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Thoughts on Civil Rights, MLK & Selma…

January 20, 2015

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The first time I saw the Civil Rights Memorial outside of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama was during the summer of 1990. I was a student at the US Air Force Chaplain’s School and several of us went downtown to see the memorial. It was designed by Maya Lin, the same woman who designed the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, DC. It was evening and the memorial’s black granite simply shimmered in the light from the street lights. As I read the names on the memorial and as we talked to the security guard posted there, my eyes were opened even further. You see, in 1985, I had walked around downtown Montgomery when I was at my first Chaplain School course at Maxwell Air Force Base. And as it was getting dark, I took the bus back to base from downtown. It struck me as I sat at the back of the bus that an older African American woman was sitting at the front of the bus! These two moments in time had a profound impact on a young Lieutenant from a small town in Minnesota.

I had read about the Civil Rights Movement in history class and I remember my dad talking about the extreme heat of the summer of 1965 in Los Angeles and how he could see the glow from the fires burning in Watts (we lived in the LA suburb of South Pasadena until we moved to Minnesota in 1966). But I had never personally witnessed the brutality of those days. It wasn’t until I was stationed in the South with the Air Force that I actually began to see first hand the lingering effects of segregation and racism that are still very prevalent today. Over the years in the Air Force I had participated in MLK Observances at a variety of Air Force Bases around the globe. The songs would be sung, the prayers offered, and there would usually be a recitation of Dr King’s “I have a dream” speech along with a speaker.

Yesterday, however was different! A block away from the County Courthouse where a Confederate flag flies over a memorial to the Civil War dead from Walton County, a group of citizens gathered at the road sign to dedicate Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue. It had taken ten years, but Rev Tyrone Broadus and a small group of individuals were able to see the fruits of their labors when the 2014 Florida Legislature authorized the renaming of that section of US Hwy 90. Following that, I was honored to offer the opening prayer at the First Annual DeFuniak Springs Community MLK Observance. Hearing the stories told and sadly, hearing the reality of racism here today gave me much to ponder. Add to that the fact that Denise and I had just seen the movie Selma a few days before, my heart and spirit were both full.

I am still processing a lot of what I experienced this past weekend. And as I re-read some of Dr King’s writings and the writings of his mentor, Dr Howard Thurman, I feel a certain heaviness in my heart. Even though the Civil Rights Movement changed so much, there is still a long way to go.

Ferguson, Missouri and Michael Brown… New York City and Eric Garner… Sanford, Florida and Trayvon Martin… Mobile, Alabama and Michael Donald (Michael Donald was brutally lynched by members of the KKK in 1981. Successful prosecution of the United Klans effectively bankrupted the Klan and shut that one organization down)… And the overt racism I have seen with the election of Barack Obama to the presidency… These events show me that we have a long way still to go in the fight for equality.

My prayer is that Dr King’s dream will continue to grow and take root in the souls of men, women and children of every race, creed, gender, and economic status… As for me? The challenge I heard this weekend for me was this…  In the words of Dr King, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” Lord, help me to be love… To be an agent of change and transformation, not simply to uphold the status quo… That is my prayer for each of us this day and every day.

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