Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Dreamer and the Movement

A Reflection on Martin Luther King Day Celebrations in Birmingham, Alabama

They said one to another, “Behold, here cometh the dreamer. Let us slay him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”
                                                                                     Genesis 37:19-20

A Day of Remembrance

I spent last Sunday and Monday attending special events in Birmingham in celebration of Martin Luther King Day. On Monday morning there was the 31st annual Unity Breakfast held at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention  Complex where we heard from elder statesmen of the movement and sat with some of the early “foot soldiers,” now gray-haired and some with bodies that were slowed and bowed down.

Photo by Cody Owens, Weld for Birmingham 
At noontime, I walked in the “Traditional March” where hundreds of people gathered at City Hall to march to  Kelly Ingram Park. Back in the early 1960s, Dr. King organized marchers in Kelly Ingram Park to march in protest on City Hall. Now that an African American has held the office of mayor of Birmingham since 1979, the Traditional March is done in reverse, beginning at City Hall and ending at Kelly Ingram Park.

It was a moving experience to place myself at the epicenter of so much civil rights history, surrounded by people who have been involved in the struggle for justice, freedom and equality. The most inspiring moment for me came with Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s speech Sunday afternoon at 16th Street Baptist Church. 

A Big Day at 16th Street Baptist Church

I had arrived an hour early hoping to get a good seat, only to find that most people had the same idea. There was already a line on the steep front steps of the church. As I entered, I was directed along with the crowd to the balcony where the remaining seats were available. After navigating the steep winding stairs (these old buildings we made for the able-bodied!) I took a back seat along the side of the balcony. Later there would be people standing along the back wall.

Inside the church there was a diverse crowd of white, black, even some Asian and Hispanic in attendance. I looked about and spotted Doug Jones below in the main sanctuary. Jones is the attorney who successfully prosecuted two of the suspects in the 16th Street Church bombing some 40 years after the attack in 1963.  There were, of course network TV cameras stationed unobtrusively in the back.

The event at 16th Street Baptist Church was Ms. Lynch’s final speech as Attorney General of the United States.  Set at the historic church, the event unfolded as a traditional church service. The beautiful organ began to sound out chords more lively that might be expected in churches frequented by more staid Caucasian churchgoers. The Black church experience has always been played out on a different level. They have a long tradition of knowing that even when the body is in bondage, the spirit can soar. The choir sang the call to worship and their voices filled the sanctuary as only a black mass choir can.

An opening prayer was shouted out proclaiming that though our destination is Heaven, our task in the meantime is to make a better world.  The opening scripture was a prophetic passage from Micah chapter 6 which declares in verse 8, “He has shown thee, O man what is good, and what doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”  

Four Spirits Sculpture, Kelly Ingram Park
(WBRC photo by Melyndo Sides)
Then there were presentations by dignitaries including Mayor William Bell and congresswoman Terri Sewell. The big excitement for the city was President Obama’s proclamation a few days earlier declaring the civil rights district of Birmingham a National Monument, thus making it part of the National Park Service. The sites of the new national monument include 16th Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, and the A.G. Gaston Motel.

When the time came to pass the offering plate (the pastor, Rev. Arthur Price, Jr. said, After all, this is a Baptist Church) the choir sang, If it had not been for the Lord on my side, where would I be? Where would I be? It was very moving to me just hearing that song sung in that place, especially in the context of a Martin Luther King Day celebration. After the choir had sung, the organ continued to play out the melody while some in the congregation began to joyfully sing the chorus. I could tell that it was a favorite among the congregation.

The Attorney General Speaks

Loretta Lynch at 16th St. Baptist Church (AP photo by Byrn Anderson)

When Attorney General Loretta Lynch stepped up to the pulpit, she was greeted warmly and her remarks were delivered warmly.  She held the audience's attention throughout and gave what I found to be the most important and inspiring speech given anywhere that weekend

Her message was one of hope grounded in the reality of the present day and founded upon the lessons of history. Ms. Lynch began her address acknowledging that 16th Street Baptist Church has not only borne witness to the progress of freedom in our history, it has also borne the costs of that progress.” There was the tragedy of the 1963 church bombing which took the lives of four little girls, yet the horrific news of that bombing awakened a nation and led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Ms. Lynch recounted the many areas of progress that the country has witnessed in the advancement of freedom and equality for so many. At the same time she noted that we continue to see acts of violence against people because of their race or religion and that the current administration has worked hard to prosecute hate crimes. Moreover, even with the Voting Rights Act, we have seen setbacks as with the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v Holder. In spite of that ruling, Ms Lynch told of how the Justice Department continues the fight in challenging state discriminatory laws in federal court.

Not a Cause for Despair

Ms. Lynch recounted many positive signs she has seen across the country of people organizing for good in spite of (and in response to) the waves of intolerance and injustice that continue to exist.  The lesson we draw from Dr. Martin Luther King, she said, is that adversity is not a cause for despair, it is a call to action.   

The Attorney General recounted the heights of the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington where Dr. King delivered his I Have a Dream speech, then pointed out that just three weeks later he came to Birmingham to give a very different speech to the people suffering grief and loss in the aftermath of the church bombing. That dream must have seemed much more fragile, she noted, than it did three weeks earlier at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Ms. Lynch reminded us, however, of Dr. King's words to the grief-stricken people that day: “We must not despair; we must not become bitter.” 

Plaque at Lorraine Hotel
(Photo by Michael Tersleff)
Lynch then told about the memorial at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, the site where Martin Luther King was assassinated. A marble plaque has been placed there bearing the inscription from Genesis 37:19-20: They said one to another, behold, here cometh the dreamer. Let us slay him and see what becomes of his dreams” The dream, of course, has continued, though she pointed out that today there is anxiety and fear that the dream may be lost.

She went on to say that it has never been easy, nor was it ever foreordained that we would have the gains that we see today. We are Americans and we have always pushed forward...the cause of justice is greater than any one of us. 

Where Dreams are Made

Knowing the unease and trepidation that so many are feeling as the swearing in of a new president approaches, Ms. Lynch closed her speech with words of further encouragement:

And if it comes to pass that we do enter a period of darkness, let us remember – that is when dreams are best made.  So let us see – what shall become of Dr. King’s dream?  The Lord has already wrought a miracle by bringing us this far, and “I don’t believe he brought me this far to leave me.”

What shall become of his dream?  We shall pick it up and carry it forward.  We will not shirk, we will not falter, we will not fail.

What shall become of his dream?  We shall take this newest monument and make it a testament not just to what happened before but to what we do today.

What shall become of his dream?  We will make it ours, and we will extend it as a bridge to all those who stand on the outside of democracy looking in. 

And when our time comes, we shall pass the dream on to those who are already raising their hand and to those yet to come.  So that the arc of the moral universe continues straight and true – continues towards justice.
She spoke the words that I so needed to hear. When the service closed, there were tears in my eyes. As I made my way out with the many who had gathered there, it was a weighty moment. In spite of the uncertainty ahead, there was a sense of hope. As I stood on the front steps of the church watching the crowd disperse, and older black lady came up to me and asked if I would take her picture in front of the church. She handed me her smart phone and I was glad to get her picture standing on the front steps. As I handed her phone camera back to her, I commented that this service was just what I needed. I have been in mourning,” I told her.

“We are all in mourning, she replied, “but we're gonna make it.   

*   *   *

(To read Attorney General Lynch's entire speech, go here)

16th Street Baptist Church
(Wikipedia photo)


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