As a teenager, the American Jesuits at Xavier Labour Relations Institute, Jamshedpur, where my father taught, lent me an anthology of Great American Speeches to prepare for elocution competions. And so I memorized Frederick Douglass’ brilliant, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July,” (1854) and Martin Luther King’s equally brilliant, “I have a dream” which has been ringing in my ears this week.
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In 1963, 49 years ago, Martin Luther King addressed 250,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
We’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check .
And 45 years later, by electing and re-electing a Black President to the White House, American made reality of a dream beyond King’s very, very modest dream, which he described:
I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!
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To me, as a minority American citizen (I lived there for 17 years!) watching from England, the 2008 and 2012 elections were profoundly redemptive. Like many people, I could hardly hold back my tears.
I watched America toss into the dustbin of history the shameful legacy of slavery, which Frederick Douglass graphically described in his great speech “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” “What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their mastcrs? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong?”
I watched white men and women, along with black men and women who had been legally discriminated against in the segregated South and had been largely disenfranchised until the 1965 Voting Rights Act, vote not once but twice for a Black President, to the joy of the watching world.
And within living memory of the brutalities of the civil rights movement, I watched Americans elect as President of the United States of America a black man called Barack Hussein Obama, whose name recalled two of America’s greatest recent enemies, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, a name that should have been a non-starter in American-politics!
There were some white faces in the crowd who listened to Martin Luther King, perhaps 5%. And in the crowd who listened to Barack Obama’s re-election speech? Over 50%. You’ve come a long way, America!
As I realized last week during my wonderful stay in a Christian community in Germany, nations can change. They can reinvent themselves, just as individuals can.
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I watched my 18 year old daughter, Zoe, fill out her absentee ballot for Barack Hussein Obama,
And when the election results were analysed the next day, I was proud of the way our family voted.
I’m guessing most people vote for the candidate whose policies, in their estimation, most benefit themselves and their families.
These were the groups who predominantly voted for Obama. Blacks (94%), Asians (74%), Latinos (73%), and Jews (69%). However, whites still make up 72% of the electorate, and without their support, Obama would not have won. 41% of whites voted for a black President. And this would have been beyond Martin Luther King’s wildest dreams. No wonder, as the results rolled in, so many were tearful.
Blacks, Latinos, Asians and Jews. Who else voted for Barack Hussein Obama? Women: 55%. Young people 18-29: 60%. Those in the lowest income bracket (below $50,000): 60%.
Romney did best among whites, especially men, especially those over 65, especially those earning more than $100,000, and with a college degree.
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Karl Barth famously said, “Take your Bible and take your newspapers, and read both.” Rowan Williams repeated Barth’s advice for his successor, “You have to be cross-referencing all the time”
And so when I read of the people who elected Barack Obama, I thought of the support base of David, the King of Israel who was most after God’s heart. “All those who were in distress or in debt or discontented gathered around him, and he became their commander.” (1 Samuel 22:2)
I thought of the support base of Jesus, people who were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” “Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law is accursed.” (John 7:48). “The large crowd listened to him with delight.” (Mark 12:37). “The people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing,” (Luke 13:17).
Yeah, I was kind of glad our family voted for the candidate supported by ethnic minorities, by women, and by groups with somewhat lower education and income, and whose policies are in their estimate, most likely to “make justice roll down like a river”.
I am glad Americans voted in someone perceived to be good news to the poor. And I believe he will be a great American president.
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In fact, ironically, Martin Luther King’s big dream was not big enough. Having a black President in the White House would have seemed an impossible dream in 1963, in an era of legalized segregation and discrimination, when hundreds of thousands of African-American were denied the vote though literacy tests (administered by whites, which even the literate “failed,”) poll taxes or physical violence
But perhaps King foresaw more than he could have credibly shared. The last lines of his last speech on April 3rd, 1968 the night before he was assassinated are powerful and prophetic.
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!
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All our eyes are seeing glory–the glory of nations, America, Germany, Britain, transcending their dark histories, forgetting the sin and shame of the past, moving forward to the day when in the words of the prophet Amos quoted in Martin Luther King’s great “I have a Dream” speech, “justice shall roll down like a river, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”