborn had not yet died.
However, that was sixty years ago. The “course of human events” —to use Abraham Lincoln’s phrase— altered decisively conditions out of which Martin’s dream came as well as the people to whom it was directed.
Tragically, in 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. himself was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
Legal segregation and impediments to the right to vote were eliminated in the Civil Rights acts signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and 1965.
The prominence of black Americans in all areas of the public arena is ubiquitous. Virtually every movie made features African Americans as stars or co-stars —not to mention block-buster films produce by and featuring blacks. Television is saturated with black news reporters and anchors, hosts, and hostesses on every network, in all sit-coms, popular series, and commentators. It appears that in every TV commercial (or at least every other one) some black or blacks make an appearance.
From all indications, blacks are the sine qua non of the world of music. Almost monthly the majority in the top ten in virtually every music genre are black.
African Americans dominate professional and collegiate sports —including golf, tennis, and gymnastics. (The exception is hockey, which, one observer commented, will also be the case as soon as someone figures out how to warm up the ice! In 2019 the quarterbacks in the NCAA college football championship game were black, and the quarterbacks in the 2023 Superbowl were black.
In 2008 Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States —and re-elected in 2012. And he, it must be noted was judged by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin!
Presently, Kamala Harris, black woman, is Vice-President of the United States, and Hakeem Jeffries is the Minority Leader in the House of Representatives. The Secretaries of Defense, Housing and Urban Development; U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, and the White House Press Secretary are African American.
There are now 62 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, three members of the U. S. Senate, and two black Supreme Court Justices. The mayors of New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Atlanta are African American.
From the vistas of 2023, then, much of that for which our fathers and mothers sighed and the dream Martin articulated so eloquently that August day has come to pass. Freedom does ring from Stone Mondain in Dekalb County, Georgia of which most of its citizens and the CEO are African American and Congressman Hank Johnson is the representative. And even in Tennessee where Lookout Mountain can be found the peals of freedom are heard in the state legislature as two young black members were expelled, not for agitating for the civil rights of black people, but for gun legislation to save the lives of white children.
It is said that as Martin Luther King was preparing to close his speech, Mahala Jackson, sitting on the platform with him whispered; “What about the dream, Martin? What about the dream?” That might be our question sixty years later. But when we look closer, the answer might be in the dream itself. Martin said that his dream was rooted deep in the hope that America would live up to its creed. It might be that God’s call to African Americans is to move beyond Martin’s dream by helping America remember and rekindle its foundational creed: All persons are created equal.
A year or so before the March on Washington, this writer served as chair of the educational committee of the Urban League of Portland, Oregon. It so happened that our committee invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak In Portland. The event was held at the Municipal auditorium, which was packed. Following the event my wife, Narsis and I were invited by Dr. O. B. Williams, Pastor of the Vancouver Avenue Baptist Church, and a friend of Dr. King, to a small reception in his home as we waited for time for Dr. King’s plane to depart. To top it off we were invited to ride to the airport with him. It was a unique privilege to share “small talk” with such a personality during his “down” time. As Dr. King gathered his bag and shook our hands in farewell and walked into the airport, the stirring climax of his address that night came to mind. For some 30 minutes he had described his hope of brotherhood for this nation, closing with the assurance. that when that day comes, “The morning stars will sing together, and the sons of God will shout for joy.”
Though that day has not yet come, were he alive today he would be pleased with the progress we have made.