Sunday, February 06, 2000

Dr. King's dream deferred

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ATLANTA — We're all in this together. That was his message. We're all Americans. If America is to fulfill its promise, everyone must make the same sacrifices, earn the same rewards, live with the same dignity.

        All the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wanted was to make America a better place. His dream was everyone's dream.

        I went to the 11 a.m. service at Ebenezer Baptist Church last Sunday, the morning of the Super Bowl, seeking ... what? Inspiration, maybe. Confirmation that Dr. King's hopes are alive. To ease my guilt about not being the person I can be.

        It's a good place for a slice of America's soul to live, beneath a vaulted ceiling soaring 100 feet to its peak. Dr. King preached at the original Ebenezer Baptist, across the street, but his hope for unity and equality endures here at the new Ebenezer, opened last March.

        “The Spirit gives life,” said Ebenezer pastor Joseph L. Roberts. “Let us live in the Spirit.”

        Pastor Roberts preached for an hour about the need for us to serve God as one people, “unified and dignified.” When the choir sang “O, How I Love Jesus,” we clapped in rhythm.

        Church services like this make you want to holler. You hold hands, you raise arms, you shout Amens. You participate in the joy of the day. Emotions flow from places soft and deep. Joy rides.

        People go to church for different reasons. Mine is usually selfish; it makes me feel good. I went to Ebenezer Baptist out of curiosity, and to pay tribute to a man who believed in America's greatness and demanded its fairness.

        Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, espousing the best hopes for the future of us all. His “I Have a Dream Speech” was our last, best expression of the American ideal, a plaintive wish for freedom and equality. It called on us to be the people we could be. It humbles us yet.

        Dr. King asked for a nation where people “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” He asked that we all share in that assessment. “We cannot walk alone,” he said.

        We do, though. Separate and alone. Thirty-seven years after his speech, I am apprehensive walking into a predominantly black church; I believe blacks would feel the same, worshiping at my church.

        Thirty-seven years later, we're still angry at each other much of the time. We're distrusting. We live in different worlds, our spirits stuck in the same old place.

        We've masked our suspicions in political correctness. We've cleansed our prejudices in denunciations of the likes of John Rocker and Marge Schott. But we don't understand each other any better.

        Dreams are grand wishes waiting to be filled. Dr. King said he had seen the mountaintop. Sometimes, 37 years later, it seems the only person who has made it up that mountain is the late reverend himself.

        Thirty-seven years later, black customers at the bank are asked for identification, and whites are not. On the highway, black motorists are stopped randomly, and white motorists are not. In suburban neighborhoods, black families are discouraged from moving in, and white families are not.

        We have not summoned the humanity Dr. King envisioned or the compassion he taught.

        Three times last Sunday, a man reached across the aisle to hold my right hand; a woman at the far end of my pew moved closer to hold my left. As the choir sang, we raised our arms toward the roof of Martin Luther King's church. His message shot through me like a ray from the sun.

        The last hymn we sang was “Standing On The Promises.” Oh, that we would.

        Paul Daugherty, an Enquirer sports columnist, writes a lifestyle column on Sunday. He welcomes your comments at 768-8454.