One More Step – Martin Luther King Sunday

It was likely a fair day in July in lovely Concord, Massachusetts when 150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau strode across the town square to retrieve the shoes he’d left with the cobbler. Who knows what he was dreaming, what plans he was making. He was away from the shack in the woods by a pond where he would later find inspiration for his book Walden, but whatever dream or thought he had was interrupted when the strong arm of the law lay upon his shoulder, and he was arrested. The authorities marched him over to the town jail.

Thoreau’s friends knew that he had a bit of an eccentric personality that could land him in some trouble now and again. One of these friends was Ralph Waldo Emerson. And as the legend goes, Emerson, who in 1846 mostly traveled around Europe and the United States giving lectures, just happened to be in Concord that July evening to visit his good friend Thoreau in jail. Upon seeing Thoreau in his cell, Emerson said, “Henry, what are you doing in there?”

Thoreau responded, “Waldo…” (only Thoreau could call Emerson “Waldo”) “Waldo,” he said, “what are you doing out there?”[1]

And the answer is simple: taxes. Emerson paid his. Thoreau didn’t. According to Thoreau, for six years he refused to pay a specific portion of his taxes. He paid his highway tax without complaint. He happily paid his school tax. As the schoolteacher himself, this might have been a wash, but he was happy to pay it. The taxes assessed by his federal government were really the ones Thoreau took issue with for two main reasons. First, at the time of his imprisonment for not paying his taxes, the Mexican-American War was claiming the lives of soldiers on a daily basis. Thoreau saw a requirement that he fund even one bullet that might shed a stranger’s blood in a distant land to be unacceptable. But his chief complaint against funding the federal government was that it continued to protect and enforce the institution of slavery. His words, “How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.”[2]

So for six years Thoreau took the step of not paying this tax he deemed unjust, fully conscious that some action might be taken against him, but accepting whatever that action would be. And when that action resulted in the turn of the key in the lock of his cell, he was satisfied with the bargain. Thoreau was happily, really spiritually, disobedient.

But the institution of slavery in the country didn’t end because of the ideas and thoughts of Thoreau. The end of the institution of legal slavery came at the final battle of a prolonged and bloody war between two armies of countrymen. The idea that a peaceful demonstration of one person, that deeply conscious attention to the stirrings of the individual spirit, that peaceful personal objection was at the heart of giant overwhelming shifts in power, was not an idea whose time had come. Was not an idea whose time had come…yet.

And following that period of war, the first long period of reconstruction, of remaking and rebuilding the nation took place. A century after Thoreau’s arrest, the world had changed a lot. In 1946 the Supreme Court decided that busses that cross state lines could not be segregated anymore. That was certainly a victory, but the case didn’t say anything about local or state busses. So states enforced their own laws and customs of segregating bus transportation in different ways.

In Montgomery, Alabama, the law that was officially on the books was that the bus driver had the right to assign seats on the bus, which could seem like a reasonable law…if you’re never given a reason to question it. In practice, bus drivers were segregating the busses. Depending on who got on the bus and the color of that person’s skin, the driver would instruct people to move to different seats on the bus.

And it was in 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, when Rosa Parks was ordered to move to allow a white passenger to sit, but she refused.

She objected. She would not take one more step from where she was sitting.

And so it was that she also felt upon her shoulder the strong arm of the law. She was arrested and accepted peacefully the penalty for her action, or inaction. In the first of Coretta Scott King’s beautiful autobiographies[3], she explained that it was a few days after the arrest of Rosa Parks that Dr. King and Coretta Scott King discussed whether a bus boycott they’d been planning in Montgomery should go ahead, should they take that step. That evening, when deciding whether to take that next step, Dr. King recalled Thoreau’s words, “We can no longer lend our cooperation to an evil system.” And then it happened. The call went out to boycott the Montgomery city busses on the day of Rosa Parks’ trial on December 5th. But then something else started to happen.

Members of the community organized carpools to get people where they needed to go. Taxi drivers supporting the cause began charging boycotters only ten cents a ride rather than the 45 cents a ride was supposed to cost. And a lot of people just walked. Step by step by step, a boycott that was supposed to last one day was so well organized and so well executed that what began with a single day, kept going and going, step by step. And those people who were walking…they walked a lot. Boycotters were walking so much and so far that they started to wear out their shoes. And a lot of these brave souls couldn’t just walk across the square to the cobbler. So black churches from all over the South supported the boycott not only with money, but with new shoes.

The boycott was having such an impact that the authorities in Montgomery empaneled a grand jury to indict Dr. King and 89 of his fellow organizers on charges of violating a statute prohibiting…well…boycotting. And prosecutors singled Dr. King out from the group, choosing to bring him to trial first among his colleagues. Needless to say, being charged with organizing a boycott was a hard charge to defend for Dr. King, so he was convicted and fined $500. King appealed his conviction, and it was overturned. But the boycott continued throughout all of the long battles in court. It continued for 381 days until the Supreme Court ordered the state of Alabama to desegregate all busses.

381 days of a community committed to bringing about systematic change through personal choice.

381 days of choosing to wear out the soles of shoes, rather than spend another ride on the bus with indignity wearing that their very soul.

