What were you doing on August 28, 1963? Okay, so you weren’t born yet. So ask your parents; or if they weren’t born yet either, ask your grandparents. Why do I ask?
After a long day, I settled into the couch to watch the Cardinals and the Reds on television. Unless my team is the featured game on ESPN, about the only time I get to see them play is when they play the Cubs or the Reds. But as much as I love to watch the St. Louis Cardinals, I wandered around a bit with my remote and landed on a PBS special about the civil rights march on Washington 50 years ago. I was riveted by the film of that day, footage of great Negro singers such as Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson; sympathetic white folk singers Joan Baez; Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul and Mary; Hollywood entertainers including Steve McQueen and Charlton Heston, various speeches, including a very young John Lewis who used the word “black” in place of the customary “negro,” and approximately 250,000 Americans who arrived by plane, train, and hundreds of buses to join in the Civil Rights march on Washington.
And I wondered, “What was I doing that day?” I know what I was doing on November 22, 1963. I was in class as an 8th grader at Lily Lake School when our day was interrupted with the announcement that President Kennedy had been assassinated. But earlier that year on August 28? I don’t know, but being August in Kansas, I was probably standing on a hay trailer, stacking the bales that I pulled from the moving baler, pulled by my dad on the tractor. Other boys may have been playing Little League baseball and going to the pool, but my life as a 12 year old in August was mostly about making hay from whenever the sun evaporated the dew until darkness fell. One field we baled regularly was right by a swimming pool that I could painfully and longingly see from my dusty hay wagon.
Meanwhile in Washington, the crowds gathered around the the Lincoln Memorial to sing and hear speeches, climaxed by Martin Luther King’s dramatic speech, “I Have a Dream.” I had no awareness at all. I’d heard of MLK Jr. And it wasn’t all positive. I heard that he had friends who were Communists. Some of them were. I heard that his theology was liberal, even though his speeches/sermons were peppered with Scripture. Yes, he was trained in liberal theology the forerunner of Liberation Theology that denies or ignores the heart of the Gospel. But how many evangelical institutions would open their doors to a Negro in the 1950s? I heard that he was a trouble maker. Yes, he caused trouble for racist southern governors who were determined to keep a segregated society. I heard that the Negro in America just needed to be more patient, that in time, things would change in their favor. When the Kennedy Civil Rights Bill was pushed by President Johnson and passed in 1964, I heard my father say it was unconstitutional, so I parroted that as my opinion in my 9th grade Civics class. My father was not a racist, but like most Americans who had not experienced the indignity of segregation, Dad was unable to see the full extent of its evil and the cancer that it was on our nation. And he was concerned about the power of Washington overruling state laws, a concern I still share to this day. My parents never allowed us to use insulting racial slurs. They taught us the dignity of all persons. Yet they were still caught in a form of racism that was blind to reality.
Fifty years later, having learned a little about segregation and the history of the civil rights movement, having read King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, having heard the recording of King’s speech in Washington that day, I am humbled by the reality that we can be so easily blind to the truth, tolerate evil, and embrace error. What might have been if white Evangelicals had readily embraced black Evangelicals and welcomed them as members of the same family of believers? Why did it take liberal activists who have a low view of Scripture, and Hollywood entertainers, to show the way to white Christians that racism is a great evil, a contradiction to the biblical promise of God’s family being from every tribe, tongue, people and nation (Revelation 5:9)?
Commentators tell us that King’s speech that day, while powerful and moving, was not recognized then for the greatness that it is noted today, perhaps the best speech of the 20th Century.. I guess that is like initial response to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. But as I listen to it today, as I hear him speak of of justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Amos 5:24, as I hear his rejection of all bitterness, hatred, and violence, as I hear him call for true brotherhood, I have no doubt that regardless of his imperfections, God raised up Martin Luther King, Jr., to speak to our hearts and call our nation to repentance.