Martin Luther King’s Birthday is our nation’s newest holiday,
of course. It is a holiday which has its origins within the lifetime of
just about all of us who are here this morning; 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. That such is not always the
case is a tragedy, I think; one which tells us how far we still have to
go on that journey toward justice and freedom.
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 and
wholeness, 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-Muslimism, ageism, classism, and
all human evils which divide the children of God from one another, and
keep us from becoming the blessed community that I believe our Creator
wants us to be.
So this is our story, too. But it reflects and resounds differently within
each of us.
Many of you already know that in spite of my unspellable, unpronouceable,
oh-so-Slavic last name (a cross I have borne with as much cheerfulness
as possible these 52-plus years) my roots lie not only in the steppes
of the western Ukraine and the snow-ridden shores of the Baltic, but also
in the Sunny South. I am one-half a child of Dixie. My mother, you see,
was a farm girl from the South Carolina lowlands. She met my father during
the war (the Second World War that is; not the Civil War), while he was
stationed at Parris Island. married him in Savannah in 1945, and came
north to Rhode Island with him when the war ended. The rest, as they say,
Over the years, she adopted (to one degree or another) Yankee habits
and proclivities, more liberal Yankee politics (“What do my sisters
see in that man?” she says of our present President), and even Yankee
religion (she became a Universalist around 1948 or so, before I was born;
her mothers was a Southern Methodist; her father was a Southern Baptist;
I guess under those circumstances, she always had to become a Universalist).
But 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, on the way home from Mexico, where we had gone (by car)
on sabbatical (that’s another story). Seeing the Deep South again,
revisiting those sites I’d seen as boy long ago, in the light of
all that had 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 led still lives-- it lives in our land, in our people, in the hearts
of all of us.
So, I would invite you with me now on a journey: through past, and through
present, and perhaps even into a future we might imagine together:
I had traveled Southern roads before, of course,
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
(I remember the price went up to fifty cents one year,
and my old Aunt Kate screamed about “highway robbery”).
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,
which we didn’t have in Rhode Island, either,
at least, not out in the open.
There was nothing hidden about it here:
different water coolers for blacks and whites;
at the Cook Theater in downtown Walterboro
(fifteen cents for kids; grownups half-a-dollar)
the white folks went in the front entrance
under the marquis,
the “coloreds” (that’s what my relatives called them
were being polite, which was not usually)
had to slink around down an alley 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:
to keep the blacks invisible; out of sight, out of mind.
I knew from an early age
that this was not right
that this could not last.
My younger, gentle questioning--
“Why can’t the Negroes sit anywhere they want like we do?”--
soon gave way to more persistent adolescent self-righteousness:
I don’t know what it was, but in those years,
I “just happened” always be reading a book by Martin Luther
or Dick Gregory or James Baldwin or someone else
during the first two weeks in July,
a “coincidence” that stretched over every year, maybe for
a decade or more...
(“You don’t understand,” my Southern relatives would
“You don’t have any Nee-grows 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.
(Fast forward now, say, twenty years:)
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
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
Almost everyone else staying at that same Holiday Inn that night was black,
I knew that, in this way at least,
an age had changed.
The next morning we went on to Montgomery
a bigger city than I expected,
busy and crowded,
but spread out, too.
Although the world and Montgomery
are very different than they were in 1955,
the year of the great 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
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
but when you finally reach there, you can hear the heart of the civil
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.
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 office parks
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,
icons of racism-- carved into the side of a mountain.
Then you know that, however much has changed on the surface,
the past must always leave its scars and its pain.
(And as antiseptic and coldly modern as much of the atlantasphere seemed
I was still strangely comforted by the sight
of an old man on the corner selling small paper sacks of that most Southern
of all delicacies: boiled peanuts--
a quarter a bag.)
Again in Atlanta, history’s playing field is telescoped:
the great man’s birthplace-- Ebeneezer Church where King’s
served (that would have been his second home, as a minister’s son)--
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
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; children’s magazines.
Combine all these most ordinary bits of life, then mix them with:
a liberal education;
a strong dose of self esteem;
an unrelenting, deep religious faith;
then watch them 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 sarcophagus
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.
Here, there is no great lamentation at the tomb.
The tears come a few steps onward,
inside the Center that bears his name;
There, 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;
letters to Coretta in his own hand;
pictures of the children who lost a father,
the wife who lost a husband.
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 beating human heart
can never be replaced.
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.
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 we still have so far to go,
and there are many more miles for us to travel
on this long, and steep, and difficult, and precious road to freedom.
A Happy Martin Luther King Day to One and All! We shall overcome!