We Shall Overcome: Reflections on MLK Day 2015

Yesterday was an amazing day.

I read a lot.

I marched with a large group of people.

I attended a gathering calling for nonviolent police responses to crime.

I dined at a banquet with over 600 people in attendance.

All to honor the memory of a man whose impact has already spanned 50 years, and will likely span hundreds more.

Martin Luther King, Jr., stood up against the evils of racism and prejudice. He fought against societal structures that enabled poverty. He fought against war. So much of our civil rights advances over the past 50 years can be attributed to his work, the SCLC, and those who worked with him.

Yet what struck me yesterday is how much we have tamed his message. We don’t often quote, “There aren’t enough white persons in our country who are willing to cherish democratic principles over privilege.” We sometimes gloss over the fact that he broke the same laws the Ferguson protesters are breaking nationwide. We often forget that his nonviolent philosophy was not about African-Americans passively waiting until white people got their act together, but was an intentional, direct-action approach that called people’s attention to the injustices that existed. It seems to me that we forget how radical he was. It seems we also forget how violent the institutional response was.*

But there was something else that had an even greater impact on me. It was one of the most profound moments of my life.

At the end of the banquet the keynote speaker—himself a man who had faced hatred, racism, and segregation in its worst forms in the 50s and 60s—had all of us stand, join hands, and sing “We Shall Overcome.”

Of the 600 in attendance, there appeared to be close to 100 who sang that song in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. Listening to their voices blend with the voices of younger generations moved me in a way beyond words.

“We shall overcome.

Oh, deep in my heart,

I do believe:

We shall overcome. Someday.”

So simple yet so profound.

And to join in with people who lived through an era that tried to take everything away from them taught me some valuable lessons:

No matter how much a people group is oppressed, there is a strength that cannot be quashed. I continue to be amazed by the stories of people who were maced, beaten, chased with dogs, tear-gassed and then arrested. I continue to be amazed that those same things happen in 2015. Yet still people stand. Still they rise. And I am so amazed.

People who have never known better do not need to accept things the way they are. Our country was built on the foundation of slavery. African-Americans were brought to this country and treated worse than cattle to work on the land that was taken from the indigenous peoples. For 300 years they were enslaved. For 100 years after slavery, they were segregated and treated as second class citizens. Yet they refused to accept that was who they were. They believed they were children created in God’s image and they fought to be recognized as such. That indomitable spirit is nothing less than inspiring.

Oppressed groups are not the only ones who need to overcome. Dr. King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail is hard on white Christians, especially clergy. Because they were just hoping things would get better without having to get their hands dirty. Unfortunately, that attitude has been passed down in too many church traditions. We must overcome our silence, our apathy, our inaction.

So as I listened to the crowd sing “We Shall Overcome,” I thought about how different things must be from 50 years ago, but how different they need to be 50 years from now. I thought about the example of the people who sang that song 50 years ago and their encouragement to a new generation to pass that message along.

I thought about that word “We.” I thought about how grateful I was to be included in last night’s gathering. I thought about how things could change if we realized we were all in this together; if we would all listen and not discount other people’s experiences.

And then I smiled. Because we shall overcome. One day.