I remember when I was a child pastor at age 18, a lifetime ago on a circuit of two churches west of Fort Worth. Having just completed his doctorate in theology at Boston University, Dr. King was catapulted into leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. People in my two country churches, as well as throughout the rest of the South, said that King was a communist. I didn’t believe that but I whispered to Dr. King, seven hundred miles away, “Dr. King, I believe in what you are trying to do, but you’re going too fast. Slow down, give us whites a chance to get on board.”
Dr. King came to speak at a voter registration rally in Dallas in 1960. My ethics professor took three of us to hear him. We were just about the only whites in an auditorium of two to three thousand people. He was supposed to speak at 7:00 but didn’t actually begin until 10:00, but when he started he had us all in the palm of his hand. I have never had another experience so powerful. When it was over, the ethics professor said to me, “I’m glad we’re on the same side.” The time was soon to come when Dr. King would wonder if we were indeed on the same side.
On April 16, 1963, when he wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” I was beginning to have a glimmer of understanding. But when he spoke at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 announcing his opposition to the Vietnam War, "A Time to Break Silence," I whispered again to Dr. King from my vantage point in Taiwan eight thousand miles away: “You’re right about the war, but your opposition to the war may well undermine what you’ve done on civil rights.” I whispered the same thing a few months later when he announced the beginning of the Poor People’s Campaign focusing on jobs and freedom for the poor of all races.
But thank God he didn’t listen to my whisperings. He was right each time. And at each stage he dragged me further out of what is now called my “comfort zone.” Today, I remember his words to white clergy in his letter from Birmingham. Finding time to re-read the letter tomorrow is not a bad observance for the day. To me, the words still sting with the ring of truth:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
If he were alive now, I think we know what he would be saying about the war in Iraq and about freedoms lost in the name of fighting terrorism. I think we can imagine what he might say to those who choose to sit on the sidelines uninvolved. And he would be right again.
What will it take to get us to act on what our consciences are surely telling us? Let this be “a day of new beginnings,” as Brian Wren put it, “a time to remember and move on.”