Written on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2017
Today is Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday celebration. I want to tell you about what this means to me.
In August of 1963 I was living in Storrs, CT. I was pastoring a small church out in the country near Storrs. My good friend Warren Molton, the campus minister at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, called me and said "Let's go to the March on Washington."
I was hesitant. According to the media, it could be a pretty scary event. Some feared a riot. I am not big on risk-taking. But Warren persisted, and I said ok. We took the train to D.C. Almost immediately we were caught up in the atmosphere of celebration on the mall. Marching, singing freedom songs (none of which I knew), feeling at one with the folks there. Even though police surrounded the mall, there was no sense of foreboding. I do not remember any of the speeches or the performers--until the latter part of the afternoon. Dr. King was introduced and immediately there was silence. He gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. After he was done, we stood transfixed for a moment and then the clapping began. Had he asked us to do anything right at that moment, we would have done it. Warren and I got on the train to go home. Someone played the speech on the radio.
As I reflected on the event and talked with some of my congregation and friends, we felt that we had to do something. We decided to form the Human Rights Council of the Greater Willimantic (the nearest city) Area. We did not do anything particularly spectacular, but we did get African-Americans and white folks together and shared mutual concerns. The man we recruited to chair the organization later headed the Community Action Program in the area, a part of the War on Poverty, and even later became the executive of the ACLU for the state of Connecticut--William Olds.
My life was changed forever. I became a participant in the Freedom Movement. When we moved to Kansas City, I helped administer the fair housing project, became involved in working with prisoners at Kansas State penitentiary, and various other freedom oriented groups. The March on Washington was a march "for jobs and freedom." Civil rights was a part of the movement, but for many of us, what we had signed onto was a freedom movement--freedom for all persons. Freedom for women and for men, freedom for persons released from prison, freedom for LGBTQ persons. I am a white man, but unless all people are free, I am not free. Free to be whom we wish to be. Free to be one with all who want to be free.
In the Bay Area I became involved with Asian-Americans and their struggles. When I became Dean of American Baptist Seminary of the West, we all worked to become the most ethnically diverse faculty in the Graduate Theological Union (9 institutions). Our seminary also became deeply committed to training Latino ministers, particularly in southern California. I could go on and on, but you get the point.
When I say that my life was changed by the March and by Dr. King, what I mean is that I set off on a journey which involved me in whatever position I held or in whatever place I lived in the lives of an incredible variety of fellow humans: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, women in ministry, LGBTQ persons, Latino-Americans, Indian people, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and on and on. My life is incredibly rich because of this.
"Freeeeedom, Freeeedom, Freedom, Freedom.
Everybody wants freedom,
Everybody wants freedom,
May all beings be free.