Today, as it has since 1986, our nation observes Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in honor of a man who devoted his life to seeking racial equality and the overturning of prejudicial injustices through the means of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance.  His life was brought to a premature end by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee.  King was only 39.  

I was less than a year old when Martin Luther King, Jr., stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his powerful and inspiring “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.  It would be a decade later before I first read the speech and began to understand why it is considered to be among the most notable and influential in American history.  King dreamed of a day when America would “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.”  He dreamed of a day when his four children would live in a nation “where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  Over the last 46 years, much of King’s dream has been realized, but much still remains to be fulfilled.

I consider it a blessing that, even though I grew up mainly in the Deep South, I was shielded in my early years from the pervasive poison of racism by parents whose behavior and language treated all people with dignity and respect, regardless of the color of their skin.  As a young boy, I accompanied my father to black churches where he had appointments to preach.  When my parents served as missionaries in Liberia, West Africa, in the early 1970s, I attended the American Cooperative School (ACS) which had an international student body.  There were a dozen or more nationalities represented in my class.  In the fourth and fifth grade, I had a huge crush on a young lady named Zinnah Holmes, the prettiest girl in the class and also the best athlete, male or female.  Upon returning to central Kentucky in 1974, I showed a friend my yearbook and acknowledged my affection for Zinnah.  His response was, “Tim, she’s black.”  Either I had never noticed, or it never mattered.

As I grew older, my naiveté gave way to the sad realities of racism and the tragic role that slavery had played in American history.  Even the brilliant Thomas Jefferson, the chief architect of the Declaration of Independence which celebrated the equality and unalienable rights of all men, found a way to morally justify the holding of a multitude of slaves.  I heard racial epithets and the propagation of senseless stereotypes.  In the basement of a building at the Christian university I attended, there was a door which still bore the imprint of a sign which had read “Colored Men.”  It was the door to a separate restroom.  The sign was gone, but the evidence of past inequities remained.  Early in our marriage, Kim worked for a family, providing childcare and doing some light house cleaning.  In straightening the master bedroom one day, she found Klan pamphlets and propaganda under the edge of the bed.  She quit that day, out of both fear and disgust.  

Party, politics, and policies aside, I am very grateful that I have lived to see African Americans serve at the highest levels of our national government, including the Supreme Court and the Presidency.  I believe that Martin Luther King, Jr., would be proud of such progress.  But, there is still much to be accomplished in erasing the vestiges of prejudice and racism.  King once lamented that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning was the nation’s most racially segregated hour, the worship hour in America’s churches.  The truth of that observation hasn’t changed much over the last four decades.

Today, as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is observed, I pray that the dream is still alive.  And I pray that I have the kind of heart, language, and behavior that will help it become more fully realized.

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