"I Have a Dream" - 50 years on
From Brother Ivo:
Every generation carries into its future defining attitudes from its formative years, which continue to mould their lives. For some it would have been the Spanish Civil War, for others, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the Miners' strike. Various wars will be foremost for some, or maybe the rise of Feminism.
For those of Brother Ivo's years, the life-forming events were unquestionably those of the Civil Rights movement, which is why the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have a Dream" speech will produce a full range of reminiscences and interpretations, not least because many of those who shape the media agenda will be of that same generation.
We shall be told what it means by those who were not there, or of those times and the battle to frame the narrative will doubtless deform Dr King's legacy. If the commentators are not anchoring their interpretation of the speech in Christian witness, do not believe them.
If you have never heard the speech in its entirety, or have not heard it for some time, it richly repays the 10 short minutes it takes to listen to it (HERE).
It still brings a tear to the eye.
Brother Ivo's youth was punctuated, appropriately enough, with black-and-white images from America's Deep South in newspapers and on television. He saw the dignified peaceful demonstrations of soberly dressed black men walking with sandwich boards declaring simply "I am a man".
He watched the police riot on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma Alabama, and those images and the peaceful responses to them have proved highly influential throughout his life. Politically and personally the lessons of those times became foundational.
This is not to say that he is uncritical of Dr King who had his human failings, as do we all, yet this is not the time to dwell on those. He was an important moral leader and he should be studied and honoured for that.
Brother Ivo's long standing respect led him to Atlanta Georgia, to Dr King's grave, home, and the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he ministered. For his 50th birthday, he travelled the Deep South visiting and worshipping with the Dexter Ave Church from which the Montgomery bus boycott was organised. It stands in the shadow of the Alabama State Capitol building and was constructed with bricks discarded from the construction of the road leading up to it. There is much symbolism in that.
He stayed with a retired priest who told of leading a Montgomery church in those days where the congregation was split equally between segregationists and integrationists. This gave meaning to Dr King's insistence that segregation held black and white alike in bondage and put it in human context.
The Dexter Ave Church is not at all that one might expect for such a radical powerhouse. The gospel was preached without politics. The gentlemen all wore dark suits; the ladies wore hats and white lace gloves. Each child was well behaved and in his/her Sunday best. One could have been in Worcester circa 1955.
When Brother Ivo first visited to find the times of services, he witnessed a remarkable illustration of the true nature of Dr King's legacy, if properly understood. Below the church is a mural commemorating inspirational figures of the Civil Rights movement.
As he looked at this, the church secretary arrived and began explaining its symbolism to a young group of mainly black schoolchildren who were visiting from out of town. She asked if any of them truanted from school, and when some of them admitted to it, she suddenly rounded passionately on them. Did they not realise, she insisted, that they were betraying Dr King's legacy?
"You all want a $1000 suit and $400 trainers," she said. "But what if you have them, but have no education? You're just a dummy walking around in a $1000 dollar suit and $400 trainers!"
Dr King would surely have approved. His father had brought him up with highly conservative values within Atlanta's black middle class: from his earliest years he had urged his son to get himself "an education, a mortgage and a vote".
If one listens to the speech, its only sense of entitlement is an entitlement to a fair participation within civic society. Not only is it steeped in the Exodus narrative, but also plainly rooted in Christian ideas of justice, peace, judgement and redemption - even of one's enemies. MLK's dream is to see the fulfilment of the promise for all people which was set forth in the US Constitution by those who knew that those ideals embodied the promises of our Creator God.
The pursuit of happiness is promised; the automatic achievement of it is not. MLK specifically values the good character of a person, and accepts that our characters can and should be judged. There is no compromised cultural relativism here. He insists upon good order and self discipline the better to win over his opponents.
There is so much paradox in Dr King's legacy today. Many of those celebrating his speech will have departed from his Christian witness and taken the path of polarisation, confrontation and disrespect. Conversely, though he never lived to see it, some of his fiercest opponents lived to change their hearts and minds - notably Governor George Wallace who toured the South to express open repentance of his defence of segregation. The Rev'd Jesse Jackson subsequently met with Gov Wallace and has publicly acknowledged his repentance (see HERE, 28mins in).
The key to such redemption is to be found within the "I Have a Dream" speech itself.
Where the conservative Dr King differed from subsequent leaders was in his profound understanding that the way to resolve conflict lay in locating what was good in his opponent. He treasured the US Constitution and made white America live up to its - and their - values. He used what was good about his opponent to reform where he was lacking.
When he wrote that "a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a moulder of consensus", he identified a critical attribute of leadership - one frequently missing in today's polarised politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Those who seek to gain and retain power by triangulating voting blocs - the better to force through their policies with a majority of one - are the antithesis of Dr King's brand of leadership, which sought to find common ground and community of interest. Often this was discovered within a biblical frame of reference.
Dr King insisted on non-violence for both moral and practical reasons. It preserved the possibility of moulding consensus, and that necessarily implies engagement with and adapting to an opponent's legitimate fears and interests. He believed that all our futures depended upon harnessing the good rather than unleashing the evil.
Because the speech is so iconic, it is too easily and cheaply referenced. It was the speech which broke segregation in its formal sense, but its deeply religious methodology has been overlooked in the admiration of its rhetoric and the tragic fact that Dr King perished soon afterwards.
The methodology lived on, however, in the witness and ministry of Dr King's father, 'Daddy King', who was, if anything, the finer man. His autobiography is warmly recommended.
At the end of his life, with both his son and wife murdered, he was able to demonstrate where his more famous son received and grasped the blessing of Christian witness and faith. He wrote:
There are two men I am supposed to hate. One is white the other is black, and both are serving time for having committed murder. James Earl Ray is a prisoner in Tennessee, charged with killing my son. Marcus Chenault was institutionalised as deranged after shooting my wife to death. I don't hate either one.There is no time for that and no reason either. Nothing that a man does takes him lower than when he allows himself to fall so far as to hate anyone. Hatred is not needed to stamp out evil, despite what some people have been taught. People can accomplish all things God wills in this world, hate cannot.It is America's deep tragedy that 50 years after this great and moving summary of how it can achieve greatness, its first black president does not come from this deep and powerful Christian tradition. The dreams of Barack Obama's father and his community-organiser son seem to fall significantly short of these two powerhouses of Christian witness. With a strong foundation of Christian faith, great things were achieved nationally and personally by the Kings - father and son.
If we achieved a victory in the South it was over inhumanity. When the evil heart of segregation could beat no more it was because it had been stopped by people who did not counsel violence, who did not brutalise and bomb, who never sought to take away any part of anyone else's identity as a human being. These things triumphed over the exaggerated power of hatred. And so what part would any man who knew this choose to travel? Hatred did not win. I prefer to share triumph.
As America ponders how to reclaim its role in the world with all the vile hatred spilling out of the Middle East, it could do a lot worse than go back to that speech again and start asking some basic questions:
What made this so great? Where did that wellspring of wisdom come from? Where can we go to refresh ourselves and replenish our hope?
With the answers, the dream may be revived.
Brother Ivo is the Patron Saint of lawyers.