As I awakened on yet another Martin Luther King Day, a day of commemorating the life and legacy of the man who most clearly is the face of the American Civil Rights Movement, I cannot help but reflect on a question that I asked of an MLK scholar that was a guest instructor in one of my seminary classes. The question of that day, although not intended at the time as rhetorical, is still applicable in its more rhetorical sense. If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, would he be satisfied with the progress that we have made as a nation? The answer of “no he would not be satisfied” was not surprising to me.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and early 1960s was the catalyst for new legislation intended to eradicate the institutionalized injustices still experienced by African Americans. It was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., one August day of 1963, that Dr. Martin Luther King gave his most celebrated challenge to the blatant racism that existed on so many levels in American society. His speech entitled “I Have a Dream,” created for millions of Americans a vision of an America rid of injustices and racism. He highlighted just the types of inequity that would be outlawed the following year in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
I am not a scholar of Civil Rights law and I am open to persuasion that more legislation is necessary to fulfil the just world of which that Dr. King spoke. However, dare I suggest that there already exists an adequate legislative framework to ensure that his Dream can be fulfilled, if simply laws alone could ensure such change? Today it is widely recognized that in spite of the legal framework, there is still a mighty struggle to eradicate injustice on a variety of levels more than a half century after the enactment of the landmark Civil Rights legislation.
One of the lesser discussed admonitions from Dr. King’s address that day was his conviction that change must not be a gradual process. “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” is a statement that clearly indicates a desire for justice to prevail quickly. Yet after an initial surge in the mid-sixties, where the more visible signs of racism were abandoned, the reality of gradualism set in. Legislative action provided seeds from which to grow equality, yet absent were the tools, water, and fertilizer to ensure that the seeds reached their full potential.
Dr. King surely knew that his dream could not be fulfilled through legislation alone. It is evident by his life, words, and writings that he understood this to be a heart and soul issue. Laws can provide the rules and referees for the game, yet they cannot address the attitudes and intentions of its participants. If persons who have “been seared in the flames of injustice” will ever be able to cash a check on the promissory note of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, America must address the issue of the heart; the place in which seeds of prejudice and hatred flourish. Preachers must preach and teachers must teach that every human being is God’s creation regardless of how different they appear. Churches must be places in which hearts are changed and wrong attitudes challenged. Schools must be places in which students are guided to an understanding of fairness and where a commitment to justice is embedded deep within their hearts and souls.
As Dr. King so adequately stated on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that August day, “Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” I believe that soul force is ultimately what can prevail; something of which he was clearly aware. Thank God for our legislative leaders who were willing to provide a legal vehicle in which justice can move forward, yet it is now up to us spiritual and educational leaders to pursue in unison a strategy that will fuel the cause of justice for our world.
Although the answer to my question was “no,” I believe that the Dream can still be realized. In spite of a long gradual road toward fulfilment, the Dream is still within grasp. The words of Dr. King ring just as true in 2016 as they did in 1963, “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”