RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Summer’s waning days bring haunting voices from the past.
One, as familiar to Americans as the voices of their own consciences, belongs to Martin Luther King Jr., thundering “I have a dream” from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, four tumultuous decades ago.
The others, mostly anonymous, cry out from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. They speak silently from transcripts just released by the New York Port Authority: desperate 911 calls from office workers trying to escape the inferno, radio transmissions from firemen trying to rescue them, frantic family members trying to locate loved ones inside the doomed towers.
What’s the connection, besides two historic dates that fall within two weeks of each other? In 1963, a man dedicated to nonviolent change challenged the nation to live up to its ideals of freedom. In 2001, hundreds of victims of terrorist violence appealed for aid as they were engulfed.
The connection: hatred and love, fear and freedom — and the ordeal of change.
Martin Luther King Jr. was to die within five years of his greatest sermon (and it was a sermon, complete with call and response, not just a speech), cut down by the violence he sought to end. He started out as a Baptist preacher and became a national prophet, rebuking America for its racial sin and hypocrisy.
“[W]e have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” King said that day. It was a check made out to freedom, written by the founding fathers on behalf of all Americans and signed by Abraham Lincoln on behalf of an enslaved race.”
In 1963, the check was still bouncing.
“One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination,” King charged. “One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.”
But King had a dream for his home state and the rest of America: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down at the table of brotherhood.”
Georgia is my home state, too. My grandparents were good, hardworking folks, but they hated and feared Martin Luther King. Like nearly all whites in those days, they were racist. They also were Depression survivors and the grandchildren of hungry Reconstruction sharecroppers.
They escaped those sun-blasted red hills King talked about and moved to a county seat mill town where they scratched out a living until better days came after World War II. The civil rights movement not only challenged their ingrained racism; they feared sharing — and possibly losing — their fragile prosperity. King and his followers, they believed, were “racial agitators” come to force a new Reconstruction.
Most white politicians encouraged that fear. White preachers, by and large, were silent.
My father left town as a young man, traveled widely, made black friends and changed many of the racial attitudes he was raised with. By the time I was growing up near Atlanta, it was relatively easy for suburban whites to acknowledge King as the epoch-making hero he was.
But that was Atlanta, King’s hometown and the burgeoning capital of the South. As any local can tell you, Atlanta ain’t Georgia. What about that county seat town where Dad grew up? I called a reporter friend at the local newspaper to find out what it’s like today.
“I don’t think it’s changed much,” she admitted. “A little, maybe.”
Many local businesses and institutions have integrated, though there were separate white and black swimming pools until 1991. Several churches now have members of different races. But First Baptist, where my grandparents attended, is still lily-white — in a town that’s one-third black. There are “zero” affluent blacks in town, the reporter said, and a “very, very small” black middle class.
Blacks and whites are civil to each other, but seldom interact. “For so long everything was separate,” she explained, that it’s hard to change things. The divide reaches to the grave: There are still separate white and black cemeteries.
Things have changed for the better in Georgia, sometimes drastically, but if my Dad’s hometown is any indication, there’s a long way to go. Laws may change, but attitude change often takes generations, even centuries.
If true heart change is so hard, if old fears and hatreds run so deep in the Bible Belt, imagine how deep fear and hatred of change run in the societies that produced the perpetrators of Sept. 11. Demagogues and terror networks manipulate such fear and hatred to recruit suicide attackers, just like the Klan did to recruit church bombers, nightriders and lynch mobs.
Military and political action may counteract organized terror, but only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can free people from the fear and hatred behind it.
Jesus must be lifted up among all peoples of the earth before that can happen.
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together,” King said that day as he looked out over the horizon.
That’s a clarion call to go to the ends of the earth to proclaim freedom to captives of hatred and fear — as God continues to free us from it in our own hometowns.
Bridges is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board whose column appears twice each month in Baptist Press.