I have spent most of my life in Alabama, and a large part of that in the Birmingham area. But I was born in 1965. I am of that strange generation that was alive when King was assassinated, but do not remember it. What I do remember is schoolhouse culture during the years just after his death, when prejudice and stereotyping was embedded in playground humor. It was considered acceptable when I was in grade school but I didn't like it at all. And I find it offensive now.
I think about the sad fact that my first close friend who was African American appeared in my life when I was in college. Yet friends of all races now bless my life and some are people I look up to as mentors the most. I am of that generation that grew into this idea that the dream he lived and died for could really happen. We're definitely not "there" yet, and there is much work to do. But I've seen the generation when the door cracked and light started to come in.
King is one of my heroes not only because of what he did and what he said, but because of the integrity of his heart and faith. I reflected as I read on his amazing clarity and the love of Christ he had as he stated so clearly his reasoning for this movement of non-violent resistance. I wonder if in a different generation I would have been one of the "white moderate" preachers he became so frustrated with, sympathetic to his cause but crying "wait" and "not yet" and "too extreme." I hope that I would not have been, but I look deep in my soul and wonder.
He said in the letter that at that time, Birmingham was perhaps the most segregated city in the nation. That is not a surprise, but it struck to my core to see it in print. He talked of infamous characters like Bull Connor and George Wallace, names I've heard stories about all my life.
I love Alabama. This is my home, and being one of the lightening rods for the civil rights struggle is part of our story. We need to tell the story and own it and behold what good things God has done with us in our very lifetimes. The future of the character of southern culture can never mean forgetfulness ... nobody ever finds redemption and reconciliation through forgetting, only through forgiveness. So I read the letter again, and I remember where I've been in my personal journey from racism to freedom, and I honestly reflect on how far I still have to go to live fully in the values of the kingdom of God.
Whether you live here or not, I invite you to read the letter, too, and let God's healing light shine on the dark recesses of sin that remain in every heart, even every heart that belongs to Christ. If this feels like something of the past that has nothing to do with your life, you're not looking very deeply. Remember the struggles that make us who we are. Remember and do not forget.