A birthday letter to Martin Luther King Jr.

The Rev. Reginald E. Lee. Photo courtesy of the South Carolina Conference 
The Rev. Reginald E. Lee.
Photo courtesy of the South Carolina Conference

Dear Martin,

Happy 92nd birthday.

It is hard to believe that I was just one month shy of my fifth birthday when you left us on April 4, 1968. The night before at Mason Memorial Church of God in Christ, you peered into the future and prophetically told us that you may not get there with us, but we as a people would get to the promised land someday. Well, we have had some good days and some bad days and yes, we have had some hills to climb. Two steps forward and one step back is still progress.

You told us it would be this way. When Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2008, we were sure that we had reached at least the edge of Canaan. My wife and I were guests of then-Congressman Mike Pence from Indiana. I remember the day: Making our way on the train to Washington, it looked and felt like the “beloved community” that you often spoke to the world about. It appeared that the promise of America had finally found its place in the history and hearts of the American Experiment. No more poll taxes and literacy tests to be able to vote. That which was promised in 1870 and strengthened in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 seemed to be the order of the day when Barack Obama and Joe Biden took office.

Washington, D.C., smelled like Canaan and that day on the Capitol Mall where you and John Lewis cast a new vision for America in August of 1963, it looked like the City of God that Augustine talked about was being ushered in, and we had lived to see it. Those moments of hope did not last long. President Obama faced a nation in a financial crisis and headed for recession. He worked day and night to craft fiscal policies that kept this nation from financial collapse. Despite political opposition, he also passed legislation ensuring that today, more than 20 million Americans have affordable health care.

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It appeared that after our first African American president, we would have an opportunity to elect our first woman: Hillary Clinton, wife of President Bill Clinton and the Secretary of State in the Obama administration. It appeared that we were moving closer to the egalitarian community only dreamed of a century ago.

The Republican field had strong conservatives from which to choose. However, a dark horse emerged, his larger-than-life personality and his powerful persona caught on with those Republicans who yearned for something different. He ran a counterintuitive campaign. His rhetoric — full of exclusionary, racist and sexist language — caught traction. The final blow was when large segments of the white evangelical community signed on to his platform in spite of the glaring moral flaws it exhibited for the whole world to see.

Even after displays of unpresidential behavior on the campaign trail, the nation elected him. Immediately, he began to divide the country.

In January of 2019, we heard about a viral flu-like virus that was being reported in a place called Wuhan, China. Though we were told that this virus was extremely contagious, the president played down its seriousness. Our economy has been hurt and many have been in forced quarantine for months. The sad part is almost 400,000 Americans have died and more than 20 million have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. What a year of excruciating pain and loss.

The 2020 presidential campaign was conducted in the middle of this pandemic. President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden faced off, and the two campaigns ran in stark contrast to each other. The Biden campaign was about a return to civility and a clearing-house of ideas.

Martin, the high drama of the 2020 election was something akin to a political thriller. President Trump was favored to win almost all year. Then the pandemic rolled on and it became clear there was no clear strategy to address it. The closer we got to the election, the sitting president began to question the use of mail-in ballots expanded to protect our citizens from virus exposure while standing in long lines to vote. You should know that African Americans, persons of Latin decent and those with pre-existing health issues have been hit the worst by this virus. Despite a spread of misinformation about the safety of the mail-in ballot, Black and brown people, disproportionately Democrat, used this method to cast their vote.

I often think of the part of the Lord’s Prayer that says, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven.” You left us when you were 39 years old. They silenced you but they could not silence all those you discipled before you left.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, D.C. Photo by the United States Marine Corps. 
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, D.C. Photo by the United States Marine Corps.

The year 2020 was a rough one here on Earth: pandemics, political upheaval and the death of young black people at the hands of white police officers. George Floyd died while a white police officer applied pressure to his neck; all of this was documented on cell phone video. Breonna Taylor was killed in her home when police used a “no-knock” warrant to gain entry. The losses are too many to list in this letter. We returned to marching in the streets to dramatize the need for systemic change in policing of Black and brown bodies in America.

