Dreaming the Dream Alive

Jan Vickery Knost

First Parish in Norwell
January 14, 2001

They killed the dreamer but they haven’t killed the dream.
- - Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Director, SCLC

The memory is still with me. It is night. I awake and try to shake my mind free of sleep. Where am I? The whirring of a motor and the steady “click-click” of tires over a highway tell me that I am riding in some kind of vehicle. Then, with a wash of adrenaline it all comes to me at once. I am on a bus traveling to Selma, Alabama. I’ve become a Freedom Rider. I can’t believe I did this. How much longer now?

I will spare you a full accounting of the days the followed that long bus journey. Of the many hours of instruction about non-violent techniques of resistence; of the fellowship enjoyed with many new African-American brothers and sisters; of the fears real and imagined that captured the heart. Thousands of others have recounted their experiences doing the same thing and they were no less ordinary than mine.

What I do deem important was that we had been energized to travel to a place we only knew as one of bigotry, hatred, police and federal troops - a place where history was being made. Many of us, myself included, had nervously agreed to go because one person had been killed. His name was Jim Reeb. He had been a colleague of mine – a quiet, articulate and deeply committed Unitarian Universalist minister.

Jim had been an Associate Minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C. He was the father of four children and had recently moved with his family from that position to live here in Roxbury in order to devote his ministry to the poor. On the night of March 9, 1965 Jim was in the company of two other Unitarian ministers, Orloff Miller and Clark Olson. I know them both. They are retired now. But the three of them had been to a supper held in a Black managed restaurant in Selma. As they emerged from the restaurant they were suddenly set upon by several white roughnecks who proceeded systematically and thoroughly to beat them senseless.

Jim Reeb never recovered from that beating. He died two days later in the hospital there in that troubled southern city. As I remember, it was Dr. Dana McLean Greeley, first President of the newly-incorporated Unitarian Universalist Association who finally called Jim’s family with the tragic news.

The death of James Reeb and others such as Michigan Unitarian Violet Liuzzo and others pulled the weary and disheartened civil rights movement together. It brought cries of outrage. Support emerged from around the country and the world. And a similarly quiet and unassuming black Baptist minister named Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:

Events such as those spurred our tiny liberal minority - our Unitarian Universalists Association - to move civil rights to the top of our list of priorities for social justice. I do not say that we had not always spurred people to greater efforts for equality, it was just that at that particular time in our nation’s history, the events that surrounded Martin Luther King’s ministry became a part of the very heart of the Liberal Church. I want to talk about that record today and reflect upon the years that led to such commitments.

The South that greeted my family when we moved to southern Alabama in 1946 was that same land that Jimmy Carter described in speaking of his best friend - a black boy - with whom he grew up near Americus, Georgia. My Dad had accepted a call to serve as minister to the tiny Universalist Church in Brewton, Alabama. It was a place which, like all other towns in the south in those days, was totally segregated. There were lunch counters for white and “colored”; movie houses with a segregated upper balcony for blacks; bus station waiting rooms for black people to sit; the school houses, the courts, the churches. The signs were quite clear. Whites Only — Blacks Enter Here.

My trip to Selma had not been without a good deal of hand wringing on the part of my family; parents, spouse and inner being. In 1967 I was serving a small Universalist congregation in North Attleboro, Massachusetts. Although liberal in their theology, a good portion of the members of that congregation were quite conservative in their politics. They felt the events that were transpiring in the South were the business of those who lived in the South. It was going too fast. As one church leader said to me, It was not our place in the North to go messing around in other folks’ affairs.

I was counseled by the board chairman to remain home. I was pressured by little asides and notes saying how much I was needed in that little New England town. And I must admit that I did a lot of late night soul-searching before I decided to commit myself, my money and possibly, my position to what I proposed. To this day, notwithstanding the rather uneventful manner of my stay and the small amount I was able to achieve under the direction of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, I am still glad that I had the courage to go.

Today we pause to remember a man; a religious leader who walked among us, and who became a pivotal figure in charting the destiny and the efforts of many religious denominations including the liberal church. Today we remember Martin.

There are many of our holidays that are merely regional. You won’t find a lot of New Englanders celebrating the birthday of General Robert E. Lee each January 19th. But in many parts of the United States he is remembered as a hero. In Boston, more especially Suffolk County, an event called Evacuation Day is celebrated. Though it occurs on the same day as St. Patrick’s Day, it nevertheless commemorates the date of March 17th, 1776 when the British troops finally marched out of Boston.

Most Bostonians haven’t a clue what Kamehameha Day means. But in Hawaii every June 11th the people of there celebrate it in grateful remembrance of King Kamehameha the First. That gentle giant was the first monarch to unite the island residents into a unified island population. The holiday named for Martin Luther King, Jr. contained a lot of ambiguities before it was finally proclaimed a national holiday. But the main reasons it did so rest in three areas.

