This week in our neighborhood, a ceremony on Martin Luther King Day officially celebrated the renaming of Confederate Avenue as United Avenue.
My photo of that ceremony follows this post.
This is an excerpt of the talk I gave this past Sunday to the First Existentialist Congregation (UU) of Atlanta.
In August of 1973 I drove my ’63 Volkswagen through Washington, D.C. on my way to seminary in New Haven, Connecticut. I walked the capitol mall, and as I summitted a rise near the Washington monument, I caught a glimpse of the Lincoln memorial at the other end of the mall just as the sun was setting, and my imagination glimpsed the glory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King on its steps intoning “I have a dream…”
Later I would learn that he had begun a very different speech, but the poet Maya Angelou shouted to him, “Tell them about the dream, Martin,” and he wisely switched gears and gave a speech he had used to inspire and uplift others on an earlier occasion.
That summer day in 1973, I realized it was the tenth anniversary of the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, and I literally had goosebumps at the thought, tears coming to my eyes.
I was a twelve-year-old boy in Southern California when that march was held. I knew little of the struggle for Civil Rights that culminated in that march. On that day, I was at a very different kind of mall, Topanga Plaza, one of the first grand shopping malls built in a trend that would sweep the United States. A large store window had multi-level shelves stacked with TV’s facing toward the mall’s interior, and every one of them was tuned to the news coverage of the March on Washington. I knew something very important was happening.
Weeks later, in our doctor’s office, I saw Life Magazine’s coverage of the march with its supersized photos and captions. Soon the film and book To Kill a Mockingbird would tell the story of racial segregation and injustice in the South from a child’s view in a way that could help a young boy like me understand and empathize. In public high school, teachers taught me more—not just about racial injustice in the South, but the de facto segregation in my own hometown of Los Angeles, and apartheid in South Africa.
Exchanges with inner city schools and the Watts riots furthered my education. Our high school principal, an African American, spoke so eloquently, it prompted my desire to write and speak as well as he did. Yet the real estate market practices of the time prevented him and his family from buying a house in our neighborhood—and this in supposedly “liberal” California!
One of the reasons I left the fundamentalist Christian tradition in which I was reared was because, when three black women visited our Baptist Church, I overheard one of our members say to another white woman, “I bet they were here to try that integratin’ stuff, but we showed them they were welcome even if they are Negroes.”
I remember exactly where I was when I learned Martin Luther King had been shot. I was 17, and not yet fully aware of all that he had done and all that had been done to advance racial equality, but, like seeing the multiple television screens broadcasting the 1963 Civil Rights March, I knew something important had happened. My brother had just heard it on the radio and came in the kitchen to tell my mom and me. My first thought was to pray for him, which I did. Then the news came that he had died.
I had been attending a more progressive church, and the following Sunday night, the youth pastor took his turn in the pulpit and read one of Dr. King’s sermons, “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” The first dimension King described was length of days that allowed a full flowering of a human’s potential. The second dimension was breadth, in King’s words, “breadth by which individuals concern themselves in the welfare of others.” The third dimension, King preached, was often ignored: that of height—in King’s words, “that upward reach toward something distinctly greater than humanity.” We often fail to reach for the spiritual dimension of life. He said of those who fail to reach for that spiritual dimension, “They seek to live without a sky.”
Like all good preachers of the time, King brought his observations together in a homely story:
A wise old preacher went to a college to deliver a baccalaureate sermon. After finishing his message, he lingered on the campus to talk with members of the graduating class. He spoke with a brilliant young graduate named Robert. His first question to Robert was: “What are your plans for the future?” “I plan to go immediately to law school,” said Robert. “What then, Robert?” continued the preacher. Robert retorted, “I must frankly say that I plan to make lots of money from my law practice and thereby I hope to retire rather early and spend a great deal of time traveling to various parts of the world—something that I have always wanted to do.”
“What then, Robert?” added the preacher with an almost annoying inquisitiveness. “Well,” said Robert, “these are all of my plans.” Looking at Robert with a countenance expressing pity and fatherly concern, the preacher said, “Young man, your plans are far too small. They can expend only seventy-five or a hundred years at the most. You must make your plans big enough to include God and large enough to include eternity.”
In my own words, I would echo King’s sentiment in this way: this is our moment to live and shape eternity, to live and shape the divine life of this universe.
That is what I wanted to do when I grew up, in my own small way, as a gay activist in the church and beyond.
Providentially, high school friends invited me to visit a Presbyterian Church whose liberal views they thought I’d like. The first sermon I heard there, the first Sunday of the year 1970, was a recounting of the previous ten years of the Civil Rights movement. Come to find out, the largely white congregation was participating in a program to overcome racism called Project Understanding. Through weekly forums and community outreach, the church hoped to be awakened to social justice concerns, including race, the Vietnam war, Native American issues, the needs of the adjacent Latino barrio, and eventually, even gay and lesbian concerns. It was a “woke” church before its time. The denomination to which it belonged had written a new Confession of Faith in 1967 that called for the reconciliation of races, religions, and nationalities.
It was part of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., the northern stream of Presbyterianism in America, broken from its southern stream since the abolition of slavery and the Civil War, finally to be united as the Presbyterian Church (USA) here in this very city of Atlanta in 1983. The two denominations literally marched to the Atlanta City Hall as a physical representation of our new-found unity, and there Mayor Andrew Young, himself a United Church of Christ minister, welcomed us.
That’s probably more than you care to know about Presbyterian history, but I tell it to explain how I came to be at the 1983 March on Washington commemorating that first March in 1963. I was there as part of the Presbyterian contingent.
The first congregation I served after seminary closed its worship service joining hands and singing “We Shall Overcome.” This dated back to its days supporting the Civil Rights movement. When I tried to edit this song out of the service, thinking of it as a dated relic, the congregation rebelled because it had become about more than black and white, it was about gay and straight, women and men and transgender, it was about every religious perspective, about every category of humanity by which we try to separate ourselves from one another.
In response to my talk, First Existentialist stood in a circle, joined hands, and sang the many verses of “We Shall Overcome.” In the talk, I also included the words of Bayard Rustin, the gay African American who organized the 1963 March on Washington, that I published in an earlier post, “Bayard Rustin Speaks.”
In thanksgiving for the life of poet Mary Oliver, who died last week, I invite you to read my many posts that referenced her.
Without controversy, residents removed "Confederate" from our street signs.
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