In a few weeks leaders, of the civil rights community will gather again on the steps of Lincoln Memorial to renew their commitment to the vision of Martin King, Jr. And while it is honorable and appropriate that we be summoned to this moment of collective remembrance, I cannot help but wonder if the real genius of Dr. King will be skewed amid the cantankerous musings of civic-minded individuals who view the movement he shepherded as a political undertaking, not a spiritual achievement at its core.
Undoubtedly, the Civil Rights Movement was and continues to be an exercise in the moral determinations of a people too besieged by the vicissitudes of life to remain indifferent in the face of human suffering. Those 250,000 people who gathered on the steps of the Lincoln memorial 50 years ago were not motivated to be there by the promise of political achievement. Instead, they were compelled to take long rides on cramped busses on dark back roads and Interstate highways because being there was simply the right thing to do. And this is what we have lost in our discussions about Martin King and Civil Rights movement
First and foremost, there needs to be an appreciation for the moral authority Dr. King summoned in the face of unspeakable horrors. If one listens closely to the pastoral magniloquence of Dr. King on that historic day, it is easy to discern that he deliberately sought to appeal to the ethical intuitions of the nation by forcing upon the American psyche a crisis of conscience. In other words, he sought to address the nation’s highest evaluations of itself most commonly expressed through the lens of its public policies as a means to some greater end.
On August 28, 1963 Dr. Martin King, Jr. spoke to the nation not as a politician but as a pastor, a prophet. This was the genius of King. In the absence of a world free enough to respect the truth of his own humanity he imagined himself a nation just big enough to make room for the content of his dream. And in doing so, Dr. King was not surreptitiously insisting that the nation merely do something about racism and poverty. Rather, he was demanding that the country become something greater in face of what ailed it the most.
The great question of marginalized people in this country has never been will American vote for us? Or, will the nation change its laws to accommodate us. No. What the dispossessed constituencies of this nation desire to know is: In the face of persistent poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and mass incarceration, can the soul of America be saved? Can this nation do what is right for immigrants and hungry children not because it is expedient but because it is a reflection of what we are striving to become? Can that which is right still be the product of all that remains good? Or, have we become so carven and ambitious that we see no enmity or failure in doing all the right things for all the wrong reasons?
Soon it will be our turn to march, and we must resolve that this demonstration for freedom shall not be in vain. Therefore, it is our deepest desire that we, like Dr. King, summon the courage not to reduce our struggle down to the pretty transactions of electoral politics because politicians come and go. And while they, too, have a part to play in the great struggle for the soul of American, the masses of us must take up the way of the cross. We must find the wherewithal to push against the great wheel of history until one world dies and another world is born.
We are not gathering simply to remember. But we are coming to Washington so that we might advance the cause of the unfinished work that remains so indelibly set before us.
There are 30 million Americans living in poverty and 40 million more who are food insecure. The mass incarceration of Black and Brown men is but a prelude to the more insidious problem surrounding the criminalization of race.
Our greatest challenge in Washington this August will be to convince the nation that morning is possible in America; and that the darkness of fear and recrimination are the not the last words to be spoken about our lives together in this meandering republic. For in both our public policies and in our hearts, the challenge is to shatter ignorance, dethrone willful blindness, and to treat the suffering of every man and woman as if it were us.
After all, that’s what Dr. King was saying in his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Rev. Sean Henderson McMillan is the Senior Pastor of Giant Steps Church in Chicago. The New York City native is a graduate of Wagner College (B.A.), The Lutheran School of Theology (M.A), and The University of Chicago (M.A./Ph.D. in Philosophy). He recently Executive Director of the Center for African American Theological Studies, where he is still member of the teaching faculty in the area of moral philosophy and theological ethics