Like King, I am a child of the South. I, too, found a home in the Baptist tradition of spirituality. Back then I wept not only for King and his family but also for our society.
I shudder as I remember the hate-filled, dehumanizing names that were flung like poison-tipped darts at King. "Uppity black," some called him, or "corrupt agitator," "senseless troublemaker," or worse. Even individuals who had never met the man spat venomous words at his mention, as if poking pins in a voodoo doll hoping to do him harm.
Such vitriolic, hate-laced language is toxic to the environment. It can prompt a clenched fist to slam against someone's jaw, or a trigger finger to release a deadly bullet. Words feed attitudes that drive actions. Today I remember a vibrant leader left lifeless on a motel balcony.
Reasons for tears remain. The rhetoric of enraged prejudice persists. People shout at one another, "bleeding-heart liberals," "narrow-minded fundamentalists," "religious fanatics," "godless atheists" and more.
We make it easy for individuals to find guns that turn their bigotry into personal tragedy and social chaos. We continue to kill both the best and the worst among us. We still parochialize justice and jeopardize the very rights and responsibilities that preserve liberty. We despise the pluralism that gives richness and promise to our nation. How long, how long?
Hate hurts at best; at worst, it kills. Of course, no law can eliminate hate. But in an environment of paranoid prejudices, laws can make it difficult for hate-filled people to translate their dark sentiments into violence. We need those laws.
I am pleased that our nation celebrates Martin Luther King's birth. But we will do well to also remember his death. A recollection of that sad day can prompt an honest recognition of a society still in need of substantive change. Almost imperceptibly my memories of the past take on the nature of a prayer, a prayer that pleads for a time when no one nods at prejudice, tolerates violence or respects hatred.
Some call this wishful thinking. Others know these hopes as a dream. This vision is as old as the prophetic core of the faith traditions that thrive in our land, and as vital as the dreamer who gave his life in Memphis.
Martin Luther King Jr. died on April 4, 1968. On April 4, 2000, the legacy of this man and the power of his dream still live. To remember carefully is to see the urgent necessity of constructing a society in which the work and the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. will be fulfilled.