Tomorrow the national secular holiday commemorating the birth seventy years ago of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. will be observed in most parts of our nation. Schools, banks, postal and other governmental offices will be closed. There will be parades and speeches and a new wreath will be placed at Dr. King's grave. But will any of this result in less racism - less division - in our country? Sadly, I doubt it. Of itself, it will not be enough.
For me today - Martin Luther King Sunday, as it is named in our UU churches - is the more important observance. King's work began in the church and, more than anything, the responsibility to see it through rests with the church. I recall telling a search committee a few years back that I believed this Sunday to be the single most important in our UU liturgical calendar - the one day above all else when I need to be in the pulpit. So it was pretty disconcerting when I was in Nashville to find that the worship committee, without consulting me, had assigned Martin Luther King Sunday to the RE director. In the end, when she failed to get her program together, I got it back by default.
Yet it's always a difficult sermon to write. How can any one voice adequately express the full significance of probably the single most important event this century in terms of what it means to be a true democracy? Certainly, the single most important event in shaping me as a minister, and as a human being. Each year I immerse myself in the words by and about this remarkable man. Each year I review the recent articles I've clipped on the two-steps-forward and one-step-backward of removing the sin of racism in this country.
Sin is not a term I often use. It's too serious a concept to trivialize. Yet racism remains a sin against humanity. America's Holocaust. A cancer that still eats at the soul of our democracy. We can't minimize or neutralize it by pointing to the sins of other ages - other nations and cultures. This is our moral problem, and we alone can resolve it.
However, King didn't think that racism was our only problem. He spoke with equal passion on economic injustice. On the moral decadence of the war in Vietnam. And he lost support among some civil rights liberals for so doing. I'd like to think that, had he lived, he would have worked with equal passion to eliminate injustice to all oppressed persons - to other minorities, to women and disabled persons, and to our gay brothers and sisters.
King was a highly educated man. He drew from the great secular moralists - Carlyle, William Cullen Bryant, Henry David Thoreau. But at the heart of his life and thought was his theology - a theology which proclaimed that, despite all setbacks, injustice must be overcome. Will be overcome. This was the one sure thing he could hold onto in the dark hours of doubt and despair. And isn't that belief also at the heart of our own Principles and Purposes? We who espouse the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Our interconnectedness. We who so strongly support the ideals of democracy.
I'm always somewhat suspicious of those who set out to be heroic. Those who declare that they act in accord with some divine destiny. King did not seek his role: it sought him. He was literally drafted into being the voice of civil rights. Could there have been a more powerful, eloquent voice? Yet King's own frailties caused him much personal grief. At one point William Sullivan, assistant director of the FBI, sent King a taped expose of one of his extramarital affairs, along with an anonymous note suggesting that King commit suicide.
Even such "good" liberals as Walter Mondale undermined the movement, helping to make sure that Mississippi's Freedom Democratic Party delegation was not seated at the 1964 national convention. In the black community, the NAACP'S Roy Wilkins damned King as too rash; Malcolm X as too tame. As today's reading attests, ministers of both races doubted the wisdom and timing of his movement. There must have been times when Martin Luther King believed that only God was on his side. And his was a forgiving God. One which, as he told an Atlanta congregation when confessing his own lapses, judged a life by its total worth rather than by incidental sins. A lesson perhaps even more important some thirty years later.
So where are we now as a society - a democracy? The time is fast coming when no racial or ethnic group will represent a majority in this country. As another young black man named King put it during the Los Angeles riots, "Why can't we all just get along?" This past summer John Hope Franklin, chairman of the President's Race Advisory Board, urged Clinton to eradicate racial stereotypes, rather than trying to achieve King's dream of a color-blind society. However you may feel about a diminished dream, certainly it was a racial stereotype which caused black academic athletic advisors from Virginia to be accused of a confidence crime in a small Texas town. Certainly it was a stereotype that factored into the refusal of an American Legion post in Durham to grant membership to African American veterans, despite the fact that the unit was located in a predominantly black neighborhood. King, incidentally, had mixed feelings about the integration of the armed services: It was ironic in his view that this nation permitted black men to kill and be killed long before most of them were allowed to vote. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It was reported this month that the Cleveland County Commission had still not resolved its ten year old dispute with the NAACP on increasing black representation.
Yet Friday's paper carried the encouraging news that an African American had been chosen as president of the College of the Albermarle - only the third black to head a North Carolina community college. The decision seems to have been based more on merit and a desire to ease racial tensions among Elizabeth City's institutions of higher learning than affirmative action per se. Yet would Dr. Sylvester McKay be able to qualify for this position if it had not been for affirmative action and the help of a high school guidance counselor?
Last fall a new study was released by the Princeton University Press which concluded that affirmative action in education has literally created the emerging black middle class, and it would be disastrous to abandon the concept now, reducing black enrollment in the top schools to only two percent. The authors likened race-sensitive admissions practices to handicapped parking spaces: a major help to the affected parties with minimal disadvantage to the rest of society. When questioned about the stigma often attached to black graduates of Ivy colleges, Colin Powell remarked wryly, "I would tell black youngsters to graduate from the schools magna cum laude and get one of those well-paying jobs to pay for all the therapy they'll need to remove that stigma."
