[Episcopal Diocese of New York] A pastoral letter from the bishop of New York on the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.
My dear brothers and sisters,
Today America commemorates and celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King at the March on Washington. “I have a dream.” It was to become, immediately upon its delivery, one of the handful of most important addresses in the history of this country, and a clarion call to higher purpose and resolve for America and for an embattled civil rights movement.
Fifty years later we no longer live in Jim Crow America. The legal structures of American apartheid were long ago dismantled. The movement of which Dr. King emerged as leader did indeed bring a conversion of heart and spirit to this country, and achieved successes which for most people were probably hard to imagine on August 28, 1963.
And yet, a half century on, the work of this movement is not over. We have seen this year the nullification of key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, one of the singular achievements of the civil rights movement. We are watching state after state enact regulations designed to limit access to the polls for poor people, people of color, the very old and the very young. The racially-profiled humiliations of Stop and Frisk, and the character assassination targeted at Trayvon Martin and the exoneration of his killer testify to the continued unequal treatment under the law for people of color. De facto racial segregation, unequal access to education, systemic poverty and prisons filled with people of color demand of us the same courage, faith and resolve of our forebears. Like Isaac, we are forever called to re-dig the wells of our fathers. To throw ourselves again into battles we thought we had won, against forces we hoped we had overcome.
It is a reminder that Dr. King’s speech was not the valedictory address of a victor as he laid down his arms, but the resolute call of one ready to take the struggle to a deeper place, to shoulder ever heavier burdens, to pay an even higher cost. The March on Washington was born of violence: the murder of Medgar Evers, the fire hoses and vicious dogs of Bull Connor. But so much of the blood that those years would require was yet to be shed: the Sunday morning bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham; the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner; Jonathan Daniels; Malcolm X; Bloody Sunday; Watts. And finally, the assassination of the dreamer we remember today. There are costs to be paid by those who dare to dream.
Fifty years ago I was nine, and I came into the living room one day to find my now departed mother, still then a young woman, watching a news report. It was of the vicious and violent assault on the demonstrators in Birmingham. And she was crying. I am much, much older now than she was then, but her tears, and the things she told me as I sat beside her on the couch, continue among the handful of strongest memories I have from my childhood. And I think about what it means for us to weep for one another, what it means to be human beings together. The price of it, and the possibilities. Today we acknowledge the work unfinished, the challenges still before us, and the obstacles newly laid in our path. May we not fail to take up that work anew. Even so we may still give deepest thanks that when we most needed it, God sent a prophet, and give most profound thanks for the life and the sacrifice which dear Martin made on behalf of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the free lives of the children of God, and give humble thanks that when the din of violent hateful venom had slammed shut every human ear, Dr. King’s sacred words opened them again to hope and truth and honor. And be thankful that one Spirit-filled man stepped before the world and gave voice to the common dream which God placed in every heart. We recognize his dream as our own. It is the dream of the Kingdom. It is a dream of righteousness. it is the dream of Jesus, who came among us that all might be one.
With every good wish, I remain
Most faithfully yours,
The Rt. Rev. Andrew M. L. Dietsche
Bishop of New York