January 16th, 2017
This weekend, we attended an interfaith service built around the words of Martin Luther King, Jr’s memory and words. It was by no means the first such service I attended but in some ways, it was the most poignant.
No, it wasn’t that the music or the biography or the “Mountain top” speech were all better than other years, although they were all high quality. Nor was it the particular location or group of people or service leaders, all fine, but not so unique that I would see the experience as more distinctive than other years.
But when the service ended with “We Shall Overcome” this year, I was overcome. Somehow I could not get the vivid memory of the day of Rev King’s assassination out of my mind. Remembering the tears, the open tears, the crushed dreams, the aspirations of multitudes who wondered if that mountain top wasn’t simply a distant illusion…
Most of all I remember an aging worker in the building where I lived bent over in a chair, his face in his hands, trembling. Yes, he was African American. He looked up at me and asked if all was lost. Would it ever be better?
Those were complicated times with equal parts fear and optimism in most of us. Politics had taken to the streets and not just to safe academic havens. There was that war to protest, racial inequity to combat, gender inequality to overturn… and at the same time, some reality altering chemicals to smoke or ingest, ties and bras to discard, musicians to celebrate, and more.
That day was a low point.
The years since have had their highs and lows, but on balance there has been progress. Racial inequity continues, in all too many ways, but not for all. Economic inequity is all too severe, but on a worldwide basis, the numbers climbing out of absolute and crushing poverty grow. Technology has made health and education available to many who 50 years ago could not have even imagined them – even, let it be said, in the USA. Gender and reproductive choice had become the norm, if not universal, in the Western World. It has not been a straight line but there was reason for hope most of the way.
This is another low point. It is a time when an incoming president is surrounded by an aura of illegitimacy, with what appears to be a constitutional inability to respect others or tell the truth, and whose nominees for executive leadership are almost universally committed to dismantling the very safeguards for which their agencies exist. We are poised to rob millions of their health care, deny that climate change is the most existential threat the world has known, reject hard won workplace protections, reverse humane policies for gender and partner choice, marginalize religious and ethnic populations en masse, and empower hate filled voices not heard in decades.
Yes, until now.
No wonder that I, for one, sang “we shall overcome” in a bare whisper, with water eyes. I remember that terrible day when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. I feel an even worse foreboding today.
Yet Martin Luther King Junior would reject that foreboding. It would not be true to the message we are asked to remember today. “We shall overcome” was never a dirge of loss; it must once again become a hymn of resolve.
We will not overcome today, but, if not today, then in 2018. And again in 2020. We shall; we must.