I was honored to speak at the Greenville College Martin Luther King Day/Inauguration celebration that preceded the televised inauguration. Lloyd Nicks sang (beautifully!); Michael Carlisle read excerpts from the “I Have a Dream” speech (powerfully!). We are going to miss those two seniors next year. I shared the following remarks:
2013 marks an important year for us to remember where we come from. On January 1, 150 years ago, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. On August 27, 1963, 50 years ago, an estimated 250,000 people gathered at Lincoln’s massive feet at the Lincoln Memorial to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver what became his most famous speech, which Michael so powerfully shared. So, today, as we celebrate two things – a commemoration of Dr. King’s life and the second inauguration of our first African American president, I want to think about how the past can help us reflect on this day and the future. As I look at these events, I see some themes, and those are first, that great faith brings about unbelievable change in this world and second, that God’s love is an irresistible force.
I want to start out by thinking about the Emancipation Proclamation. Today, people downplay the importance of this document. It didn’t free any slaves who were held in states that were loyal to the Union, and it freed only slaves that were in states that were in rebellion against the United States. Many have analyzed and critiqued President Lincoln’s motives for issuing the proclamation, pointing out the fact that international relations, along with political and military motives drove his decision. But as an historian who studies this era of history, I think we underestimate the powerful effect the Emancipation Proclamation had on the nation. I want to read to you an account of what happened in Boston on that New Year’s Day in 1863, as Bostonians awaited word that Lincoln had signed the Proclamation: (I’m quoting this from information compiled by the state of Massachusetts for the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. It can be found on their website.)
“On January 1, 1863, all of Boston waited to hear that Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Many of Boston’s abolitionists met at Tremont Temple—the oldest integrated church in the country—looking forward to news they had waited a lifetime to hear. The crowd of 3000 included Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison [and other abolitionists whose names you may not recognize – this was an integrated group]. By early evening, there was still no word and the hall was filled with great anxiety. The Lowell Times reported that Judge Thomas Russell went to the offices of the Boston Journal to confirm that the Proclamation had been signed. The news had just arrived over the telegraph, and he asked if he could take the dispatches to Tremont Temple for just fifteen minutes. According to the Times, when Russell was told he couldn’t take them, he grabbed the papers and ran to the waiting crowd, with the night editor on his heels.
As the Emancipation Proclamation was read at Tremont Temple—its first Boston reading—great jubilation filled the hall. According to an eyewitness account, ‘A thrill shot through the crowd; the enthusiasm was intense. The people seemed almost wild with delight. It is the dawning of a New Day!’ William Lloyd Garrison called it ‘a great historic event, sublime in its magnitude, momentous and beneficent in its far-reaching consequences.’ According to Frederick Douglass, it was a ‘worthy celebration of the first step on the part of the nation in its departure from the thraldom of the ages.’ [Thralldom means bondage or slavery.]
The crowd celebrated until midnight and then moved the party to the Twelfth Baptist Church, where they celebrated until dawn the following morning.” (http://www.ma150.org/day-by-day/1863-01-01/first-boston-reading-emancipation-proclamation)
Tremont Temple (http://www.tremonttemple.org/node/82)
I want you to take two things from this description – first, remember that (besides those enslaved themselves and their loved ones), these were people who perhaps cared the most about the freedom of slaves. Some of these people had been imprisoned; their homes and property had been destroyed, and their reputations ruined. They had given every ounce of their energy to the cause of freedom. THEY interpreted the proclamation as a momentous turning point for the nation. That’s important for us to remember. They experienced this event as a mighty force for good that was sweeping across the nation. Second, I want you to take note of where these celebrations took place – in churches. Both of these churches (Tremont Temple and Boston’s Twelfth Baptist Church) were sites of integrated radical abolitionist efforts.
The Christian faith is interwoven throughout the story of the abolition of slavery. While not all churches opposed slavery, people who opposed slavery were most often grounded in a faith perspective that informed their position on slavery. Many of these abolitionists rejected the traditional American Christian church because it maintained the status quo and accepted slavery, but they held on to their faith in a God who is perfectly just. Further, many of those who were enslaved embraced the hope of the Christian faith. They had faith in a God who had led the Israelites out of Egypt’s bondage, and they believed that God would also lead them to freedom. Great faith brings about unbelievable change.
Photo credit: AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: ‘Citizen King’
Similarly, an understanding that America needed to turn from bigoted, racist and unjust practices came through a messenger, Martin Luther King, Jr., who communicated these ideas through a vocabulary of faith. The ideas of God’s justice and God’s love for all laid a foundation for what became the 20th Century civil rights movement. On August 29, 1963, the day after the March on Washington, the New York Times published this report that was written by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist James Reston. This secular journalist interpreted the power of King’s speech as deriving from its grounding in a faith that cherishes justice and provides a powerful rationale for liberty:
“Dr. King brought [the crowd] alive in the late afternoon with a [speech] that was an anguished echo from all the old American reformers. Roger Williams calling for religious liberty, Sam Adams calling for political liberty, old man Thoreau denouncing coercion, William Lloyd Garrison demanding emancipation and Eugene V. Debs crying for economic equality – Dr. King echoed them all. ‘I have a dream,’ he cried again and again. And each time the dream was a promise out of our ancient articles of faith: phrases from the Constitution, lines from the great anthem of the nation, guarantees from the Bill of Rights, all ending with a vision that they might one day all come true. Dr. King touched all the themes of the day, only better than anybody else. He was full of the symbolism of Lincoln and Gandhi, and the cadences of the Bible. He was both militant and sad, and he sent the crowd away feeling that the long journey had been worthwhile. This demonstration impressed political Washington because it combined a number of things no politician can ignore. It had the force of numbers. It had the melodies of both the church and the theater. And it was able to invoke the principles of the founding fathers to rebuke the inequalities and hypocrisies of modern American life. (James Reston, ‘I Have a Dream . . .,’ New York Times, August 29, 1963.)
As Reston tries to explain the breadth and reach of the March on Washington and of the “I Have a Dream” speech, I think he’s trying to explain the irresistible force of God’s love that is in every appeal for justice.
I want to use this interpretation to allow us to reflect on this day, today, and on our future as a nation. Inauguration days are celebrations that bring to light characteristics that are unique to America. Few other countries in the world revere their founding documents to the extent that Americans do, and this allows us to have a peaceful exchange of power, even when the country is deeply divided on issues. Increasingly over the life of the nation, Americans have come to appreciate and embrace the rule of law, rather than use forms of vigilante justice. On inauguration days, no matter whether people agree with whoever is taking office or not, we join in a celebration about who we are as a people and about the values we hold in common. If you go back 150 years to 1863 or even 50 years to 1963, no one would have imagined that in 2009 and again in 2013, an African American person would be President of the United States. No matter your politics, there is no denying the historic importance of this fact, and it does mean that in some important and profound ways our nation has changed.
I’m not so naïve as to think that today is a giant “kum-ba-yah” moment, or that people, in general, are interested in our following a path of faith as a nation. In fact, latest reports show that many young people deny having any religious convictions and admit to taking a deeply secularized approach to life. But let’s return to the premise I began with – change requires great faith and God’s love is an irresistible force. Because I believe so deeply in these truths, I think we live in a moment of great opportunity. We may not all share the same political views, but I think we can all agree on the fact that human trafficking needs to end; we all know that we need to assist the poor, help the widow and the orphan. We need to care for those in the world who are oppressed. As we step into whatever opportunity to serve that God gives us, and exercise our faith, we will also activate the remarkable and irresistible love of Jesus. When that happens, in big and small ways we will all participate in changing the course of history.