“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I recall my High School band marching in a Martin Luther King, Jr. parade, in Eatonville, FL – the Central Florida home of author Zora Neale Hurston, and the first incorporated all-black city in the nation. Honestly, confessionally, I’m not sure I knew who Dr. King was then, or why a parade was held in his honor. My High School band marched in numerous parades – Christmas, Homecoming… even at Walt Disney World. I doubt the significance of marching in another parade – the MLK Day Parade, specifically – even occurred to me.
My ignorance was unfortunate.
For whatever reason, I haven’t attended or participated in an MLK Day parade since. The truth is, I haven’t attended many parades, of any kind, since High School. I haven’t been avoiding MLK Day parades, specifically. As I’m not a fan of crowds, I tend to avoid parades as a general practice.
Until this year…
A large group, representing my church, participated in the Orlando Pride Parade, last October, visibly demonstrating our support for the LGBTQ+ community. I fully supported our participation, and would have happily marched had I not been out of town.
Reflecting on our participation in the Pride parade, and our desire to be an open, welcoming, affirming church, I wondered, “As we open our doors to the LGBTQ+ community, are we also open to the full diversity of the Orlando community?” I sincerely believe we want to be, but may not be as demonstrative in communicating that openness to others. We appear to be a white church, for white people.
Soon after the Pride parade, I proposed we also march in the upcoming Orlando MLK Day Parade, which was held last Saturday morning, January 18, 2020. A dozen of us, representing First United Methodist Church of Orlando, wearing First Church t-shirts and carrying a banner with a Dr. King quote, saying, “The time is always right to do what is right,” marched behind an all-black dance team and were followed by a hair salon, presumably serving a primarily black clientele.
Before the parade, I hadn’t considered who’d march in the parade or who the spectators would be. Only upon arrival did I realize we were the ONLY predominantly “white” church in the parade. We were the ONLY downtown church in the parade. Not only that, well-over 95% of the parade participants and attendees were African American – perhaps more. Before the parade, it hadn’t occurred to me that our presence and participation would be unusual, or that we might be making some kind of statement.
On one level, I was proud of our church’s presence in the parade. I don’t know how others perceived us – hopefully, in the supportive spirit we intended. Many clapped for us, and cheered us on. Others seemed surprised. I hope, on the whole, our presence was perceived as positive.
But, on a deeper level, I was saddened by the lack of white participation and attendance.
Obviously, Dr. King was a Civil Rights leader for the African American community. Unsurprisingly, his example and accomplishments continue to serve as a rallying-point for African Americans. That’s right and good, and easily understood.
But, is Dr. King only a hero for black America? Was his fight for racial justice and equality only for people of color?
I don’t think so.
Personally, Dr. King is one of my greatest heroes. I’ve been nourished by his sermons and writings. I’ve been influenced by his example and teachings. I’ve been inspired by his accomplishments. I’ve been awed by his intellect. I’ve been challenged by his convictions, his endurance in the face of violent opposition, and his courage in the face of physical danger. I’ve been convicted to acknowledge my privilege as a white Southern male, to not view it as an entitlement, and to take responsibility for how I use that power for the common good.
I’m a better man – a better WHITE man – a better Christian, a better pastor, a better citizen, because of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was born into a better America and world – just eight months before his death – because of Dr. King.
I’d argue Dr. King wasn’t only a leader or inspiration for the black community. Dr. King is an American hero – and an American treasure. Likewise, his accomplishments as a Civil Rights leader weren’t solely for the African-American community’s benefit, or even for minority groups in general. I believe America – all of America – is better because of the achievements, inspiration and prophetic voice of Dr. King.
And, maybe, white America needed and needs Dr. King as much as black America did and does, to confront our privilege and unconscious racial biases, to challenge our complicit participation in societal injustices, and to awaken us to the great gift of diversity and the myriad contributions of African-Americans to American society.
America’s greatness is rooted in our shared conviction that, “all men are created equal… endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” AND the degree to which ALL American citizens are actually afforded the opportunity to live as such. Dr. King was the drum major, leading ALL of us – black and white – toward honoring our national commitment to ALL Americans.
Dr. King famously dreamed, “I have a dream that my four 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… one day little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” Dr. King’s “I Have Dream” speech is a national treasure, and continues to inspire and challenge us, as Americans, to keep working toward its fulfillment.
But, we’re not there yet. The dream is still a dream, falling short of fulfillment. There’s still work to be done by BOTH white and black America. Marching in the MLK Day Parade reminded me, we’re not there yet. While I honor the African America community having events like the MLK Day Parade to celebrate its own culture and accomplishments, I mourn the lack of support or interest from the white community, demonstrated by our conspicuous absence.
So, I’m proud to have participated, with my church, in the 2020 MLK Day Parade. We’ll march again next year, and the year after that, and the year after that, and I’ll be there. And, we’ll keep marching, even if we’re the only predominantly “white” church, because Dr. King is our hero too. His dream is our dream. His fight for justice is our fight.
Dr. King’s life, work and legacy made the world better for ALL of us. We ALL needed him, and need him still.