King’s Dream Remains Alive for this Son of the South
By James E. Brenneman
As a young child of the South in the early-1960s, I remember sneaking a drink of water from a gas station water fountain marked “colored only.”
Even though I knew the water coming from both fountains was the same, I still had to taste it for myself. Perhaps there was a bit of self-doubt — I was only 6, after all. Just maybe, I thought, the water in the two fountains really was different.
Segregation was a way of life for decades before I came on the scene. The U.S. Supreme Court decided in Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896) that it was legal for states to segregate people by their race. “Separate but equal” is what the court declared.
So there were separate seating areas on buses, separate public bathrooms, and separate eating areas. If a restaurant wanted to serve both white and black folks, they had to have separate entrances and at least a seven-foot barrier from the floor up between the two sections. As a young child in Florida, I remember going to a cafeteria — a real treat for our rather poor family — and feeling special to eat in the whites-only section.
Some towns had curfews for blacks: 9:30 p.m. for “uneducated” blacks; 10:30 p.m. for “educated” blacks; shopping downtown for blacks only after 2 p.m. on Saturdays. Of course, there were separate schools, even separate textbooks.
In Mississippi, it was illegal to print, publish or circulate matters arguing for social equality or marriage between the races. Of course, marriages between a white person and any person with one-eighth or more of “black blood” were outlawed. There were separate beaches, separate hospitals and separate ticket booths. Blacks had to sit upstairs in theaters, even if the whole downstairs was empty. And if you died and you were black, you had to be buried in a segregated cemetery.
What is it with people? Ever since ancient times, we have wanted to separate ourselves from each other on the basis on differing ethnic and cultural lines, by gender, by social status, by tribe, by religious persuasion and so on. Ever since the first humans found communal cohesion by scapegoating others, we have been doing the same ever since. It’s been divide and conquer. “Us” against “them.”
Historically, and even too often today, we’ve draw boundaries ever more narrowly and restrictively to divide people.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. imagined a different reality, a more hopeful future, described in the teachings of the prophets, in the life of Jesus Christ and in the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. He imagined a world in which the circle of God’s love was drawn ever wider, extending east, west, north, south to the “highest heavens” across ethnic and racial lines, across apartheid barriers and around checkpoints of fear and hostility.
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” Rev. King said. “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial, ‘outsider’ (mentality) … Let us … call our nation to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humanness.”
I am thankful for this holiday — a day set aside each year to remember the legacy of this modern prophet. Like all prophets before him, he was fallible. But Rev. King nonetheless had his pulse on the cry of all people — everywhere — who wish to find refuge under the shadow of God’s loving wings.
I believe God’s steadfast love can break down even the highest walls of separation between people. We wish to separate, but God’s wings of love expand ever more widely. In a sense, King outwitted his opponents by expanding the circle of God’s love to include even his enemies.
When I was growing up I wanted to live in a future in which out of many peoples we truly would be “one people under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” Is this dream still alive today? I hope so. I pray so.
But can we, as our money states, truly become “E Pluribus Unum” — out of many, one?
At Goshen College, I truly believe we do want a more diverse campus that reflects the diversity of God’s good creation. In giving a $12.5 million grant last year to the college for a new Center for Intercultural Teaching and Learning, I’m confident that Lilly Endowment Inc. believes Goshen College will be able to put deeds to words. We believe this amazing commitment will help create the kind of deep transformation we long for — a transformation that infuses our whole institution, ourselves, and our community with Christ’s inclusive love.
A glimpse at the world from space underscores the relative intimacy of our home planet. Rev. King imagined the world as a widely separated family — one that inherits a house in which all live together in what King called “a World House.”
It’s my hope that Goshen College will realize that dream and become a truly Christ-centered liberal arts “World House of Learning” for the 21st century and beyond.
James E. Brenneman is president of Goshen College.
Published: in The South Bend Tribune, page B5, Jan. 15, 2007
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