by Professor William Farrell
presented at the Martin Luther King Memorial Breakfast at Saint Anselm College, January 17, 2011

On August 28 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King gave his stirring speech, I Have a Dream. In it he said he dreamt of equality. In closing the speech he  said that we should all be involved in letting freedom ring from every city and state in the Union, and that we should all join in singing the words of the old Christian spiritual, “ Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”

When we accept the fact that we now have an African American President, Barack Obama, we might ask ourselves, if the dream of Martin Luther King has indeed been realized. We certainly have come a very long way in fashioning a society where freedom does ring and social equality has become the norm. But are we really free, are we really equal? The poor and the disenfranchised would say no, as would the homeless, women, prisoners, blacks, Hispanics, immigrants, and anyone who suffers from any form of deprivation.

The United States Constitution certainly is predicated on the idea of equality, in particular, the Fourteenth Amendment, especially the equality or equal rights clause which states that we should not deny any person in America the equal protection of the laws of the United States.
It all began in 1896 after the Civil War, in a Supreme Court decision called Plessy V. Ferguson. A man, Homer Plessy, had attempted to ride in an all white railroad car, which, according to Louisiana law, was for whites only based on the Separate Car Act which was passed by the Louisiana legislature and decreed that there should be separate accommodations for blacks and for whites in rail cars. Plessy was found guilty of violating the Louisiana law by Judge John Ferguson, and the decision that he made was brought to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of Judge Ferguson, thus upholding the Louisiana law. Justice John Harlan dissented the majority opinion.

Harlan said: “In my opinion, the judgement this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case [which, as you know, was one of the causes of the Civil War, the bloodiest war in this country’s history]. The present decision , it may well be apprehended, will not only stimulate aggression, more or less brutal and irritating, upon the admitted rights of  colored citizens,  but will encourage the belief that it is possible , by means of state enactments, to defeat the beneficent  purposes which the

people of the United States had in view when they adopted the recent amendments of the Constitution, by one of which the blacks of this country were made citizens of the United States and of the states in which they respectively reside, and whose privileges and immunities, as citizens, the States are forbidden to abridge.” He went on to say that the Constitution of the United States is color blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among its citizens.

He said that whites were in no real danger from blacks nor blacks from whites, and that the destinies as well as the interests of both black and white Americans were inextricably linked together, and that the government is a government of all the people, and that race hate should never be planted under the sanction of law.

The decision in Plessy versus Ferguson was the basis of the refusal of Southern states to allow blacks to attend white only schools, or to ride on buses that were for both blacks and whites, and forbade blacks to use white only rest rooms, or drinking fountains, or sit down in white only lunch counters.

During the bus boycott in Montgomery Alabama, Martin Luther King, in leading the protest movement, said that if the City of Montgomery was correct in insisting that blacks sit in the back of their buses, and that if the laws that segregated blacks and whites were correct, then the Constitution of the United States of America was wrong, and that if the city of Montgomery was correct in segregating both blacks and whites, then God Almighty was wrong.

This was the same energy that he used during the Civil Rights Movement where he based his efforts on the principle of Ghandi’s nonviolent means of protest. King said that there is a moral obligation that exists to violate an unjust law. In his letter from a Birmingham, Alabama jail he said that nonviolent protest helps men to rise up from the depths of prejudice to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. He went on to say that all segregation laws were unjust, and that any law that degrades the human person is unjust, and that anybody who violates an unjust law while accepting the legally defined penalty, is acting justly, just as Jesus Christ had done. He said that God’s will should always be followed.

It was not until the decision of the Supreme Court in Brown Versus the Board of Education in 1954, that racial equality in education was ratified and the Plessy decision was overturned, and that there should be racial equality for all in Southern States. However, until Loving versus Virginia in 1967, black and white marriages were forbidden in the South, where Richard Loving and his legally named wife married in New York were both sentenced to a year in jail for violating the law of the state of Virginia; and that was only 44 years ago.

The Christian ethical system is quite clear on this point. Jesus said that we should love one another as the Father in Heaven loves us all. When we say the Our Father, a prayer that Jesus gave to us, and which many saints say is the perfect prayer, we say ,“ Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven”. I seriously doubt that in Heaven, there is no love, nor is there prejudice between those who may be white and those who may be black. Christian love between all people is indeed basic to what the Christian message is all about. King essentially made this point when he said that Jesus was, himself, an extremist for love. He quoted Jesus when Jesus said: “Love your enemies, bless them who curse you, do good to them who hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you, and persecute you.” King asked whether we had the courage to truly follow Jesus. Would we be willing to be extremists for love? Would we be willing to be extremists for the preservation of justice? King said that we should never forget the scene on Calvary’s hill where Christ was crucified, that Christ was crucified for the crime of extremism; extremism for love, for truth and for goodness. Perhaps we all need to be extremists, as Christ was.

Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. He was assassinated at 6:01 pm at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee. A great man, who had spent the last thirteen years of his life seeking equality, and in nonviolent protest, was slain by an   assassin’s cruel bullet. He had said that he might not get to the promised land before those who had followed him, but that, nonetheless, he would continue his efforts to have black and white equality in this land, the United States of America, a land that you and I love so very much.

Martin Luther King would be proud of Saint Anselm College, as I am, in what is done here. He would be particularly proud of the extremist students who go to various parts of the world as representatives of the College during Spring Break Alternative spreading their kindness and their helping hands.

But we must continue to ask ourselves, “Are we truly free, are we indeed truly equal?   Have we done enough to validate Martin Luther King’s dream of equality? Do we truly love one another as we say that we do in the Our Father, the prayer that the Lord Jesus Christ gave to us?

Holiness is never free for anyone. We all must work to be truly equal. We all must be extremists for love in order to realize Martin Luther King’s dream.