The inauguration of an African-American president and the celebration of the contributions of Martin Luther King Jr. on the same day underscored progress in America in the arena of civil rights.
President Obama, of course, is beginning his second term as the first person of color to govern the United States. His 43 predecessors were all white, and perhaps most would not have envisioned a black joining the ultimate “Presidents’ Club.” It would have been unlikely in the eyes of many of these forbears that a person with his skin color could amass a majority of votes in the election.
African Americans have long distinguished themselves in science, business, invention, military, politics, medicine, religion, the arts – virtually in every field of human endeavor. Still, the election of a black president – Democrat, Republican or whatever – finally signaled for many of us Americans a brighter day, when the best in our governing documents was actually fulfilled at the highest level in the land.
A federal holiday in honor of Dr. King was no slam-dunk. It took some time and effort. Many – for many reasons, opposed this effort. King had not served as president, some argued, so why a special day. Others objected because King’s contributions were in their minds controversial and were met with violence and contention. Others, predictably, objected because of the ebony color of King’s skin. Thankfully, cooler and wiser heads prevailed.
In the confrontational mode of a prophet of old, King appealed to scripture to make his case that God created the human race, not first-, second- and third-class races. It was wrong, he said, for racial hatred and bigotry to be cultivated in families and communities. He longed for the day when innocent children – black and white – could hold hands and be friends. And when adults could mutually respect each other.
As such, the man didn’t simply give stem-winding speeches. He preached thunderous messages on behalf of a loving God, challenging Americans to adopt God’s attitude toward his children – every strain of humankind. These days we listen to these forceful and compelling words. We quote them. This will be so as long as this earth lasts.
Civil rights progress is a slow and deliberate journey. Progress is measured in one changed mind at a time. It is tied to biblical literacy, and tied to the heart of God. It is dependent on those of us who believe in it to live it out in our own relationships. Surely that is the best “amen” to Dr. King’s message and God’s desire.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way