Where Do We Go From Here–In Honor of Dr. King

The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., weekend is one of my favorite Sundays of the year. For as long as I have been preaching I have honored his birthday by preaching about some aspect of his life or teachings. I use it as an occasion to read, or re-read, his writings and usually quote him extensively in my sermons. Some years I include more of his words than my own. His words are just so good they deserve to be shared again. I do not honor him,though, just to remember what happened then, but to remind us what still needs to happen now.

Most every year I re-read King’s “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail.” While imprisoned for leading a civil rights demonstration King received an open letter from eight white liberal ministers calling on him to stop his civil disobedience and to let the courts and legislatures do their work to end segregation. In his letter King responds to his clergy brothers in a passionate and compassionate defense of his work. He also shares his frustration with the inactivity of the white moderate churches. “When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.”

A temptation of middle class life is to become satisfied with the way things are. I always ask myself, what would I have done if I were pastor of a comfortable white church in 1963? I know what I would like my answer to be, but I cannot honestly say. I do know that in 2012 I do not want to become so focused on my own life that I forget the needs of those around me. King’s writings never fail to expand my understanding of the world around me now, as I learn more about what his world was like then.

And, we still have a long way to go. Racial inequality today is not as stark as separate drinking fountains, but the long history of racism in the United States has left us with structural inequalities in almost every area of life: income, education, health care, and imprisonment. A recent report from the Urban League points out that, “…Blacks remain twice as likely to be unemployed, three times more likely to live in poverty and more than six times as likely to be imprisoned compared with whites.” And another study on education concluded that, “Black, Hispanic and Native American youths nationally stand just a 50-50 chance of graduating on time.”

There are many complicated reasons why it is so difficult to close the gaps of inequality in our country, but just because it is hard should be no excuse to stop trying. One of the many factors that leads to these inequalities is that our schools, over the past few decades, are becoming more segregated, not less. King’s dream that one day “…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” becomes less likely as there is less integration of neighborhoods. The more important problem, though, is not one of racial brotherhood and sisterhood, but that these segregated schools offer very different educational opportunities for their students.

You might assume that I celebrate King’s birthday a clergy colleague actually has a national holiday named after him. This is true, but the main reason is that I do not want to forget all that King did, and how much we still have to do.

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