The first starts with words contained in the United States Constitution: We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Noble words, indeed. But the idealism contained in them has yet to become reality. Although no country has ever stated the concept more clearly, these words were written during a time in which some people were held in bondage as slaves.

Picture the community of Boston - the Cradle of Liberty where Concord Bridge, Bunker Hill, the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party occurred. Picture it 116 years following the end of the Revolutionary War. There on the grass of the Boston Common a crowd of 3000 gathered to learn whether President Lincoln would actually sign the Emancipation Proclamation. The great African American abolitionist and orator, Frederick Douglass was there and wrote:

For several hours the crowd waited. Many wondered if the President had changed his mind. Suddenly word arrived that the Proclamation had become law. Again wrote Douglass:

Strangely enough, the word “segregation” was also born as a result of the signing of that Proclamation. A new phrase came to dominate American social life. Some of you may remember it. The phrase used then were the words “separate but equal.” That phrase though widely used, was only half true. In every part of America, public and private facilities were separate. .. but they were almost never equal. Indeed, in some areas following that Proclamation - especially as regarded education - separateness foreclosed any possibility of equality.

When Marian Anderson, a young, talented black soprano, sought entrance into the Philadelphia School of Music she had all the talent to get in. But the words “we don’t take coloreds” stopped her entrance in order to get application forms.

I wonder how many hundreds of thousands of talented people have lost out in the same way over the years. I wonder, even now, at whether there is some truth in the charge that many, many African American voters in the State of Florida were, in one way or another, denied casting their ballot in this past election?

Things like this have led our denomination to be one of the leaders in Social Justice over the years. Page 46 of our current UUA Directory lists nine different areas in which we put our “Faith in Action” There are departments dealing with anti-racism training in our churches and communities; the Jubilee Working group for Anti-racism that comes to our churches and runs conferences; the Journey Toward Wholeness Sunday which raises funds directed toward efforts at social justice; there are the whole range of social justice programs for empowerment, websites and other information; the Washington Office for Faith in Action continues to witness for our liberal faith in our nation’s capitol; and the offices of bisexual, gay lesbian and transgender concerns continues to support efforts in finding equality of employment. Our anti-oppression education and resources office and the Accessability Advocacy committee work to remove hidden barriers to full and equal treatment of all people as they come to our churches.

What Martin Luther King tried to tell his listeners was that if enough people tell you that you are inferior and treat you that way then you are likely to begin to believe that you ARE inferior. And any system built out of unjust means such as these depends for its effectiveness upon breaking the spirit of its victims. But the time had come for such unjust means to be ended and Martin and others like him brought us to a new day.

How did the movement begin? What caused the liberal church and many other faiths to join Dr. King in his peaceful protests? Well, a number of things to be sure. But I can tell you one of the very first things that brought it on. On quiet day many years ago in a quiet, simple, massively symbolic gesture,

The Montgomery bus boycott followed and black people began to remember that they are human beings, too. The torturous task of crystalizing that movement then, fell to a recently-graduated Ph.D. from Boston University named Martin. As he grew in response to the needs of his people, he came to symbolize the first reason for the importance of celebrating his birthday today. In honoring him, we are paying respects, not so much to a person as to the rebirth of self-respect in a whole people.

Dr. King assisted in this rebirth in a special way. In the way he did lies the second reason for celebrating his birthday. It became a distinctive contribution to American life during the 20th century. And it is important to note, too, at the risk of repeating an “old saw” that makes many feel uncomfortable, that in the quest for civil rights and in the struggle of people to be heard by governments, so often those in power not only do not want to listen but enter the realm of denial and blame.

Dr. King’s special contribution was to stress the value of non-violent protest. Early in his adult life he became familiar with the life and teachings of Mohandas K. Gandhi. While imprisoned in a Georgia jail he once wrote:

My third reason for our tribute today is that the movement in which Dr. King was so central inspired a reaffirmation of civil rights among many groups of people who have long been treated as second-class citizens or worse. And this same reaffirmation has traveled out from America’s shores to many other countries of the world. We think of the civil rights of the Kurds in Afghanistan; of the hungry in Somalia; of the innocent victims of Bosnian strife; of the needs of the Cold World common folk; of apartheid in South Africa; of the peasant revolts in South and Central America.

No one knew better than Martin Luther King that the struggle for freedom and human dignity for all people is a long and difficult road. Indeed, he almost sensed what was to come as he spoke to his followers in Memphis three days before his assassination:

Rabbi Abraham Heschel once introduced Dr. King to a Jewish audience with these words:

And one is prompted to wonder how true these words have become considering the amount of prejudice, racism and bigotry still at work in our land today. The poet, Carl Wendell Hines must have felt that same sense of outrage and frustration when he wrote:

May the vision and the dream Martin showed us continue to be our goal. May we always to look to the day when all of God’s children will finally be able to say: