This was the assembly I gave this morning at one of our local Junior schools, on the theme of tolerance:
The past few hundred years have been marked by ethnic and racial conflict, as the Holocaust, the Rwanda genocide and the ongoing war in Syria demonstrate. There have also been individuals who have stood above the hatred and violence, however, and called for peace and cooperation. One of the most famous fighters for peace was Rev. Dr Martin Luther King.
Can you imagine a time when black people were only allowed to sit on certain seats at the back of a bus? When black people were not allowed to vote in elections? Can you imagine a town where black and white children had to attend separate schools? Where black and white young people were separated at dances by a line down the middle of the room?
Sixty years ago, in the southern states in America, this was how it was. Let’s hear about three ordinary people who had the courage to speak out.
An ordinary clergyman, with a minister for a father and a teacher for a mother, organized peaceful protests and boycotts against discrimination. Here was an ordinary black man who spoke out against the injustice that he saw. This ordinary black man delivered extraordinary speeches with memorable lines like ‘I have a dream that one day down in Alabama … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.’
This man was Martin Luther King, Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1964, assassinated in 1968, at just 39 years old.
In the town of Montgomery, like most places in the deep south, buses were segregated. On 1 December 1955, Rosa Parks left Montgomery Fair, the department store where she worked, and got on the same bus as she did every night. As always, she sat in the ‘black section’ at the back of the bus. However, when the bus became full, the driver instructed Rosa to give up her seat to a white person. When she refused, she was arrested by the police.
In protest against bus segregation, it was decided that from 5 December, black people in Montgomery would refuse to use the buses until passengers were completely integrated. For 382 days, the 17,000 black people in Montgomery walked to work. Eventually, the loss of revenue and a decision by the Supreme Court forced the Montgomery Bus Company to accept integration.
An ordinary woman showed extraordinary courage. This ordinary woman became known as the ‘Mother of the Civil Rights Movement’.
On 28 August 1963, two to three hundred thousand Americans converged on Washington DC. This was the ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’. The organizers had many aims, but what unified the march was a call for greater freedoms for African-Americans. The date chosen for the march fell on the one-hundredth anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery in the United States of America. Racial inequality was still rampant, however, and African-Americans were treated as second-class citizens in many states.
President Kennedy was attempting to pass the Civil Rights Act at the time, which would provide greater freedoms for African-Americans. While many marched as a show of support for the President, others marched to criticize the Act for not going far enough.
Dr King was tasked with giving the final speech and he captured both the anger and the optimism of the march. ‘America has given the Negro people a bad cheque’, he said, referring to the centuries of slavery and racial injustice, but ‘we’ve come to cash this cheque’ by marching together. The civil rights leaders had come together to the nation’s capital to demand a fair deal for all.
Yet it is the ‘I have a dream . . .’ segment of his speech that has passed into history. Dr King called not for acts of revenge against oppressors but understanding and cooperation. The most famous line of the speech – ‘I have a dream, that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!’ – carries a promise of peace, reconciliation and an end to racial conflict.
Those two examples are completely true. This one is not. It is taken from the 2007 hit movie Hairspray. It’s Baltimore, 1962, and Tracy Turnblad, an ordinary young girl, is obsessed with the Corny Collins Show. Tracy auditions for the show and gets to appear – a dream come true! However, she becomes aware of the way that her black dancer friends are being treated and realizes that she has to do something. As she tells her father, ‘I think I’ve kind of been in a bubble … thinking that fairness was gonna just happen. It’s not. People like me are gonna have to get up off their fathers’ laps and go out and fight for it.’ This ordinary young girl brings about an extraordinary integration.
This, too, was the power of Mahatma Gandhi – the humble little man in peasant’s clothes who, armed only with the weapons of love, peace and justice, brought the mighty British Empire to its knees. Gandhi believed passionately that if his cause was a just one he would win – no matter how powerful the forces against him. He famously said: ‘Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth.’ Gandhi was ‘one man come in the name of love’.
At the heart of the Christian faith there is also ‘one man come in the name of love’. Jesus enters Jerusalem knowing that it is there that he will come into conflict with the might of the Roman Empire and face the fury of the Jewish religious establishment. And so he comes armed – armed with the weapons of love, forgiveness and peace – and he comes riding the humble donkey.
Into a world of division and barbarism and violence – a world, in other words, not unlike our own – comes the Prince of Peace, whose power lies not in military might but in selfless love. And here’s the thing: his kingdom, established by the power of love, rather than bullets, has lasted far longer and been far more influential than the kingdom of any military conqueror?
Time for reflection
What are you and I prepared to do in the name of love?
Do we have even a fraction of the courage of the Tank Man
or Rosa Parks
or Martin Luther King
Can we walk with Jesus on the way of the cross?
In the face of a world of greed, violence and oppression;
here at school in the face of the bully and the aggressor
or in the face of those who simply do not care –
what will you and I do in the name of love?
give us vision that we may see a better world,
and give us courage that we may act to make it happen.