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January 23, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Speaking Down Barriers, PO Box 7133, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29304, 803-526-7496.

In Hamlet, the tragic play written by William Shakespeare, a line spoken by Hamlet sticks in my mind.  When Hamlet learns that his father has been murdered by Claudius, his father’s brother and Hamlet’s uncle, the young Prince of Denmark observes, “The times are out of joint.”

 Wednesday, January 6, 2021, was the day of Epiphany in the Christian year, a holy day that commemorates the wise men’s arrival in Bethlehem. It became a day of infamy in America’s history as unwise people marched from the White House to attack and desecrate the Capitol of the United States.

Many of us watched in disbelief as our fellow citizens stormed the Capitol Building to protest Joe Biden’s election as president. It became a violent insurrection. Five people died. It was reported that President Donald Trump had spurred on the assault. Around the world, people in other nations were bitterly disappointed in America, often thought of as a steady beacon of democracy. Many of our own citizens were embarrassed and ashamed.

On Wednesday, January 20, 2021, with his hand on a family Bible, Joe Biden took the oath of office as President of the United States.  In his speech, he outlined four areas of immediate concern for his administration:

  1. The pandemic that has in this country alone exceeded 400,000 deaths
  2. The economic crisis for many Americans and businesses
  3. The health of our planet and the threat of global climate change
  4. Systemic racism and racial injustice.

Any one of these challenges would be difficult. Yet these are only four of the problems that confront our nation.

The times are out of joint!

That phrase is best understood in the world of orthopedic medicine. In Hamlet’s Denmark, life was confused and in disarray. Just as a dislocated shoulder needs to be put back into place, so did some semblance of order and stability need to be brought back to Denmark.  This is what we face in our nation in 2021.

Last Monday night, I participated in a panel discussion sponsored by the City of Spartanburg to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The event gave me renewed hope for our country and an opportunity to reflect again on my journey regarding the issue of racial justice, just one of the issues detailed by President Biden.

Major Hugh Neely, my great, great grandfather, was a portly man with red hair and a long, thick beard.  When I was a child, I thought he had been an officer in the Civil War. I fancied him as a hero of the Confederacy.  However, I learned from his octogenarian grandchildren that Major was his given name, not an earned 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 initially 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 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 a fellow Citadel cadet and the first cousin of Tuck Haynsworth who fired the third cannon against the Union ship the Star of the West in the opening battle of the war at Fort Sumter.  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.  

I attended segregated schools all the way through high school graduation in 1962. There were no other options. That summer, at age seventeen, 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 inequality in the place that I loved, the place I called home.

I was cautious with this new insight, knowing instinctively that family and friends would disagree with my changing opinions. 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, 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 empowered 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 civil rights could never be achieved without direct action. 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 Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s words: “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”  

In the summer of 1963, King delivered his speech entitled “I Have a Dream” to thousands of civil rights marchers at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.  A year later, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The one and only time I saw Martin Luther King, Jr., in person was when he came to Louisville, Kentucky, where I was in seminary. Together he and his younger brother, A. D. Williams King, a pastor in Louisville, led a march for open housing. Several members of the faculty at Southern Seminary participated in the protest. There as an onlooker with a group of other seminary students, I 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 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.”

I understood that I had to be a part of the healing. The struggle in which we are all engaged to make this country a more perfect union demands that we be agents of reconciliation, binding up broken hearts and tending to broken lives.

In August 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.”

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

In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet was utterly overcome by the unsettled chaos of his own time. He died in despair.

We have a responsibility to live in hope and to make this world a better place.

Let us make Martin Luther King’s prayer our own.

“Use me, God. Show me how to take who I am, who I want to be, and what I can do, and use it for a purpose greater than myself. Amen”

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at

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