Martin Luther King Jr. would have been my dad's age, had he lived. They were both born in 1929, right before the stock market crashed. The year
before they were born, Alabama had just passed a law forbidding blacks from using any public toilet used by a white; the U.S. congress had decided NOT to make the lynching of a black person a crime; and the KKK held a huge celebratory march from the Capitol to the White House. When my dad and MLK were a year old, a law forbade Hollywood from portraying a mixed-race marriages in the movies; Mississippi decided that whites could not marry blacks or Asians; and if you were already in a mixed-race marriage, it would be nullified while you were in Mississippi.
When I was nine years old, (35 years later) the demons were still at it. It was 1964 and three idealistic young men (two from the north) were in Mississippi trying to help black folks register to vote. But some good ole southern boys got offended, ran the three down in the middle of the night, shot them at point blank range, and dumped their bodies in a construction site. Andrew Goodman was only 20, James Chaney only 21, Mickey Schwerner only 24.
Everyone knew who did it, but it took 41 years before anyone got convicted. Only one guy took the fall: Edgar Ray Killon, a part-time preacher. Others were involved, but a whole bunch of people...police, neighbors, fellow church members...had their backs. Just last the year government gave up ever trying to secure justice.
I led a mission trip to Mississippi ten years after those murders. It was creepy driving through the state, especially since there was an Illinois license plates on my Ford Maverick.
The demons were at it in 1968, this time in Northern Illinois. (Turns out that demons aren't daunted by northern climate.) It was a Thursday night in April, the night of our weekly youth group meeting at church. As we gathered, the leaders told us that Martin Luther King had just been killed. Then they started to joke about it. At church!
If church leaders despised the man, he must have been terrible...right?
A few years later I had a high school history teacher who made us read what Martin Luther King wrote. I wasn't a reader back then. The only good thing I'd ever read up to that point was I Corinthians 13. Everything else bored me. But when I read the stuff Dr. King wrote, my heart caught fire and my mind lit up. Why was I getting this from a history teacher at a public school rather than a Sunday School teacher?
Just ten years after Dr. King's death, I was at seminary (in Washington D.C.) and wandered into the lunch room and saw an old man sitting there by himself. I knew who he was: Harold DeWolf, the former dean of my seminary (Wesley.) Dr. DeWolf had been at Boston University back in 1955 and was Martin Luther King Jr.'s Ph.D. dissertation advisor. I asked if I could eat with him...and we had a nice lunch together that day. Nothing significant was said, but I have always treasured that one thin strand of mystic connection between myself and Dr. King.
The Civil Rights movement is the most heroic American saga of my lifetime. On another day in D.C., 30 years afterward, I would wait in a long line to shake the hand of John Lewis, another true hero of American history.
The night Barak Obama was elected president, I rejoiced that our nation had passed another milestone. I hoped that the slaves who were forced to build the White House (210 years earlier) could look across eternity's chasm and see the skin color of the new first family.
But eight years later I have come face to face with a revelation: MLK's dream was not so much one of glass ceilings being shattered. It wasn't really about black and white celebrities linking arms, nor fair skinned "haves" proudly serving hot meals to dark skinned "have-nots," nor even a parade of bishops in splendid color.
The dream was about ordinary people in ordinary life. It was about young black men and young police officers not being afraid of each other. It was about children: enchanting and oblivious in their racial array...playing together. It was a dream of a stubble-whiskered ordinary guy eating his grits for breakfast, then going to the polls to vote, no matter his skin color. It was a dream of a full-throated song wafting into the street from a church house, perhaps singing "We Shall Overcome," and the listener outside unable to tell the race of the varied singers.
It is decades later now. The demons are still at it. They will never stop.
But neither shall the dream, nor the Negro Spirituals, nor the mystic chords that bind us to those heroes of justice, nor that still-burning fire in a teenager's heart: kindled so long ago by a prophet's mighty words. Nothing in the heavens above nor the earth below shall ever separate us from the power of such divine goodness!
Happy 88th Dr. King. --Mike Smith