Folks Are Still Trying to Kill the Dream. We Have to Keep Marching

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the two or three most amazing persons of my first 68 years. I am glad we have a holiday to honor him.

I just wish we followed him more closely. He gave us useful and powerful guides to how we, as a nation, should structure our society and live our corporate life.

So often, however, people demonstrate that they never really heard him, or perhaps it is better say that they never really listened.

photo from

People focus on “the speech,” understandably. The closing compares, very favorably, in its powerful evocation of our national ideals with the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence and the entirety of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and the closing of his Second Inaugural. If you add Franklin Roosevelt’s “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” and John Kennedy’s “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” you probably have the list of the most iconic political writing and speaking in our national history.

But King was so much more than a speech. And he had more than a dream.

He saw way beyond his moment to a vision of a United States that was truly free–free from all the petty delusions and ugly divisions that continue to drag us down.

In his cadences, and in his denunciation of discrimination and war and the causes of poverty, I always think of  the prophet Isaiah. He could cut right to the quick of what was wrong, and point out how it got that way.

But more than a critic, he was a builder. He really wanted peace. And he knew the path to peace goes through justice.

Martin-Luther-King-Jr- Sitck with love
photo from

The lack of civil rights, the wrong of the war in Vietnam, the poor treatment of sanitation workers and other workers, public and private, were actually all of of a piece for him. Injustice–i.e., dealing with people not as people but as objects, not as siblings in the family of God but as items to be judged and, in too many cases, tossed aside as unworthy and irrelevant–anywhere means injustice everywhere, and that leads to discontent and unrest and a lack of peace.

Shalom. The Hebrew word usually translated as “peace,” was actually what King saw, and he knew that it means so much more than the absence of war. It means completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, safety, soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, rest, harmony, the absence of agitation or discord–for all.

State Senator Dick Black photo from
State Senator Dick Black (photo from

As I write this, the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia is considering bills to deny in-state tuition for college students who were brought to this country illegally, while children, by their parents. These students have graduated from Virginia high schools and been admitted to Virginia colleges, and are paying tuition and keeping up their grades. But some, including Sen. Dick Black, want to turn them away, tell them they are not welcome in Virginia.

Can you imagine how Dr. King would respond?

I can’t write the way he did, or speak the way he did, but I suspect his oratory would soar as he talked about killing the dream–how when we kill the dream for some we deny the dream for all of us.

He knew that we are all in this together, and that raising folks up who are struggling against unjust barriers raises us all. We are all better when more of us are doing better. When we live on the basis of love, on the ground of generosity, on the health of hope, we help all to thrive.

And he knew, as so many of us but not all, know, that if it feels like discrimination, if it smells like injustice, if it holds some back while others get to forward smoothly, then it needs to be stopped or changed.

Some folks are still trying to kill the dream, to stop the vision. But even the assassin’s bullet can’t stop the movement of justice and peace. Dr. King, like Isaiah and so many others, knew that God calls us to stand up for justice, without end.

MLK and Heschel and Torah and Abernathy
Rabbi Abraham Joshual Heschel (left), Dr. King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and others marching (photo from

And that means we have to live in love.

It means the rest of us have to pick up the sign and march, get on our knees and pray, get out our pens and write letters, and gather our friends, family, neighbors, and fellow citizens and congregants everywhere and keep on organizing, and agitating–with joy and hope in our hearts and love on our lips.

Count me an agitator for justice and peace, an “angelic troublemaker,” in the words of Bayard Rustin. I know who my drum major is; I am marching with Dr. King. How about you?

A Cacophony of Days

It’s a busy day in Virginia . . . . well, for some people at least.

State employees are on holiday today and on Monday, too, so they may be less busy than usual. The reason state offices are closed: Lee-Jackson Day today, and Martin Luther King Day on Monday.

And today is another special day, too: Religious Freedom Day. Nobody gets that day off.

religious freedom whould work two ways -- John IrvingThe confluence of these three days feels rather amazing, and confusing, to me. I am feeling out of sorts about some of this, and not sure what to say. But here are a few observations.

Some folks are celebrating Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, two Virginia-born heroes of the Confederate forces in the Civil Wars–you know, that war that was about whether a major share of the country should be allowed to continue enslaving people–while on Monday, some folks–probably not the same ones–will be celebrating the birthday of the man who had more to do with ending the legalized oppression, Jim Crow and segregation, which was the aftermath of that slavery, than just about anybody else.

