As I awakened on yet another Martin Luther King Day, a day of commemorating the life and legacy of the man who most clearly is the face of the American Civil Rights Movement, I cannot help but reflect on a question that I asked of an M.L.K. scholar who was a guest instructor in one of my seminary classes. If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, would he be satisfied with the progress toward the fulfilment of his dream? His answer of “no” was not a surprise.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and early 1960s was the catalyst for new legislation intended to eradicate the institutionalized injustices still experienced by African Americans. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King gave his most celebrated challenge to the blatant racism that existed within American society. His speech entitled I Have a Dream, created for millions of Americans a vision of an America rid of injustices and racism. He addressed many of the inequalities that would be outlawed the following year in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
I am not a Civil Rights law scholar and I am open to persuasion that more legislation is necessary to fulfil the just world of which Dr. King spoke. However, dare I suggest that there already exists an adequate legislative framework to ensure that his dream can be fulfilled, if laws alone could ensure such fulfillment? Today, more than a half century after the enactment of the landmark Civil Rights legislation, it is widely recognized that despite the legal framework there is still a mighty struggle to eradicate injustice on a variety of levels.
One of the lesser discussed admonitions from Dr. King’s address on that historic day, was his belief that change must not be a gradual process. “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” was his statement that indicated his desire for justice to prevail quickly. Yet, after an initial surge in the mid-sixties where the most visible signs of racism were outlawed, the reality of gradualism set in. Legislative action provided seeds from which equality could grow, yet absent were the tools, water, and fertilizer to ensure that the seeds reached their full potential.
Dr. King certainly knew that his dream could not be fulfilled through legislation alone. It is evident by his life, words, and writings that he understood this to be a heart and soul issue. Laws can establish the rules and arbitrators for the game, yet they cannot address the attitudes and intentions of its participants. If persons who have “been seared in the flames of injustice” will ever be able to “cash a check on the promissory note of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence,” America must address the issue of the heart; the place in which seeds of prejudice and hatred flourish.
Preachers must preach, and teachers must teach that every human being is God’s creation, irrespective of how different they appear. Churches must be places in which hearts are changed and wrong attitudes challenged. Schools must be places in which students are guided to an understanding of fairness and where a commitment to justice is embedded deep within their hearts and souls.
I agree with Dr. King’s exhortation from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that August day when he proclaimed, “again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” I believe that soul force is ultimately what can prevail. Thank God for our legislative leaders who were willing to provide a legal framework in which justice can be defined, yet it is now the responsibility of spiritual and educational leaders to pursue in unison a strategy that will fuel the cause of justice for our world.
Although the answer to my question was “no,” I believe that Dr. King’s Dream can still be realized. Although it has been a long gradual road toward fulfilment, the Dream is still within grasp. The words of Dr. King ring as true today as they did in 1963, “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”