It is appropriate that we as a nation pause and reflect upon the life and legacy of one of the greatest leaders that has ever graced our public and religious stages who was born on Jan. 15, during a period when we were deeply divided as a nation by race.
As a child he would be denied entrance to a local amusement venue because blacks simply were not allowed. It was an early memory that would shape his views about justice and fairness.
Over the years I have read extensively about this man whom we now honor in the majority of our cities and communities. Most of us remember the speech that he delivered in August 1963 in which he articulated his great dream.
It is a powerful speech and every time I hear it I am moved in deep and profound ways. But it was a dream that he and so many others had to fight for, and so many who fought also lost their lives. A few years ago we were privileged to lead a group of 30 young people from Cross Lutheran Church and the community on the historical civil rights tour.
One of the places we visited was Selma, Ala., a key city in the fight for voting rights. We made that trip in late July. We walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the hottest day of this two-week trip much to the chagrin of our youthful charges. I remember stopping on the bridge and talking to them about the significance of this bridge and what happened on March 7, 1965, when 500 citizens started out on their way to Montgomery to advocate that voting rights be extended to African American people.
That first march was not successful. The marchers were viciously beaten back by Southern law enforcement. The beatings and the injuries were so severe that that Sunday came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” Three weeks later when the march resumed, one of the leaders was Martin Luther King Jr.
The long trek from Selma to Montgomery was made by 3,200 local residents escorted by 1,900 National Guardsmen and federal agents. Once they reached Montgomery they were joined by 25,000 people from across the country.
Sometimes when I look at the struggle for racial equality and justice in this country I think of the great courage of people like King and his associates but also the great courage exercised by ordinary men, women and children, and I am mindful that the freedoms that I take for granted came at a tremendous price.
After sharing this brief history with our youth we continued across that bridge. The blistering heat had been forgotten. Their objections had been replaced with the weight of history and the awareness of the awesome price that their ancestors’ courage had exacted on their behalf and for those who would come after them.
I hope as we pause to remember, to honor and to give thanks for this servant that all Americans, of every religious persuasion, would join in this time. While the struggle that King waged began in a particular time and with a particular people, the ultimate fight for human dignity and justice had, and still has, global and universal implications.
He said in that 1963 speech standing before the statue of Abraham Lincoln, “I have a dream that one day we will be judged by the content of our character rather than by the color of our skin.” I’m reminded whenever I hear or read those words that this was not merely a nice sounding phrase. King was speaking a truth, an ugly truth that did not match the dream. He would go to his death with that vision still the centerpiece of his work. He died before he could see any real evidence of this kind of change. But this is where you and I come in.
King would spend his final days working on behalf of garbage workers who were being taken advantage of economically. When he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet he was preparing to lead a second march on Washington that would dramatize the nation’s most pressing problem in 1968, that of poverty.
In 2013 poverty has grown worse. A fitting way to honor his legacy is to commit to volunteer in a soup kitchen or deliver meals to a senior. But go beyond that — look for an organization in your community that is committed to eliminating those things that contribute to poverty. Search out and support those non-profits including faith communities that are involved in helping to get jobs for those who are the most difficult to employ.
Finally, set aside some time to read about this very real, flesh-and-blood man who struggled with his own personal demons, but God used him to lead a movement that changed this country for the better.
Here are a couple of my favorites:
“The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr.” edited by Clayborne Carson
“Parting the Waters” and “At Canaan’s Edge” by Taylor Branch
Ken Wheeler is a retired pastor. He most recently served at Cross Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Milwaukee, where he is now the director of the Bread of Healing Empowerment Ministry. He served 18 years as an assistant to the bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the ELCA.