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January 19, 2009


             I was born and reared in Spartanburg County. I am a product of the Old South. I remember segregated water fountains and restrooms, clearly marked WHITE and COLORED.  I gave this blatant expression of inequality little thought.  

After I graduated from high school in 1962, I had an opportunity to travel to Southern Rhodesia to visit my uncle and aunt who were serving as missionaries in Africa. In the country now known as Zimbabwe, I saw something that changed my mind about human relationships. I saw apartheid at work, glaring discrimination in plain view.

            When I returned to South Carolina, my eyes had been opened. Now I could see the inequality in the place that I loved, the place I called home.

            I was cautious with this new insight. I knew instinctively that my changing opinions would not be well received. I was uncomfortable with the Civil Rights Movement spreading across the South. But I had become aware as never before that all people are equal in the sight of God.

            A young clergyman from Atlanta led the movement for racial equality. Martin Luther King Jr. was vilified by most people I knew. He was branded a troublemaker, a man who had forgotten his place.

Martin Luther King Jr. inspired a nation to change largely through his riveting speeches. His skill with words powered King’s nonviolent battle for integration and equal rights.

It was during my freshman year in college that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a sermon entitled “Strength to Love.” He said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” He went on to say, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”     

In April of that same year, King was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama, after a peaceful protest against segregation.

I recently reread his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” an open letter written on April 16, 1963. King wrote in response to a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen on April 12, 1963, entitled “A Call for Unity.” The pastors agreed that social injustices were taking place but that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts, not taken into the streets.   

King responded that, without direct action, civil rights could never be achieved. As he put it, “This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.'” King’s letter declares, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King also quoted the words of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” 

 In the summer of1963 King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to civil rights marchers at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.  A year later, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1965, Furman University admitted the first African-American student in the school’s history. Joe was a freshman the year I was a senior.

In the fall of 1966, I entered Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Clare and I joined Crescent Hill Baptist Church. Dr. John Claypool was our pastor. He later was my professor of preaching.

The one and only time I saw Martin Luther King Jr. in person was when he came to Kentucky. His younger brother A. D. Williams King was a pastor in Louisville. Together they led a march for open housing. Several members of the seminary faculty, including.John Claypool, participated in the march. I was there as an onlooker with a group of seminary students and saw Dr. King from a distance.      

 The week before Easter in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was there to support striking sanitation workers. 

Dr. Charles Bodie, then President of Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee, was the guest preacher for Holy Week services at Crescent Hill. I will never forget how Dr. Bodie, a distinguished African-American preacher in his own right, began his sermon that night. He told about a conversation he had by telephone with his newly-wed son that fateful afternoon. His son declared that he and his new bride had decided that they could not, in good conscience, start a family. Quoting Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he lamented, “Dad, ‘the times are out of joint.’ We just cannot bring a child into this world.”

Dr. Bodie responded, “The times are out of joint! They will always be out of joint! This is the world in which we must live.”

In 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. became the first black American to be honored as Time magazine’s Man of the Year. Two weeks ago, Time named President-elect Barack Obama Person of The Year.

In August 1963, just before my sophomore year at Furman, Martin Luther King, Jr., standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial said, “I have a dream that my four little 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.”

  On Monday, January 19, 2009, our nation will observe Dr. King’s birthday. On Tuesday, January 20, 2009, we will observe the inauguration of President Obama, duly elected by a clear majority of American voters.

In many ways, the times are still out of joint, but Dr. King’s dream is closer to fulfillment now than ever before.


Kirk H. Neely

© January 2009



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