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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Long Journey to Freedom

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 20, 2002

 

I know that, for a number of reasons, Martin Luther King’s birthday is not everyone’s favorite holiday, and that some people absolutely loathe it still. I think that this has much to with the ambiguity toward racial justice that many Americans still feel, that it’s a reflection of the racial estrangement that still exists, to one degree or another, within our national soul.

So be it. I am an unabashed “Martin Luther King Day” fan, and for that reason, I have, as a minister, led a Martin Luther King Sunday service every year, in every congregation I have served, since the early 1980s (even before there was an “official” holiday, in fact). That was the reason that I eagerly took up the responsibility of chairing our townwide Martin Luther King Day celebration, which takes place this afternoon at 3:00, at the Stoughton High School Auditorium. (And by the way, it would sure be nice to see a few familiar faces in the audience this afternoon.)

I think that I am a fan of this particular holiday precisely because it is our nation’s newest-- because it is a holiday which has its origins within the lifetime of all of us who are here this morning. It is a holiday born and bred in the historical context in which we have all lived. It is a holiday which arises out of our times, and so, I think there should be a certain power, a certain immediacy, that it holds over us. In a way, of course, this holiday celebrates not only the life and teachings of Dr. King-- but all of our strivings and aspirations for freedom, 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, anti-Arabism, 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. But it reflects and echoes differently within each of us.

Some of you might not know it (though I think many of you do), but, in spite of a last name that emerges straight from the shores of the Baltic and the steppes of Mother Russia, I am half-Southern. Half of my personal heritage lies firmly in the American South. My mother, you see, was a farm girl from the South Carolina lowlands. She met my father during the war (the Second World War, not the War Between the States), while he was stationed at Parris Island,. married him in Savannah in 1945, and came north with him when the war ended, back to Woonsocket, Rhode Island (exchanging Savannah-- which is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen-- for Woonsocket-- which is one of the ugliest-- could not have been easy; but she did it). And though she adopted (to one degree or another) Yankee habits and proclivities, more liberal Yankee politics, and even Yankee religion (she became a Universalist around 1948 or so; she had been a Southern Methodist; her father was a Southern Baptist)-- she never lost entirely her Southern gentility, or her Southern accent. So, some strains of the “song of the South” surrounded me, even as a child.

The last time I visited any of my Southern relatives was back in the winter of 1992, almost exactly ten years ago, on the way home from our family sabbatical in Mexico. Seeing the Deep South today, revisiting those sites I’d seen as boy long ago, in the light of all that has happened since, was an incredibly enlightening experience for me. Casting that personal experience in the light of the national holiday we are celebrating this weekend can, I hope, offer a few lessons of its own to us all. 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.

So, come with me now on a journey, through past, and present, and perhaps even into a future we can imagine together:

I.

I had traveled Southern roads before, of course,
years ago:
as a boy, our family’s ritual was to travel to see
my mother’s mother and sisters in South Carolina, not far from Charleston.
We went every year at the same time--
the first two weeks of July;
I did that for twenty-four years,
so I reckon that I have spent (almost) an entire year of my life
in the South:
a year composed entirely
of the first-two-weeks-in-July.

It was an exotic place for a boy from a mill town in Rhode Island--
almost tropical, hot and sticky all the time,
with ramshackle gas stations
the cooler out front stacked with bottles of Nehi and Yoohoo
and the man at the side of the road selling whole watermelons for
a quarter
(I remember the price went up to fifty cents on year,
and my old Aunt Kate screamed about “highway robbery”).
And there were mosquitoes everywhere and fire ants
and palmetto trees and live oaks,
and best of all--
the long sandy stretches of beach at Edisto
which seemed to go on forever
liberally littered with iridescent shells
and star fish
and sand dollars
and other marvels we didn’t have in Rhode Island.

And, I remember, too,
there was segregation.

There was nothing subtle about it either:
different water coolers for blacks and whites,
different bathrooms,
different schools,
at the Cook Theater in downtown Walterboro
(fifteen cents for kids; grownups half-a-dollar)
the white folks (including even us Yankees) went in the front entrance
under the marquis,
the “coloreds” (that’s what my relatives called them when they
were being polite, which was not usually)
had to slink around by the side of the building
and sit in the balcony.
We never saw them; it was as if they weren’t there;
that, no doubt, was the point.

I knew from an early age
that this was not right
and
that this could not last.

