Last Monday, we observed the Martin Luther King, Jr holiday which was marked by gatherings, prayer and readings of his famous speech across our nation. Martin Luther King would have turned 95 on January 15th. Last summer was the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington when he delivered the beautiful I have a Dream speech, or Sermon really, to a large crowd who had gathered in our nation’s capital. So much has changed since that day, yet sadly, there is much more work that needs to be done. History is an important teacher and as much as many of us wish that more progress would have been made in terms of race in our nation in recent decades, we must acknowledge the tragedy of the sin of racism in our nation still and the way in which it affects so many lives. We are living in a time when Christian White Nationalism has grown in popularity as we see acts of violence perpetrated against communities of color, our Jewish brothers and sisters and immigrants. Let us pray, O God of justice and mercy, we know that you have sent us prophets over time to remind us of that we are called to be people of justice, that we treat all people with respect and dignity. Help us to live out your dream knowing that we all are made in your image; we are all your children. Amen.
Our readings this morning are drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. We hear in each of these readings a powerful exhortation to the faithful to repent, to advocate for justice; we hear in very plain language that we must “hate what is evil and love good; establish justice at the gate.” In Isaiah, we hear the beautiful promise, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 2 For darkness shall cover the earth and thick darkness the peoples, but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.” The words of the prophets were quoted often by Dr. King in his many speeches and they have been quoted again and again by prophets throughout time.
As I was thinking this week about Dr. King, I thought about so many of the women who also have worked tirelessly for racial equality in our nation, many of whose stories have been lost to history. We remember women like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Shirley Chisholm, Althea Gibson, Ida B Wells, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King and so many others who embraced the dream of a more equal society across racial, gender, and economic lines in our nation.
I found myself drawn to learning about some of the women who were active in the 1950’s and 60’s, and I came upon a lovely story I had not heard. In Essence magazine, I read about a woman named Prathia Hall who is credited with having inspired the “I Have A Dream” repetition used in the famous speech. She was a fellow preacher and an activist who led a prayer group in Sasser, Georgia on September 10, 1962, the day after the Mount Olive Baptist Church was burned to the ground by the Ku Klux Klan. Prathia Hall watched the house of worship reduced to nothing as no firefighters showed up to save the church. The church was a meeting place for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which Hall had joined in 1962. She was the first female field officer in rural Southwest Georgia, an area of Georgia that was known to be quite unsafe to the civil rights workers. On September 6, three days before she delivered her own beautiful dream speech, she was wounded when segregationist night riders shot up the home where she was staying.
On the day following the church burning, this young woman led a vigil attended by 50 African-Americans including Dr. King. At 22, Hall had only recently graduated from Temple University with a degree in political science, but she was a civil rights veteran. She immersed herself in the principles of nonviolence during high school in her hometown of Philadelphia, PA.
Hall was renowned for her oratory skills and was long considered to be a pastor of the civil rights movement in her own right, long before she officially followed her calling. Years later, someone who had heard her said that she was “a woman who could absolutely magnetize a mass meeting…she had such a command of the language.” Some of her friends in SNCC teased her as Prayer-thia Hall.
Dr. King had known Prathia Hall through her earlier work and their mutual commitment to social justice. He was impressed with her beautiful oratorical skills. On that day following the church burning, the vigil began as people joined hands in song. Claude Sitton of the New York Times reported that the group sang “We Shall Overcome” as “a wisp of smoke rose from the ashes of the church….” Following the song, Hall delivered a prayer that included the lines “Lord, we’re going to be free. We want to be free so our children won’t have to grow up with their heads bowed.” Throughout the prayer, Hall also repeated the phrase “I Have A Dream,” followed by individual calls for racial justice and equality. Her words made an impression on her friend Martin Luther King Jr. As Courtney Pace in the book Freedom Faith, wrote
“After the service, King sought and received Hall’s permission to use the phrase “I have a dream” in his own preaching. Hall was a fairly private person in general and she never boasted about her connection to King, although, later in life, when friends asked about her role in “I have a dream,” she confirmed that King adapted the phrase from her use. She was quick to say King made the speech his own and did not plagiarize her.” Courtney Pace says Hall’s biography: “Whether she was his only source or merely the spark that culminated years of influence, it was only after personally witnessing Hall’s dream in Southwest Georgia that King started using the phrase in his preaching.”
A year later, Hall went to Selma, where she witnessed the brutal aftermath of Bloody Sunday. The violence changed the course of her life. In an essay about the fallout from the horrific events on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, she wrote, “This was a theological crisis for me. I went into a period of very deep silence after that. I withdrew. I was deeply traumatized. I soon left the South.”
Prathia Hall later married and fulfilled her destiny to join the ministry. In 1977, she became one of the first African-American women ordained by the American Baptist Churches. She also earned a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1997. Fittingly, she later was appointed to the Martin Luther King Chair in Social Ethics at the Boston University School of Theology. She died in 2002 at the age of 62.
Mahalia Jackson was another prominent woman in the Civil Rights movement. Born in 1911, she became a famous Gospel singer and is widely considered as one of the most influential vocalists of the 20th century. The granddaughter of enslaved people, Jackson was born and raised in poverty in New Orleans. She found a home in her church, leading to a lifelong dedication to share God’s word through song. While attending the National Baptist Convention in 1956, Jackson met Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, both ministers emerging as organizers protesting segregation. Jackson often sang to support worthy causes for no charge and offered her gifts to civil rights causes, becoming the most prominent gospel musician associated with King and the civil rights movement.
She truly appreciated that civil rights protests were often organized within churches and its participants inspired by hymns, and so she traveled to Montgomery, Alabama to sing in support of the ongoing bus boycott there. She publicly supported a group of black sharecroppers in Tennessee who faced eviction simply for exercising their right to vote When Dr. King was arrested and sentenced to four months hard labor, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy intervened, earning Jackson’s loyal support. She began campaigning for him, saying, “I feel that I’m a part of this man’s hopes. He lifts my spirit and makes me feel a part of the land I live in.” She was later invited Kennedy to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at President Kennedy’s inaugural ball in 1961. Jackson lent her support to Dr. King and other ministers in 1963 after their successful campaign to end segregation in Birmingham by holding a fundraising rally to pay for protestors’ bail. She became a personal friend of King and his wife Coretta, and often hosted them when they visited Chicago. She shared two songs at the March on Washington. Sadly, after Dr. King was assassinated, she was invited to sing one of his favorite hymns, Precious Lord, Take My Soul at his funeral. This was a hymn that had inspired him over the years of his life.
We know that women have always been integral to movements for social change and justice in our country, and yet, too often, their stories have not been told. As I researched some of the women who were involved in the 1950’s and 60’s, I thought about the pain of black mothers in recent years, continuing to lose their children, especially their sons to police shootings or other gun violence. We see them appearing in public and calling for an end to the violent protests; we see them working tirelessly so that other mothers will not lose their children in the same way. We see the women working for voting rights and against gun violence. They continue to share the dream and we should learn their names and their stories so that we may honor them and be inspired by them. God indeed has a dream for our world and we are called to help work so that dream becomes a reality.
“Pieces from the Past: Voices of Heroic Women in Civil Rights,
Essence Magazine, PATRICK J. SAUER · UPDATED MAY 25, 2021