And then there is religious freedom.

Robert E. Lee by Robert Wilson
Robert E. Lee by Robert Wilson

What many who came here from religiously oppressive Europe wanted–to practice their religion their way, and what many of those of the dominant religious tradition did not want to share with others who believed differently (or did not believe at all).

Freedom. What the slaves wanted and the planters feared. And what Generals Lee and Jackson, and a host of other generals and leaders and plenty of ordinary folk fought to preseve: enslaved Africans making profit for their masters. Note: to his credit, before the Civil War, Stonewall Jackson taught free and enslaved Africans how to read the Bible, even though it was against the law to teach slaves to read.

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale

Two of the planters who opposed freedom for Africans were the architects of religious freedom in Virginia, and thus, in the nation. Jefferson and Madison authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom which ended the religious monopoly of the Anglican (Episcopal) Church in Virginia and which became the model for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. We owe them an enormous debt. People became free to exercise their consciences, including to not believe in any deity or religion. That was, and is, a big deal.

Sadly, however, these architects of freeing consciences were not the architects of freeing bodies. So, as we celebrate them and their achievement in one area, we are reminded of their failure in another.

Martin Luther King equality poster by MalteBlom
Martin Luther King Equality poster by MalteBlom

And every year, when the state persists in honoring those who fought their own nation to preserve the enslavement of others we are reminded of our painful heritage. Some don’t see the pain–then or now. If you go to the City of Lexington today and tomorrow, you can participate in a well-planned celebration of Lee (he lived there after what the local organizers call “The War Between the States” and built up what is now Washington and Lee University) and Jackson (who lived there before the same war)–scholarly talks and a buffet lunch and dance, and a parade, too.

I love Virginia. It is simply a grand place to live and work. I could spend the rest of my life here, happily.

But I also must say we remain a badly fractured people. I live in Richmond, and the divide between it, with its large African-American population, and the surrounding counties, far more white, is stark. Poverty rates, HIV infection rates, joblessness, inadequate housing and homelessness–Richmond “wins” every time.

So, although we have much political freedom–although LGBT Virginians still suffer legal discrimination–we need social and economic freedom.

Its time to stop glorifying Lee and Jackson–and the Confederacy generally. Its time to admit that every time this is done, African Americans feel the injury. It is our history, so we need to study it and learn from it, but we need not be proud.

James Madison by Everett
James Madison by Everett

Lee-Jackson Day is now the Friday before Martin Luther King Day. Thank goodness we no longer observe Lee-Jackson-King Day!

If we must have this observance, perhaps we should keep state government open and ask all departments to use the day to inventory and publish how they help and/or hinder the progress of African-Americans. They could have open houses to showcase their findings.

Stonewall Jackson by Ken Hendricksen
Stonewall Jackson by Ken Hendricksen

The Governor could go to Shockoe Bottom in Richmond–he could take the Mayor with him–and participate in a prayer vigil of remembrance and repentance for all the slaves sold (and the ones who died) at Lumpkin’s Jail.

And maybe, in a burst of religious openness and freedom, Christians and Jews and Muslims could visit the houses of worship of each other, to learn something about the faith that is not their own. They could even go to meetings organized by atheists to learn more about why so many don’t believe any more.

I don’t have great answers, but I do know this: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Lee and Jackson did not understand that, nor did Jefferson and Madison. Dr. King did.

And if you read him, as I do, you understand that it was his faith in a God of love that provided the base for that belief. And he knew that God was not a Christian God. And he knew that sometimes those who do not believe in God were better allies for freedom than those who do.

That’s what we need to celebrate, and work for: ending a world overrun with injustice, creating a world filled with justice, a world where whether you believe in God or not, all are treated as the beloved of God.

Marriage Equality, YES! White Supremacy, NO!

2014-calendar-2As we take down one calendar in order to put up the new one (if you are still using a paper calendar, as we do in our kitchen) or learn to write a new year on checks (if you still use a checkbook with paper checks)–or simply notice that the annual cycle of birthdays and holidays begins again on your phone and/or other device–it is right to pause.

