Monday I had the good pleasure of serving as the keynote speaker for my hometown’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Unity Celebration. The day began at noon with a gathering on the courthouse grounds for old time religion and reflection on our decades old stride towards freedom. I stood in a crowd of blacks folks, with a couple of whites and a Latino for good measure, and imagined that most of them were old enough to not have to know King through history books and video clips. They swayed with the rhythm of the bluesy Gospel singing, possibly feeling that in some way we’ve already overcome.
After the preacher gave a fiery message (in that cadence so essential to most Southern black Baptists) about King being an anointed drum major, we marched under pleasant skies to Hazlehusrt High School to culminate the weekend’s celebratory events. As I marched from the courthouse to the high school from which I graduated in 2000, I thought about how far we have come as a people, as a nation. I thought too about how far God had brought me and how humble I remain for those who helped make me the man that I am. Flanked by preachers and everyday folks who may have marched with Martin, I felt the power of their past witness to the powers. There would be no ferocious dogs and fire hoses, however; those who looked on as we marched waved affectionately and cheered us on. There was no clear and present danger, just a brief reenactment of history that swallowed me up in nostalgia.
Once we arrived at the high school auditorium where the service was to be held, my mind was flooded with teenage memories from a decade ago. I walked into the building reminded of how I once walked those halls five days a week. What’s more, I recalled that it was more than a decade ago when I delivered my first public oration. It had taken place on that campus during a black history month program held in my Junior year. I remember not wanting to do it. My oral communications teacher asked me—no, told me— that I was to do a Dr King speech during the assembly. When I objected she quickly informed me that this was not up for debate and handed me a tape of some of King’s most memorable speeches. I was frightened at the prospect of speaking in front of hundreds of my colleagues. I was much too shy, too socially anxious, to want to do it. But I pushed beyond my trepidation and did the speech. Not wanting to revisit the “Dream” speech, one we are nauseatingly familiar with, I did parts of his “Drum Major Instinct” and “Mountaintop” speeches. The parts of those speeches where he made reference to his death most interested me. I wanted us to remember not simply the Dreamer who went to DC, but the courageous and complicated prophet who would ultimately lay down his life without any hopes of immediate resurrection.
Memories gave me pause. When I later stood to deliver that afternoon’s keynote address, I couldn’t help but to be reminded of all that had brought me to that moment. I never shall forget.
Much like I did several years ago, I sought to move the collective imagination of those gathered from the preacher who dreamed out loud in the shadow of Lincoln Memorial, to the anxiety-ridden, weary-bodied messenger whose mind was preoccupied with the Vietnam war, American poverty, global revolutions, and his own death. I turned to the ecumenical and cosmopolitan King, the man who forsook the limitedness of being a black civil rights leader in favor of being a prophet for justice everywhere; the dreamer who began to wonder if his dream had become a nightmare; the weeping prophet who prayed for yellow folks running from napalm bombs, brown folks struggling as migrant workers, and white folks burdened by Appalachian poverty. This King was not simply the property of black folks, nor was his message simply for the liberation of the great grandchildren of enslaved Africans. This King was one that sought to let a Jesus ethic, a love ethic, a soul force permeate his being and reach out to the least of these everywhere, regardless of color, country, or creed.
I took them from the dream to the mountaintop.
April 3, 1968, the night before his martyrdom, the Baptist minister stood in a Pentecostal pulpit in Memphis and proclaimed that he moved from dream to vision. King shared with the congregation at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ that there would be some difficult days ahead but that God had taken him, that prophet like Moses, to the mountaintop. There in a vision he surveyed the Promised Land he would not be able to enter. Nevertheless, he was certain that we as a people would get there. There had been many victories to that point—the bus boycotts, the passage of civil rights legislation. But these societal and legal highlights were not the Promised Land. Egypt was in the distance but the people were at Canaan’s edge.
Forty-something years have gone by since that time and Martin’s dream has been deferred but never denied. Sometimes a nightmare, sometimes seemingly a untopian fantasy. However, much good has happened. Much in our political and social world has changed for the better. America is greater now because of the righteous actions of a creative minority determined to keep striding toward freedom, toward the Promised Land. And many would say, have said, that the election of Barack Obama was entry into the Promised Land. The Joshua generation had finally arrived.
Yet we know better. Yes, maybe we’re in the Promised Land. But there are some giants in this land; there are fortified cities in this land. With two wars, a global economic crisis, ten percent domestic unemployment, devastation in Haiti, we still have some difficult days ahead. All is not well. The Promise has come with many problems.
And yet, hope unfettered flies upward. Truth crushed to the earth rises again. And we must keep moving forward. No more time for dreaming, time to make reality. Giants do die, Jericho walls do fall, and victory can be ours, but this does not happen simply by waiting on a president to take action or a preacher to bring fire down from heaven. We must keep moving forward. Though we’ve grown tired of moving and would rather celebrate those who moved before us, we can’t stop now. We must keep moving forward. We can’t grow weary, lest all our marching, lobbying, protesting, praying, fasting, preaching, voting, loving, and living have been in vain. We must keep moving forward. As in King’s day, there are still wars and rumors of wars, poverty is still profound in the wealthiest nation on earth, and people are still judged by the color of their skin and not the content of their character. Much has changed, yes, but all is not right with the world. After the celebrations, after days of unity, we must still arise and keep moving, lest we die as dreamers yearning for a promised place we can only enter when we choose to, by all means, keep moving forward.