My first real encounter with who Martin Luther King was occurred when I attended seminary. I took a course called “Liberation Theology” that was taught by an African American professor who had been a part of King’s “inner circle.” Peter Parris was his name and he was a gentle, brilliant man. In that class we heard stories of the struggle for Civil Rights from the mouth of one who had been in the fight. One who had been attacked. One who had been arrested.
I remember most vividly the one thing Peter Parris said to us that I have never forgotten—his words that day struck me so convincingly. It was in 1980 that he said this: "I believe Martin would not have been pleased that there seems to have been an attempt to deify him, rather than continue the struggle for racial equality.” What Peter Parris was talking about was the decision to name a national holiday for King’s birthday. It wasn’t that he believed that was a bad idea—in fact he was very much in favor of it. His fear was that after the holiday had been set that people would then assume that the struggle had been won. And Peter knew better.
You may notice that you are receiving this AFTER the King holiday. We closed our office (as we always do) in honor of that holiday—as a witness to King’s legacy. But for most of us who work in a place where that holiday is recognized, it is no more than a day off from work. Unless you spent part of your day reading about that struggle—or the current one—or unless you participated in a memorial march, or unless you at least spent some time in thought about where we are as a country today, then Peter Parris’ statement is probably true—the worst outcome of the named holiday is that everyone has forgotten the struggle continues.
Which is why I decided to write this after the holiday—as a reminder that even if you DID find a way to recognize Dr. King’s legacy on Monday, the real question is what will we do for the next 364 days? Over the course of the last couple of years there has been a rise in racial unrest—mostly centered around certain police actions in various parts of the country. Actions that have given rise to the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
It would be ridiculous to believe that anything more than a handful of undisciplined officers have been responsible for this rise. But it would be naïve for us to deny that justice in our land is meted out disproportionately to those of color. The statistics supporting that are overwhelming. And so the struggle continues.
I recall a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel who was on the bridge in Selma in 1965—a day that became known as “Bloody Sunday” when Alabama State Troopers were ordered to attack civil rights demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Rabbi Herschel said about that day, “I felt like it was my legs that were praying.” The walk, itself, was a prayer. For some, it was the most authentic prayer they had ever prayed.
So the holiday is now over until the same time next year. I wonder what will happen between now and then? I wonder if there might be occasions for us to “pray with our legs”?
Kristin Clark-Banks is the pastor of Forest Hills UMC.