While this upheaval was going on, some of your comrades were joining you in heaven. First, Joseph Echols Lowery, then C.T. Vivian, John Lewis, followed by Gilbert Haven Caldwell, finally, William Bobby McClain. We watched the old ship of Zion go sailing by and we were devastated and dismayed, wishing each of these foot soldiers were still here to give us youngsters support, guidance and, sometimes, a swift kick in the butt to stay on the battlefield.

It was a tough year, yet we believe that somehow God is still in charge. “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, NRSV).

While we were feeling despair, the prophetic message you spoke on May 17, 1957, was finding prophetic confirmation in the city of your birth. From the Lincoln Memorial, looking back at our nation’s Capitol, you said, “Give us the ballot, we will transform the South.”

In Atlanta in 2020, Stacey Abrams, a young woman who had run for governor of your state in 2018 and faced all types of schemes of voter suppression, did not give up. After her defeat, with the guidance of John Lewis and others, she began to organize and register people to vote. This effort netted more than 800,000 new voters.

Along with her is another dynamic young woman who was leading the Democratic Party in Georgia, also working with John Lewis as his mentee. Her name is Nikema Williams. She was a state senator from Georgia, and was elected as a U.S. representative to the same congressional district Lewis served.

All of these young people were mentored by John Lewis, your friend with whom you were assuredly reunited in heaven last year. “On earth as it is in heaven.” The way of life, the egalitarian community under God, already exists in heaven. We are working here as co-laborers to reveal the will of God in the earth.

Martin, the faith and tenacity you poured into John Lewis, he poured into others. So did C.T. Vivian, Gil Caldwell and Bobby McClain. I’m writing to you because Bobby McClain poured into me. I am writing because I watched another of your protégés, Bishop Woodie White, fight for full inclusion in what we now call The United Methodist Church.

Your message stuck, your sacrifice influenced the work of those you left behind to carry on the work here on Earth. The grassroots efforts of Abrams and Williams paid off, Joe Biden won Georgia, a state that has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 30 years! Biden carried Georgia and the nation because Black people voted in record numbers in Georgia, and in many other places as well. It was not just Black people who voted, but white voters who cast their ballots for a more civil discourse in American politics.

Georgia was forced into a runoff election for the two Senate seats from Georgia. Two young men were on the Democratic ticket: one African American, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who is pastoring your home church, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta, and the other was Jon Ossoff, who happens to be Jewish and interned for — guess who — John Lewis. Nobody could make this up.

Martin, they both won in runoff elections in Georgia. You said, "Give us the ballot, we will transform the South.” Sixty-four years later, the transformation you talked about here on Earth is slowly but prodigiously happening. Your work here, carried through Lewis and so many others, is “marching on.”

Progress is slow, and the climb dizzying, yet we are still “marching to Zion, that beautiful city of God.”

I wish I could tell you that all is well. Our current president has been impeached a second time. With less than a week left in his presidency, he has been charged by the House for “incitement of insurrection.”

We have learned that words do matter. His rhetoric over these last months about “stealing the election” has caused groups who spew hate to move from words to deeds. They tried to take over the Capitol building while the Senate and House were trying to ratify the votes from the Electoral College.

We have come a long way but the last four years have proven laws without love for each other — including those we disagree with — will lead to anarchy, power grabs and the subversion of the “rule of law.”

Yet, the Good News is that those you left here with us have trained some who are willing to take risks and endure ridicule to advance the work of the Kingdom of God and the “Beloved Community.”

Just as Bishop White would close his letters to you, I say in affirmation, happy birthday, my brother. “We shall overcome!”

— Reggie


Lee, pastor of Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Florence, South Carolina, is also a congregational specialist for the Florence and Marion Districts of the South Carolina Conference.

News media contact: Vicki Brown at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.


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