What about this year 2014? Did anything good happen? What about the other stuff? Will we do better in 2015?2015 Calendar

In terms of my work and my personal life, the amazing string of victories for marriage equality (not “gay marriage”) in Virginia and many other places ranks at the top. This has been an amazing year. Incredible. Simply incredible. Who would have guessed on February 4, when a small knot of us braved bitter cold to stand across the street from the Federal District Courthouse in Norfolk to support the plaintiffs and Norfolk courthouse witness Feb 4 2014their lawyers and Attorney General Mark Herring in the suit to bring down the Anti-Marriage, Anti-Love, Marshall-Newman Amendment that eight short months later, on October 6, victory (for marriage, but not other freedoms) would be complete?

And there were many other good things, too, and some personal ones, too (our youngest daughter, Robin, married Christopher–a match made in heaven, e.g.).  I hope that you had some good news, too!

Much that is not good happened, too. Wars continued, and famine wiped out children and families, and preventable disease injured and killed too many. And many, perhaps most, of us lost friends and family, too. Christopher and Robin wedding photo

But in my book, the saddest–and ugliest–story of the year is the continuing failure of our society (our nation and our state) to deal with white racism (what I prefer to call white supremacy).  We will never become the society we can be, the community God creates and calls us to be, until we finally really deal with the deep and pervasive stain on our individual and collective identities.

Why do I say this? Here are a few signs of the times, in addition to not being able to talk in a civil and reasoned way about, and really deal with, the killing of too many black men and boys by too many public safety officers. How about outrageously high incarceration rates (the highest in the world by many counts) that are particularly harsh on African American men? Or this: Black women (and poor women generally, among whom Black women are disproportionately present) have the highest rates of HIV infection. Or this: income inequality, already significant, continues to rise between white people and all others in the United States. Or this: new studies showing that charter schools, supposed to help our ailing public education system, are in many cases re-segregating our schools–60 years after Brown vs. Board of Education.

APTOPIX Police Shooting MissouriAnd here’s another interesting situation. Many people now expect President Obama, our first Black President since George Washington was inaugurated in 1789–and he, the (rightly, in many ways) revered Father of Our Country, owned slaves–to lead a national dialogue on race. Once again, “we” expect the Black people to do the work.

Sure, it is a good sign that as a nation we finally elected a Black man–and maybe we will finally elect a woman, a white woman, no doubt, soon–but way too many of our fellow citizens remain hostile to him at least as much, and in many cases more, as they oppose his policies (and some of them are unable to sort this out because he is the policy in their view).

But it is not the skin color of our President that matters as much as the skin color of those who really run so much in our culture–the corporate leaders anobama_portrait_146pxd politicians at all levels and the judges and the opinion makers and media moguls and billionaires and others who make decisions that touch millions every day in so many ways. Together, this white-dominated group, I think unconsciously most of the time, seems to make sure that white people are not displaced from our dominant rung on the social ladder (and some of them actually do things to change this).

Unconscious or not, most of the time white supremacy just keeps being replicated, even as more Black people and other people of other colors do make it up the ladder.

But the basic system remains in place.

Here is a simple test: when you, if you identify as a white person, describe someone you just met, or a person you just heard about on the news or internet, do you mention their skin color? Do you do that equally for both white and Black, or other, group (Native American, Latino/Latina, Asian, African) members?

Be honest.

Most of us who are white only mention race when it is someone not white. That is what white supremacy, in a seemingly mild way, looks like. Race only matters when it is not ours.

If that is not true of you, Hallelujah! You are helping the rest of us move forward. But if you are like most, do not despair. We can fix this, and so much more. We can be untrained and retrained, especially if we do it together, and we hold ourselves accountable not only to each other but also to the Black people in our lives and in our wider society.

Israel and November in Richmond 033Over the course of the coming years, I will write more about this, and I hope it may help at least some people begin participating in a national process of dismantling racism and reconstructing a new society (and I deliberately use the term, RECONSTRUCT, to highlight the last time we had white leaders who were determined to change us, in the era known as Reconstruction, from 1865-1877).

In the meantime, let us pray for healing, and let us begin it by admitting our personal share in the national wounds.

All lives matter. Yours and mine, of course, and everyone else. And that means Black lives matter, because they are human, of course, and because they are Black.