Yet, as Steven Carter, the acclaimed Yale constitutional law professor points out, affirmative action is only one tool, and an imperfect one at that, in correcting the scourge of racism. Affirmative action has no influence on housing patterns, or police brutality, or the quality of primary education or reinforcement by the media of negative stereotypes, or condescending attitudes towards the poor. Yet it is a tool we dare not discard. Ironically, by far the major winners of affirmative action hiring practices have been white women. And since most working women are contributing to the well-being of two-income families, white men have been indirect beneficiaries of affirmative action.
While one-third of blacks now qualify as middle class, their presence in the managerial and professional ranks has only increased by 1.5 percent in the last decade. What has happened is that former white male bastions, such as big city police and fire departments and many trade unions, have finally been forced to open their doors to minorities and women, thanks to affirmative action. That gain, among others, could be lost very quickly. Yet, as a nation, we're ready to fold our tent on affirmative action, claiming that in thirty years we've more than made amends for over 300 years of enslaving a race of people - of robbing them of their culture, religion, language, family heritage and dignity. Sometimes their very lives. Of defining them on every level as being inferior to the dominant culture.
As I have mentioned before, Mel Hoover, co-director of UUA's Faith in Action program, defines racism as prejudice coupled with the power to institutionalize discrimination. And that won't change until we change the system that has been established to serve upper class white men. Affirmative action, however imperfect, was designed to do just that. And to the degree to which it has succeeded, it is a very real threat to a society that has automatically affirmed white men, regardless of merit. Yet it may take more than affirmative action to call into question prevailing white middle class values. The emerging black middle class may be able to fit in - to pass, as it were. But what of all those left behind in black ghettos?
Henry Hampton, perhaps best known for the acclaimed PBS documentary "Eyes on the Prize," broke with UUA during our shameful controversy over black empowerment. As an act of reconciliation he spoke at the General Assembly in Little Rock ten years ago. His message: "Responsibility begins in the Dream." As a colleague commented afterwards, "Once you have dreamed the dream, once you have imagined what is possible, then injustice becomes intolerable." Or, put another way, evil breeds in the silence of good people.
More than any of his other writings, King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" speaks to me. Speaks to me at the core of my being as a minister. Sends a non-violent, yet revolutionary, challenge over the years which I cannot ignore. I'm reminded of the story about Henry David Thoreau who had been jailed for an act of civil disobedience. Emerson visited him and asked why he was there. As the story goes, Thoreau replied, "To the contrary, Waldo. I should ask why you are not here with me."
When the UU Minister's Association drafted an anti-racism covenant a few years ago, asking each of us to acknowledge our role in perpetuating racism in our ranks, there was a loud howl of protest from several white men, typically ministers of large, mostly white affluent suburban congregations, who rejected the indictment. But what really broke my heart was one prominent woman minister who campaigned loudly that we had already done enough for racial diversity and harmony. Can it ever be enough?
The theological concept of justice is not restricted to Christian churches. A few years back Farley Wheelwright, the crusty old UU humanist, challenged all our clergy to contribute to a master plan to eradicate racism, noting in the words of Hart Crane: "You cannot choose your battlefields - the Gods do that for you. But you can plant a standard where a standard never flew." Like King, Farley Wheelwright has been to the mountain. And while he, too, may not live to see the realization of the dream, he knows it is real and obtainable.
Thus I urge this congregation to join in our district and denominational efforts in this regard. For starters, can we find some volunteers to attend the anti-racism workshop in South Carolina next month? Or, within Dare County could we arrange a showing of the marvelous film "The Color of Fear"? If King challenges me, can I do less in good conscience than to challenge all of you as well?
Can we change? Of course we can. Diversity is at least as much for our sake as it is for the other's - we are immeasurably enriched when we enlarge our limited worldviews. I find I've already broken one small barrier. In an essay titled "Planet of the White Guy," Barbara Ehrenreich claims that when most of us imagine the epitome of competence in any professional field, we automatically picture a white male. Yet when I envision the ultimate in a family doctor, for example, I see the young black woman physician I went to in Detroit - who also happened to be a UU. I imagine affirmative action may have had something to do with her ability to attend a top medical school, and for that I'm at least as grateful as she. Yet her professional competence, and her compassion, were strictly her own. All it takes is a bit of exposure to explode the myths. The stereotypes.
And so I've managed to put together a sermon of sorts. One which cannot begin to convey the brutal pain of discrimination and prejudice. One which only scratches the surface of what is still wrong in this country - and what is still wrong in this denomination which I love so deeply. One which I doubt will do much to prevent the spread of the deadly disease of racism. I can now pack up my bulging file of news clipping and articles and resource lists and put it back in the cabinet and shut the drawer until next year. But I dare not try to shut the problem out of my life. I dare not forget. Yet even among some of the younger black Americans who cannot remember Jim Crow - who did not personally experience the struggle for civil rights - there is a tendency to forget. We must not. There is still such a long way to go before we reach the mountain top together. So this Sunday there is no "amen" - only a hope that we can walk this walk together, wherever it leads us.