In his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned a day “when all of God’s children” would join hands and sing, “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
King espoused nonviolence and believed that freedom “meant kinship, not mastery,” observed Kelly Johnson, a theologian and the Ferree Chair of Social Justice, at a virtual town hall meeting Jan. 19 that explored the civil rights leader’s legacy.
“For King to appeal to freedom in D.C., on the National Mall, that’s to pull a powerful thread,” Johnson said. “A lot of people these days say we want freedom, but we’re not talking about the same thing. There’s a distorted longing for freedom deeply woven into white U.S. thinking and feeling and seeing — the freedom to be unhampered by others, to be an individual who has no accountability to historical events.”
In a panel discussion, moderated by the Rev. Dustin J. Pickett, Johnson and faculty colleagues V. Denise James and Ernesto Rosen Velasquez talked about King’s ministry, his support for economic justice and opposition to war as well as the lessons his message holds for contemporary times. It was one of a series of virtual campus events commemorating the legacy of the slain civil rights leader.
King’s message carries more urgency in today’s turbulent times, marked by injustice, strife, violence and, two weeks ago, an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by white supremacists, who waved American and Confederate flags.
This pivotal point in history was not lost on the panelists. “If I’m truthful, then what’s in my heart at this anniversary is grief at how little white Christianity has changed in the past 60 years, how resilient are our defenses against the demand of God that we live in kinship,” Johnson said.
Added Rosen Velasquez, associate professor of philosophy: “I want to acknowledge all the Black men, women and children who have been dying by police violence, all the Black and brown women in ICE detention centers getting forced sterilizations, all the families broken apart, all the hundreds of thousands dying of COVID. We’re in the middle of a catastrophe,” he said. “We have the power to change these things if we work collectively and confront our realities in all of their horror and propose new creative possibilities.”
For King, any societal change meant advocating for economic and social justice without resorting to violence.
“The practice of nonviolence is not about the methods you use when you show up at the lunch counter. For Martin Luther King, it was about his faith. The language of nonviolence was not just language but a practice, what one does and doesn’t do,” observed James, a philosopher and director of the women’s and gender studies program who facilitated UD’s Diversity Across the Curriculum initiative.
“The language of nonviolence was not just language but a practice, what one does and doesn’t do.”
Calling King a “crusader for love” who envisioned a “hopeful utopia,” James conceded she’s less hopeful about the state of contemporary race relations.
“But the ongoing work is just what we ought to be doing. What choice do we have?” she asked. “We must determine how we will live with one another — and we can choose on what grounds.”
Earlier in her opening remarks, she delved deeper into that idea. “We must ask ourselves, what is the moral vision for our shared world? Who does it include? Who does it exclude? Our practice of community is one of continual struggle towards freedom. The struggle towards freedom is a struggle with others for our shared safety, thriving and dignity.
“We have a shared destiny,” she said, “whether we think that’s a shared destiny in faith or a shared destiny in the world in which we live.”
Header photo of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington, D.C., by Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress.