Sweet Land of Liberty, Of Thee I Sing

Rev. Paula Norbert

Each year, we remember Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his work for civil rights, economic justice, and peace. His birthday was January 15th and so the decision to remember him with a national holiday always falls near that date each year. It was 1986 when this date was first observed for his important work on behalf of racial and economic justice. We also remember him as a person of faith who was committed to peaceful means of protesting unjust laws that sought to keep blacks segregated in too many states. In honoring his legacy, we remember so many who joined that cause of all races and faiths, those whose names we may never know but who showed a fierce determination to move this country toward a more perfect union. Sadly, this past year, we have continued to witness the scars of the legacy of racial injustice; we have been reminded of the work that yet needs to be completed to eradicate the sin of racism from our shores. It is the work of all of us, because as Dr. King once said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Let us pray, O Holy One, we know that you command us to love one another as we love you. We ask that you continue to inspire us and grant us the courage to do the work that needs to be done so that all of our brothers and sisters may be treated with equal respect and dignity. Bless us in these very divided times and grant us a vision of a new world in which all may live in peace. Amen.

I have shared with some of you an important story I recall from when I was a chaplain at Boston College some years ago. During the Orientation Week each year for incoming students, there would be a series of invited speakers who would share important information with the new class. One of these speakers was memorable and his words still echo in my mind often. This man had served as the chief of the hate crimes division of the Boston Police Department over a number of years and he shared his story and what he had learned over that time with the students. He was a white, Irish Catholic cop who was raised in one a predominantly white neighborhood of Boston. As a young police officer, he was sent to be part of the protection unit when busing took place in south Boston, nearly entirely white neighborhood at that time. He recalls the buses of school children coming in from black neighborhoods and the crowds of people who showed up to protest. He remembered seeing the hate in their faces, the fear on the children’s faces, the acts of violence and vandalism against the buses as they drove through and that left a deep mark on his memory.
He would then speak about what led him to the hate crimes division, sharing stories with these young college students, most of whom had grown up in the suburbs, of families he visited who had been the victim of hate crimes. He talked about young black families who had dared to move into a white neighborhood who had rocks thrown through their windows in the night or a cross burned on their front lawn…or of Jewish families who woke up to see a giant swastika painted on the front of their modest home. He talked about the fear they felt; while they had not been physically injured, the injury to their psyches and to their sense of security was great. The fear they felt for the safety of their children was immense. The pain and disillusionment would stay with them and with him over many years. As he spoke, he left a deep impression as he told of how his own thinking had changed profoundly over time about racism and anti-semitism and other forms of discrimination he witnessed and the ways in which it marks people. His stories were deeply moving and I wish I could do justice to them now for all of you. He was a riveting speaker and he invited these students to speak out and speak up, to be a voice for inclusion and for justice, and to do their part to stop the spread of hatred within our society.

He had observed in so many of these incidents that the folks whom he called the ‘haters and cowards’ would often start with some smaller act of graffiti or racist action and then they would wait. If there was no response, these events would escalate. But if the community spoke out and said this is not who we are; there is no place for this within our community, then things would not escalate. However, if the community did not respond, if action was not taken against them, he saw time and time again how these threats would escalate and they would spread, leaving a trail of fear and pain and damage, not just to the family who was targeted, but to everyone within that community. If our brothers and sisters are injured, then we are all injured.

I thought about his remarks over these recent weeks as I have listened to some of the accounts by police and congressional staff about what transpired at our nation’s capitol. We have all seen the racist and anti-semitic shirts and symbols that many of those in the mob proudly displayed. One black congresswoman said she kept hearing the “n” word echoing through the halls as some of these people got closer to where they were hiding. And to have someone proudly carrying a large confederate flag in the capitol was stunning.

It was the apostle Paul in Galatians 3 who offered a vision of unity to the early Christian community, who said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” How sad Martin Luther King and so many of those who worked tirelessly for change in our country must feel; how sad all of us feel as we are reminded of how much work is still left unfinished.

One of the mostly unsung heroes of the Civil Rights movement was a woman named Dorothy Height. I wonder how many of us have heard of her? In her memoir, Open Wide the Freedom Gates, Dr. Dorothy Irene Height, said, “I am the product of many whose lives have touched mine, from the famous, distinguished, and powerful to the little known and the poor.” Dorothy Height grew up outside of Pittsburg and attended integrated schools. After winning a national oratory contest in high school that provided a college scholarship, she arrived at Barnard college in 1929, only to be turned away as she was informed that the college had already admitted two black students, and that their quota was filled. Instead, she enrolled at New York University where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in educational psychology.

After college, she worked for the YWCA and joined the National Council of Negro Women, beginning a career of working for civil rights and equality for black Americans and women. Alongside the “Big Six” of the Civil Rights movement, which included MLK and John Lewis, she was called the “unheralded seventh.” For her efforts over the course of her life. She was the only woman given that distinction, although we know how many women worked hard to organize and protest and register voters and speak out for change. She was a nonpartisan adviser to presidents of both parties over the years, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and later the Congressional Medal of Freedom. She, along with other leading women in the Civil Rights Movement, worked for years to finally have a statue of the black suffragist Sojourner Truth erected in the US Capitol Building in April 2009.

We know that two important leaders in the Civil Rights movement died this past year, Dr. C.T. Vivian and Congressman John Lewis. Historian Jon Meacham published his book, His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope last October. He had spent countless hours with Lewis before he died, interviewing him and learning about the ways in which his life experiences, his faith, and other great figures of truth and justice had inspired him for the work of his life. I hope that all of us have spent time learning about his amazing life so that we may be inspired to make trouble, “good trouble” as he often said on behalf of justice, equality, and peace. In the book, Lewis reflected, “The message of the civil rights movement was straightforward, and it was a message grounded in hope: We are one people; we are one family; we all live in the same house—the American house, the world house.”

“We truly believed that we were on God’s side, and in spite of everything—the beatings, the bombings, the burnings—God’s truth would prevail,” Lewis recalled. The anguish and the duration of the struggle was, in a way, a vindication of the premise of the struggle itself—that this was the ultimate battle to bring light to darkness no matter how often darkness prevailed.” (Jon Meacham, His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope)

I hope and pray that when we feel discouraged or disillusioned or just downright sick and tired of the hatred and division, that we may seek the inspiration and the strength from those who have come before us, so many who worked so hard for change and that we may never give up the hope that better days, days of inclusion and love are still possible and that we and those who come after us may realize the dream of ensuring that America is indeed a ‘sweet land of liberty’ for all. We shall overcome…someday.

I’d like to close with a short film that was produced by a wonderful organization called Salt, from which I often draw inspiration. They compiled some footage from the archives of the March on Washington to be shared widely as we look back and remember, seeking courage to do the work that yet needs to be done. It is our work; it is our responsibility to look around and say this is not who we are; this is not who we want to be. Our God is holding us, I do believe.