My younger, gentle questioning--
“Why can’t the Negroes sit anywhere they want?”--
soon gave way to more persistent adolescent self-righteousness:
I don’t know what it was, but in those years,
I always “just seemed” to be reading a book by Martin Luther King
or Dick Gregory or James Baldwin or someone else
Unmistakably Black
during the first two weeks in July,
“just a coincidence”, I guess--
a “coincidence” that stretched over every year, maybe for a decade or more...

I hummed “We Shall Overcome” as I walked Main Street in Walterboro, though I never sang it at home.

Once, surreptitiously, I mailed a letter to the local newspaper condemning the activities of the Ku Klux Klan and trying to point out the “higher road” of racial toleration we (supposedly) practiced in the North. The letter appeared in the Press and Standard the day we left; my relatives, no doubt, were happy to see me go that year.

Maybe I made them a little uncomfortable, put them on the defensive (“You don’t understand,” they would say. “You don’t have any Niggras back in Rhode Island.” That was not quite true. Though I understood that our situations were different.) But those weeks in those Julys broadened the world for me. I hope it did a little for them, as well.

II.

After a long day through Louisiana, we stopped for the night
at a nondescript Holiday Inn in Greenville, Alabama,
about thirty miles south of Montgomery.
As I unpacked the car, I was soon quick to notice
the other cars pulling in around us:
mostly handsome, shiny new models,
all being unpacked by prosperous-looking, well-groomed black men
in dark sport coats, some with clerical collars around their necks.
We were, it seemed, in the midst of a meeting of an African American clergy association.
Almost everyone else staying at that Holiday Inn that night was black, as well,
and I knew that, in this way at least,
the age had changed.

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 almost-empty, Saturday-morning 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 Church,
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 those
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
sidewalk;
but when you finally reach there, you can hear the heart of the civil rights
movement beating.
Voices call out from the past, speaking their names:
Emmet Till... Viola Liutzo... Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner... the Rev. James Reeb...
dozens of others...
The rivers of righteousness are flowing still;
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.

 III.

King’s other city, of course,
his first city, and his last, was Atlanta:
mighty Atlanta, rising so many times like a phoenix from the ashes;
if you want to see the face of the “New South”, they say--
the “New South”, as far away as possible from the ramshackle gas pumps with the signs for Nehi and Yoohoo,
as far away as possible from the segregated balcony at the Cook Theater,
and the man at the side of the road selling whole watermelons for a quarter--
then come to Atlanta.
Atlanta-- shadowed over by the CNN tower--
Atlanta-- the New Athens-- home of the 1996 Olympic Games--
Atlanta-- with its affluent suburbs and its sterile high tech offices all along Jimmy Carter Boulevard;
Atlanta-- where at Stone Mountain you can see, three times bigger than Mount Rushmore, the Confederate War Memorial:
Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee--
three “great” traitors to the Republic, defenders of slavery,
carved into the side of a mountain,
and you know that, however much has changed,
the past must still leave its scars and its pain.

And as antiseptic and modern as much of the atlantasphere seemed to me,
I was still strangely comforted by the sight
of an old man on the corner selling small paper sacks of that most Southern--
most inaccessible (to Northerners)-- of all delicacies: boiled peanuts--
for a quarter.

Again in Atlanta, 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 certainly no mean tar paper
shack, either.
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; RCA Victor 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 to be no great 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,
minister’s robe,
driver’s license,
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 that this was more than a public hero--
he was, as well, a son, a partner, a pastor, a friend.
Then you know:
The work continues... the Dream survives...
but the smile and the voice and the warm touch
and the beating human heart
can never be replaced.

IV.

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 Carl Wendell Hines, Jr. once wrote:

Now that he is safely dead,
let us praise him,
            build monuments to his glory,
sing hosannas to his name.
            The dead make
such convenient heroes; They
            cannot rise
            to challenge the false images
            we would fashion from their lives.
            And besides,
it is easier to build monuments
than to make a better world.
            So, now that he is safely dead
we. with eased consciences
            will teach our children
that he was a great man... knowing
that the cause for which he lived
is still a cause
            and the dream for which he died
            is still a dream,
a dead man’s dream.

>But, as N. Ellsworth Bunce reminds us:

When one dies thousands rise
For Martyrs are made to
            multiply
            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--
--Comforted-- and fulfilled.

On our trip through the South, we never made it to Memphis, which is where Dr. King died in 1968, one of those experiences where many of us can remember where we were at the time. These words are from Dr. King’s last speech in Memphis, on the night of April 3rd:

“I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountain top. And I don’t mind... Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will... And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I have seen the promised land... I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land... And I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Dear friends,
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 more miles yet for us to travel
on this dear, dear road to freedom.

 


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