It is with great joy that I welcome all of you to this, our community’s
observance of the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is good
to see so many of you here today as we mark this, the newest of our nation’s
holidays, and one which has its origins within the lifetime of at least
many (of not most) of us here today. I hope we will all take this opportunity
to share together, to listen to some wonderful music, to learn a little
more about Dr. King, and to mingle with one another later on and chat
and visit as friends and neighbors.
In a way, of course, this holiday celebrates not only the life and teachings
of Dr. King-- but all of us, as well. The story of the unending quest
for freedom in our land is not just Dr. King’s story, but our story,
too. It is our story as a people, as we strive together to build a land
free of the racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, ageism, classism,
and all human evils which divide us from one another and keep us from
becoming the blessed community that our Creator wants us to be.
This is our story, too, and it reflects and echoes differently within
each of us. So, as my part of this program, I would like to share just
a small bit of the personal reflections I wrote some years ago following
a trip that my family and I took through the Deep South in 1992, when
we got to see with our own eyes many of the sites and places associated
with Dr. King and his life and ministry.
The history of Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement he lead still lives--
it lives in our land, in our people, in the hearts of all of us:
The next morning we went on to Montgomery
a bigger city than I expected
busy and crowded
but spread out, too.
And though the world and Montgomery
are very different than they were in 1955,
the year of the Bus Boycott
that really got the Civil Rights Movement rolling,
it would be no small thing, I thought,
to have to walk to work from one end of this city to the other.
As we drove through the streets of Montgomery
I thought of Rosa Parks (“My feet are tired,” she said,
“but my soul is rested.”) and all those others who had walked there,
and I knew how holy this ground had truly been
in those tumultuous days.
Martin Luther King’s first church, Dexter Avenue Baptist
is almost literally in the shadow of Alabama’s state capitol:
perhaps a few hundred feet separates them and the view of one
from the other is clear and unobstructed.
From the steps of one George Wallace bellowed
“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
the simple, simplistic rhetoric of bigotry.
In the basement of the other, King and Abernathy and others
whose names we don’t remember, met to plot a revolution.
Their specific aims at the time, no doubt, were simpler:
Who’ll mimeograph the circular?
Who’ll send the letter to the papers?
Who’ll pay for postage?
So it is that the mundane prose of life becomes poetry
when history sweeps through and changes everything.
Another quarter mile from Dexter Church,
there is the monument to the revolution--
the National Civil Rights Memorial.
From the distance, it appears an unremarkable small square of city
but when you finally reach there, you can hear the heart of the civil
Voices call out from the past, speaking their names;
the rivers of righteousness are flowing;
then there is deep silence, punctuated by tears,
human tears flowing like the water of a mighty river,
human tears to bless in glad thanksgiving
the gilded names of martyrs carved in rich black stone.
King’s other city, of course,
his first city, and his last, was Atlanta...
[where, once again] history’s playing field is telescoped:
the great man’s birthplace-- Ebeneezer Church where his father
served (as a black parson’s son, he must have all but lived there
growing up)-- his tomb-- the King Center which carries on his dream--
all these are contained within one short block.
The house is no mansion-place, of course-- but no mean
It is, rather, a remarkably unremarkable home of a Baptist minister
and his family,
rooted firmly among the throng of the lower middle class (which,
considering they were black, made them better off than most back then):
linoleum floors; corn flakes boxes in the kitchen; Parcheesi
board on the table in the bedroom; old, untuned piano in the corner
of the living room; victrola records; magazines for boys--
combine all these most ordinary pieces of a life, then mix them with
a liberal education,
a strong dose of self esteem,
an unrelenting, deep religious faith,
and they produce a Prophet-Hero for our time,
one of the truly Great Souls of our century,
a man who changed the world.
His tomb is a cool, almost harsh memorial,
cold and solitary in the middle of a long reflecting pool,
with buildings and city crowded too closely upon it
to give any sense of peace or solitude or contemplation.
Or perhaps it is that with this great man, more than with most perhaps,
one senses that the public man, the one entombed in this marble
is no more dead, in truth, than he was
in Montgomery in 1955
in Birmingham in 1962
in Washington in 1963
in Oslo in 1964
in Selma in 1965
in Memphis in 1968.
No, there seems no lamentation at the tomb.
The tears only come a few steps onward,
inside the Center that bears his name,
when one sees the bits and pieces collected
of a truly human life:
suit coat and tie pins and after shave bottles
briefcase, tape recorder, Bible broken at the binding
from so much use,
letters to Coretta in his own hand
the picture of the children who lost a father
the wife who lost a husband,
and then, you know inside, this was more than a public hero--
he was, as well, a son, a partner, a pastor, a friend.
The work continues... the Dream survive...
but the smile and the voice and the warm touch
and the beating heart
can never be replaced.
Gwendolyn Brooks once wrote:
A man went forth with gifts.
He was a prose poem.
He was a tragic grace.
He was warm music.
He tried to heal the vivid volcanoes.
His ashes are
...rending the wind.
And N. Ellsworth Bunce has written:
When one dies thousands rise
For Martyrs are made to
The stars catch the sound
The wind carries the word...
In the silence
Where once he stood
The children grow
The poor gather
And now those mourning know
They shall be comforted--
We, too, have hopes and dreams for this,
our dear land of hope and dreams.
We have our own journeys to make.
Though our feet may be tired, may our souls, too, be rested.
For there are many miles yet for us to travel
on this dear road to freedom.