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January 18, 2015

Last Thursday morning I attended the Mayor’s Unity Breakfast to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The event hosted by Cornerstone Baptist Church and sponsored by the Human Relations Council of Spartanburg gave me an opportunity to reflect on my own journey in regard to the issue of racial justice. I share those reflections here.

Major Hugh Neely, my great-great-grandfather, was a portly man with red hair and a long, thick beard.  Growing up I thought that he was an officer in the Confederacy. I fancied him as a hero of the Civil War. However, I learned later from his octogenarian grandchildren that Major was his given name, not a military rank.

During the Civil War Major Hugh Neely taught school in Christiana, Tennessee, and served as postmaster in Fosterville, Tennessee.  He lived in a log cabin on the Shelbyville Pike.  He tried to join the Confederate Army on two occasions. He was originally denied enlistment because he was a schoolteacher.

As the war wore on, he tried again to enlist.  This time he was not accepted as a soldier because he could not see.  He was so cross-eyed he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with a shot from a rifle.

Though he was unable to shoot straight with a firearm, Major Hugh Neely had the reputation of being a straight shooter in his conversation. He would have signed on as a Confederate soldier, but Major Hugh Neely actually opposed slavery. He is reported to have said, “No person can own another person.”

Others on my family tree had no such conviction.

Another of my great-grandfathers was Moses Sanders Haynsworth of Darlington, South Carolina. He was the first cousin of and fellow Citadel cadet serving with Tuck Haynsworth at Fort Sumter. Tuck Haynsworth fired the third cannon against the Union ship the Star of the North in the opening battle of the war.  During the war, the Haynsworth plantation, having five hundred slaves, was converted in order to manufacture boots and saddles for Confederate troops.

Born and reared in Spartanburg County, I remember segregated water fountains and restrooms, clearly marked WHITE and COLORED.  As a boy, I gave this blatant expression of inequality little thought. It was just the way of life in the South.

After graduation 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; I saw glaring discrimination in plain view.

When I returned to South Carolina, my eyes had been opened. I could then see the racial discrimination in the place that I loved, the place I called home.             I was cautious with this new insight, knowing instinctively that my changing opinions would not be well received. The Civil Rights Movement was spreading across the South. I had become aware, as never before, that all people are equal in the sight of God.             A young clergyman from Atlanta, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led the movement for racial equality. 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. King’s skill with words powered his nonviolent battle for integration and equal rights.

During my freshman year in college, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a sermon entitled “Strength to Love.” Two statements he made in that sermon further molded my attitude about racial equality.  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, following a peaceful protest against segregation. While in jail, King learned of statements made by eight white Alabama clergymen on April 12, 1963, which they entitled “A Call for Unity.” The pastors agreed that social injustices were occurring, but they argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts, not taken into the streets.

King responded in an open letter written on April 16, 1963.  In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he wrote that without direct action, civil rights could never be achieved. As he put it, “This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.'” King’s letter further declared, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King also quoted the words of the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

On August 28, 1963, just before my sophomore year at Furman, Martin Luther King, Jr., standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, acknowledged, “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.” His speech entitled “I Have a Dream” is his best known and was delivered to an estimated 250,000 civil rights marchers crowding the Mall in Washington, D.C.

The one and only time I saw Martin Luther King, Jr., in person was when he came to Louisville, Kentucky, while I was in seminary. On March 5, 1964, Dr. King, along with his brother, A.D. Williams King, a pastor in Louisville, led 10,000 people in a peaceful march for open housing. Several members of the faculty at Southern Seminary participated in the march. There, as an onlooker with a group of other seminary students, I saw Dr. King from a distance.

Later, in 1964, Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In that same year Martin Luther King, Jr., became the first black American to be honored as Time magazine’s Man of the Year.

On Thursday, Aril 4, 1968, just before Easter, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He had gone to Memphis 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 Baptist Church, where Clare and I were members. We attended those services and will never forget how Dr. Bodie, a distinguished African-American preacher in his own right, began his sermon the night of King’s assassination.

Quoting Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Dr. Bodie lamented, “The times are out of joint.” He then declared, “The times have always been out of joint! They will always be out of joint! This is the world in which we must live.”

The times are still out of joint. The struggle to bring Dr. King’s dream to fulfillment continues.

Our nation will observe Dr. King’s birthday on Monday, January 19, 2015. It is a time for all of us to heighten our vigilance and to renew our commitment to “liberty and justice for all.”

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