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My Turn: When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called 50 years ago, I answered

Last modified: 3/25/2015 12:13:04 AM
In mid-March 50 years ago, I received a telegram from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference inviting me, a young pastor up in Lisbon, to walk in the March on Montgomery.

After four years in Boston, Lisbon was a culture shock. Many people there did not believe that black people in the South still could not vote, could not use public toilets, could not eat in restaurants or sleep in motels where there were white people.

During a voting rights march on March 7, 1965, white policemen gassed and beat hundreds of marchers trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. King called for an even bigger march all the way to the steps of the capitol in Montgomery.

I had preached on civil rights issues; now it was time to act. But I was a bit scared to go to Alabama. My wife was sick, and how would I explain my involvement in such controversy to my parishioners, most of whom read only the Union Leader?

The Rev. Jim Quimby, a neighboring pastor old enough to be my father, told me to go, take extra Band-Aids, stay away from windows and never to be caught alone. He also told me what to do if arrested.

Should I stay home and continue living comfortably in the North Country, or should I go south and risk my life? At the fork in the road in Jericho, Jesus struggled whether to go south to Jerusalem and risk his life or go back north and live perhaps to a ripe old age. I felt God tugging at my heart. Losing sleep and appetite, I agonized over this decision. But once I decided to go, I felt relieved. This event became one of the highlights of my life.

I had no children yet, but with me was the Rev. Eric Swanfeldt of Berlin, who had four children. As the plane took off from Boston, I asked him: “Aren’t you scared, leaving your wife and four children behind?”

“Oh, no,” he said.

“But Eric, we could be arrested or even killed.”

He looked at me and said: “Dwight, don’t you have confidence in your wife to carry on without you?”

I was speechless. I then remembered Gandhi’s March to the Sea and Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem – events that changed the course of history.

That evening, thousands of people gathered for a huge pep rally with singers including Pete Seeger, Sammy Davis, Odetta, Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte. That night many of us slept on the floor of the well-lit gymnasium at St. Jude Catholic School.

The day arrives

The next morning, March 25, with helicopters buzzing overhead, the march into the city took several hours and there was a long ribbon of people – some 25,000. Along the way, we saw black people cheering and crying tears of joy. Some white people with Confederate flags made snide remarks at us.

It was very warm. Without breakfast, some people fainted. I remember getting a sip from a gallon jug of Kool-Aid being passed along. Later, another black neighbor from one of the shacks by the side of the road passed along some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. For me, it was the miracle of sharing re-enacted, an experience of Communion I shall never forget.

Finally, we arrived at the capitol. On my right was a female college student. On my left was a rabbi. Like the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, Dr. King lifted up a vision of hope and deliverance. We heard Dr. King ask: “How long?” and then answer, “Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long because you still reap what you sow. How long? Not long, because while the arc of the moral universe is long, it is bent toward justice.”

Thousands of us then sang, “We Shall Overcome.” My spine tingled and my soul vibrated. Later, on the plane back to Boston, Joan Baez sang again for us “We Shall Overcome.” I still carry in my pocket a 3-by-5 card she autographed for me 20 years later at the Capitol Center for the Arts.

Did we change history? I think we helped. A few months after the march, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Back in Lisbon I was asked to speak to various groups, including the Littleton Lions Club. I took some flak, including nasty 2 a.m. phone calls, but I learned from participating in this historic event that sometimes you can’t wait to receive permission. Sometimes you act on your convictions. I was physically tired but spiritually refreshed.

On controversial issues, the church and other faith communities too often do not lead. They wait for others to lead and then they follow. But on the right to vote and the Voting Rights Act, this is one time that the religious community took the lead and that made the difference.

Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, a rabid segregationist, felt the civil rights of black people was just a political and economic issue. After the first Civil Rights Bill passed in 1964, he was mad and said: “It passed only because those damn preachers got the idea that it was a moral issue.”

Imagine that! Dr. King was shot to death in April of 1968 at the age of 39. A year before his death, in a sermon at Riverside Church in New York City, he spoke clearly against the Vietnam War, linking the civil rights and peace movements. Just before his death, he was focused on economic justice pleading for the rights of garbage workers in Memphis.

What would King say?

If Dr. King was alive today, what are some of the moral issues of our day he would address?

First, I believe he would continue to insist on nonviolent protest, for he is in the tradition of Isaiah, Jesus, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Malala and Pope Francis, who all know that revenge escalates the conflict and violence begets more violence.

Second, I believe Dr. King would challenge the “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida that led to the acquittal of George Zimmerman following the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Homicide rates have now risen some 10 percent in states with stand-your-ground laws. White people are much more successful claiming self-defense when their attacker is black than black people are when their attacker is white. I think Dr. King would challenge the militarizing of police departments. Need I mention Ferguson, Mo., where police target young black drivers at a much higher rate? Racism is rampant in fraternities that delight in racist jokes, racist chants and racist harassment.

Third, I believe Dr. King would condemn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates for big money in politics. Dr. King would condemn the rise in voter suppression with new restrictions on voting that target minority voters, students, the poor and the elderly without a driver’s license. In a recent ruling, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. No longer are states required to seek federal approval before changing their election practices. Some states have already passed new restrictions, taking us backward instead of forward, with all Americans having the right to vote.

Fourth, I believe Dr. King would focus again on economic injustice. He would acknowledge that some progress has been made. Fifty years ago, the poverty rate for African-Americans was 55 percent. That has now been cut in half. Some black people are now CEOs, college presidents and one is our president. But at the same time, there is in our nation a demonic, increasing concentration of wealth, a shrinking middle class and a minimum wage that has been frozen for years and does not keep pace.

Fifth, I do believe Dr. King would have strong words to say on the increasing gun violence in our nation. We now have the highest homicide rate in the developed world. In guns per population, we are second only to Yemen. We have lost some 10,000 Americans to gun violence just since the Newtown shootings a few years ago – that’s more Americans that we’ve lost in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined. But some of our elected officials are still more concerned with what the gun lobby wants than with what the vast majority of their constituents want. Without losing the Second Amendment right to bear arms, surely we could require background checks, make gun trafficking a federal crime and ban assault weapons. It is absurd for ordinary citizens to have as much or more firepower than police have.

Sixth, and finally, for those of us here in New Hampshire at this time, I believe Dr. King would remind us that a budget – be it a family or town budget, a federal or state budget – is a moral document that shows our values, our priorities. I think Dr. King would say: Pay attention to what’s happening at the New Hampshire State House with the House Finance Committee’s proposed drastic budget cuts that will seriously affect the physical and mental health of our people, young and old, seriously affect the safety of our roads and bridges, seriously affect the education of our children and future leaders, and, in the long run, seriously affect tourism and other businesses, the quality of our New Hampshire life and much more. Pay attention, and contact your state senators and representatives.

(The Rev. Dwight Haynes is a retired Methodist pastor and avid bicyclist who lives in Concord.)


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