Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech was recently celebrated and widely publicized. He said on that occasion, “I have a dream that my four 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 share that dream. Which led me to conclude:
It is not the color of one’ skin,
But what comes from within,
That earns our applause,
And strengths our cause.
I was engaged in the civil rights movement in only a modest way, while Martin Luther King was prominent. We received our doctoral degrees at the same commencement. So while I do not share his Afro-American experience, we have much in common in terms of educational background. Of greater importance, we share a common faith.
What has happened in the interim since that historic speech? There has obviously been some measure of success. Likewise, there remains much to be accomplished. Most distressing, the problem has been intensified in some regards. How so? The high prison retention of Afro-Americans casts slavery in its worst light. The promotion of a welfare society has disproportionately affected Afro-Americans. Those who insist on playing the race card, especially when coupled with a confrontational stance, often do more harm than good.
If one picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps a simple story serves in place of an extended essay. Our grandson Matthew was attempting to identify one of his soccer teammates. It did not occur to him to mention that he was colored. Since it seemed to him to be of no consequence.
On another occasion, I was conversing with an Afro-American activist. At one point, he allowed: “I realize that you are not a blatant raciest like the KKK, but you people (white) are all the same.” Since I do not think of black folk as monolithic, it came as a disappointment to me that he thought white people have that much racist inclination in common.
More recently, President Obama mentioned being followed by white folk in Chicago. Conversely, I remember an instance where I was threatened by two black youths in the same city. They briefly discussed whether to attack me, and then decided to wait for some other stranger who might come that way. I certainly do not generalize on the basis of this select experience.
I had the privilege of serving two short terms in Nigeria. Upon my return, seventeen of my former students elected to continue their education where I was employed. I recall one of them observing, “When I think of you, it is not as an American but a Nigerian.” Skin color notwithstanding, and as a complement I genuinely appreciated.
While in Nigeria, I was invited to participate in an ordination service. At one point, the young man was invited to come forward and kneel. Then we participants were encouraged to put a hand on his head or shoulder, and pray for him. As I looked down, there were multiple relatively small black hands, and one larger white hand—my own. I was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of the universal church, one that crosses ethnic and racial barriers. It was some time later that I overheard Billy Graham refer to the experience of becoming a world Christian. Which recalled this incident.
On yet another occasion, I was asked by an inter-racial couple to perform their wedding ceremony. While I pointed out some of the social problems they would likely encounter, I consented. As a result, both I and the school administration were criticized by an irrate graduate. Although neither us thought it necessary to apologize.
“I studied the plantation system with great attention to the subtle conditioning of the slaves,” C. Mason Weaver allows. “There was always an attempt to redirect the slave’s attention from freedom from to plantation to relief in the plantation. Master was always the center of attention and always the source of power. Today we are still looking for the master to solve our problems and accept responsibility over us” (It’s OK To Leave The Plantation, p. 52). So that there are those who want to exercise control, and those who are tempted to acquiesce.
“I still have a passionate desire to help my community,” Mason continues. “America changed and I wanted to participate and not be passed over. It takes courage to fight for one’s freedom; it takes more than courage to take the advantage of that freedom” (Ibid., p. 161). Regardless of the color of one’s skin, and drawing on a righteous resolve.
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus solemnly declared, “everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34-36). Thus are persons incited to exercise a genuine freedom available in Christ.
Consequently, Martin Luther King concludes with the enthusiastic words of the Afro-American spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” Which, in turn, recalls the recent comment of an Afro-American woman, “I am living the dream.” A dream which we share.
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