Dear Dr. King,
Forgive me if this letter goes on too long, but I have so much on my mind I want to share. I have both pain and glory sightings from 2020 that inform my hopes, dreams, and desires for 2021. I wish I could report uninterrupted progress toward global peace, beloved community, and the end of poverty. The truth is, though, that millions of people will see the sunset tonight without food or permanent shelter.
The distance between the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., where you gave your “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, is only a two-mile walk to the United States Capitol, where —on January 6, 2021—U.S. citizens became rabid, attacking the Capitol building in a futile attempt to change the outcome of an already-settled Presidential election.
With cameras recording, there were chants of “Stop the steal” and “This is our House,” as well as threats to kill, kidnap and harm those who gathered to certify the electoral college votes that declared Joseph R. Biden the 46th President of the United States. January 6 marked a day where, in an act of sedition, there was a tragic attempt to stop the peaceful transition of administrations, which will be formalized with the inauguration on January 20.
Dr. King, our democracy is more fragile than many thought and suggested. Today, we find ourselves explaining to our children and grandchildren the meaning of words like, “coup” (a sudden, violent, illegal seizure of power from a government), “sedition” (conduct or speech inciting rebellion against authority or government), and “insurrection” (a violent uprising against authority).
In 2020, we witnessed story after story of gun violence in our cities, with the death and trauma left behind that stifles a hopeful future. We witnessed George Floyd’s death as he pleaded for his breath under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. The persistent cry for equal treatment under the law was coupled with the cry that a black life should be treated with as much respect as a police officer’s. It is as if we all decided that we would live in our respective bubbles of truth, naming all that challenged our narratives as “fake news.”
The internet did not exist when you were with us, and I am thankful for all it has done to allow us to communicate. It has also made easy idolatry of conspiracy, popularity, and bigotry. The moral laxity in some of our leadership has made it easy to demonize each other and provide cover for those who would spend time blaming others for the failure of our Nation to rise to its highest potential.
The attack on the Capitol brought together a coalition of persons whose tactics of intimidation, vitriol, and violence were fueled by demagoguery and a narrative that sought to suppress and dismiss thousands of votes cast in counties and cities with a high concentration of African American voters. We witnessed what has been deemed domestic terrorism fueled by an unholy mix of distorted Christianity, white supremacy, and toxic nationalism. Your words, spoken many years ago, still ring true today, “There is little hope for us until we become tough-minded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half-truths, and downright ignorance.”
As a 12-year-old living on the south side of Chicago, I remember when you spoke at our Methodist Church. You arrived at the invitation of our pastor Rev. John R. Porter. He organized the first northern chapter of the SCLC Southern Christian Leadership Conference at Christ Methodist Church in the Englewood community.
It was 1966, and you reported you had never experienced such hatred in the south as you did in Chicago leading a nonviolent protest for fair housing. The building was full, and there was no short supply of positive energy and Christ-centered hope.
My call to ministry came years later, but the seeds were planted then as I heard our pastor who had marched with you—and was arrested with you—in Selma, Alabama, often speak of the Gospel that transforms hearts and demands justice and equality. Yes, Jesus saves, in part to answer life’s most persistent and urgent question, “What are you doing for others?”
Dr. King, fewer leaders live today who knew you as Martin and called you classmates or friends. Rev. Joseph Lowery, Rev. C.T. Vivian, and Congressman John Lewis have all joined you in the Church Triumphant and are now part of the cloud of witnesses cheering on those of us who have not lost sight of the vision of Beloved Community as a gift we can leave for generations yet to come.
Beloved Community is based on a belief that the human family need not be divided by race or resources. The King Center describes Beloved Community as “A global vision cast by Dr. King in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the beloved community, poverty, hunger, and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.”
We too often have been guilty of truncating your contribution by pointing to your “I Have a Dream” speech while keeping you frozen in history on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This week, we will remember and commit to your example of justice as love lived out in the public square.
In my religious tradition, our baptismal covenant includes these words, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”
I remain committed to the love of God and neighbor and the common good. And I will boldly accept the power God gives to resist evil and injustice in this world, as you did, Dr. King.
In the words of Gospel artist and preacher Rev. Hezekiah Walker, “I won’t harm you with words from my mouth, I love you, and I need you to survive.”
“Those who say, ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers or sisters are liars. After all, those who don’t love their brothers or sisters whom they have seen can hardly love God whom they have not seen!” 1 John 4:20 (CEB)
Julius C. Trimble
Indiana Conference of The United Methodist Church