Faces on Faith: The work goes on
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was there that Martin Luther King, Jr. made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
King was born in Atlanta, Ga., on Jan. 15, 1929. His father was a Baptist preacher, so too were his grandfather and great-grandfather. Although King himself escaped some of the worst prejudice of the 1930s, his childhood included many incidents of blatant racism.
In his autobiography, King relates a number of stories of such encounters. He attended a segregated school, watched movies in a segregated theater, and went to the bathroom in segregated restrooms.
His father, who was enlisted in the fight against segregation long before King was born, proved a great influence on young Martin. King writes: “I remember riding with (my father one) … day when he accidentally drove past a stop sign. A policeman pulled up to the car and said: ‘All right boy, pull over and let me see your license.’ My father replied indignantly, ‘I’m no boy.’ Then pointing to me, ‘This is a boy, and until you call me one, I will not listen to you.’ The policeman was so shocked that he wrote the ticket nervously and left the scene as quickly as possible.'” (The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, 421)
Twenty years later, Martin, Jr., was serving as pastor of the Montgomery, Ala., Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. In a classic example of being the right person at the right time, King was thrust into the role of spokesperson for the local civil rights group, the Montgomery Improvement Association. There King helped orchestrate one of the first successful non violent protests, the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott.
From there, King went on to lead the civil rights movement. Over the course of the decade which followed the Montgomery boycott, King and his followers would help dismantle the system of segregation his father had rejected years before.
By and large the civil rights movement was successful in its attempts to end the official sanctioning of racial segregation. Important federal statutes including the 1968 Civil Rights Act ordering open housing were made the law of the land. These reinforced the basic premise of the civil rights movement that the inalienable rights spoken of in the Declaration if Independence should be made available to one and all, regardless of race or creed.
Tday, because of these and other laws, it is illegal to discriminate in such matters as housing, employment and education.
The temptation is to sit back and rest on our laurels. The temptation is to say we’ve arrived – we’re there – ours is a society which promotes integration and punishes prejudicial behavior. That would not only be a mistake, it would be unfaithful. For though the laws have changed, many of the behavior patterns have not.
Today while the laws have changed, most Americans still live in segregated communities. Most Americans still go to what amount to segregated schools. Most Americans still worship in segregated churches and synagogues and mosques. The work is not over.
On this anniversary, we must recommit ourselves to the basic American notion of liberty and justice for all. For all.