381 days apart from “lending cooperation to an evil system.”

Dr. King’s leadership and his genius for organizing and enlivening the spirit within people gave shape to the pain and suffering of people living in an unjust system. And the shape it took was the shape of justice.

Fittingly, it was the “justice” system of Birmingham, training its focus so narrowly on Dr. King, which started to make a wider nation take notice of what was happening there. It was the mistaken belief of prosecutors and politicians that their system of justice could stifle the movement objectors began in their city; their mistaken belief that their system of justice could put a stop to Dr. King’s work; their mistaken belief that their system of justice could hold back an idea whose time had come. For “there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.”[4]

The bus boycott was not the last time Dr. King had to work against racist segregation in Birmingham. It was more than seven years later, in April of 1963, when the images of massive violent police and citizen brutality against peaceful protesters across the South reached the rest of the nation. King was arrested for organizing a march in violation of a court order…prohibiting marches. And it was in his jail cell in Birmingham when he addressed the complaints of a set of white moderate clergymen who called on Dr. King to restrict his quest for justice to the courts and not the streets. In his letter to these clergymen, penned in his cell, without the aid of a bible, which his jailors refused him, King set down a cornerstone of civil rights that sings and speaks to us today in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”[5]

King writes to his colleagues: “Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was even sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks, before submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman empire [sic]. To a degree academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience.”[6]

The momentum King gathered step by step through successful direct action and conscious, thoughtful objection to unjust laws grew until in 1964 and 1965 the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Right Acts were passed. And in 1968 when the Fair Housing Act was passed.

In his book, The Third Reconstruction published by the UUA’s own Beacon Press, Dr. William Barber, President of the North Carolina Chapter of the NAACP and leader of the Poor People’s Campaign names the period leading to passage of these pieces of legislation the Second Reconstruction. The coalition building that was necessary for their passage and eventual success was widespread and crossed many lines of ethnicity, culture, and creed. Dr. Barber writes, “The Second Reconstruction’s power was in cross-racial, cross-class solidarity, embracing Chicano workers, Jewish students, Native American sister and brothers, Malcolm X’s challenge, and the Poor People’s Campaign.”[7] But he is quick to point out that since the Second Reconstruction embodied in the passage of this legislation through coalition building, new battles were already fast approaching.

And we stand now, together, each one of us, in the fray of a battle, really, over construction of a wall, that makes perhaps the best case any of us has ever seen for reconstruction of a nation.

We are now in what Dr. Barber calls the midst of a Third Reconstruction, a time when voices from different corners of resistance and objection are coming together under banners that unite and do not divide. “Moral fusion” is what Dr. Barber calls it. We are rethinking what we have known of our neighbors in this country and of ourselves, step by step. We are doing the hard work of realizing what we may have left undone in facing racist attitudes and actions, step by step. We are looking anew at ways to be part of a movement to build sustained, lasting, and manifest justice into our communities as well as into our very being, step by step. And we are remembering what worked in the past as we look toward the future.

Many of us remember what we learned about the unassuming, quiet and dignified spirit of Rosa Parks, a spirit that lit the smoldering fuse of cooperation and coordination in Montgomery. But what most people think they know about Rosa Parks…is a myth.

Those famous photos of her being finger printed, for instance—those are not actually from the day of her arrest on the Montgomery bus. They’re from another arrest when she was participating in direct action.[8] The Montgomery boycott was not her first or her last direct action.

Also, Parks is often portrayed as a humble seamstress. Yes, that was her day job, but her other job was serving as the Secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. She engaged that chapter to be more and more active, convincing members to support non-violent direct actions in the Montgomery area.

We are told she was just fed up and tired—that being ordered to move was the last straw, a kind of moment when fate intervened. Well, fate might have intervened, but Parks gave fate a hell of good start. In her own words, Parks said, “Some people say I was tired…. The only tired I was was tired of giving.”[9]

Weeks before her objection on that bus, she was trained at an intensive, professional program in building coalitions to practice direct action offered by the Highlander Folk School.[10] When she got on that bus, she was prepared, focused, and sure of what she was doing.

And people may not like hearing this because it is one of the most enduring images we are taught, but Parks was not ordered all the way to the back of the bus. She was ordered to move one row back, to take one more step, to travel the distance of maybe two feet, when a white man boarded the bus. One more step.

But those were two feet—that was one more step too far.

The new period of reconstruction we are facing will take a lot. It’s already taking a toll on many hearts and minds and souls. How we are going to take part is really between each of us and the person we face every day in the mirror. We will search inside ourselves for the real answer to the questions: “What can I do?” “What will I do?” “What must I do?” For some people, the answers are clear.

The work of those who engage fully with the meaningful and deep work that ADORE offers this church and our neighbors, that’s a step.

Learning more and more about organizing and community engagement like members of this church did yesterday at the Faith Action community organizing leadership retreat, that’s a step.

The people who work tirelessly to make this very place beautiful and accessible, that’s a step.

Ensuring one of the finest welcomes we can with hospitality, fellowship, and care, that’s a step.

And some of us…are lacing up our shoes…because we’re getting ready to march.

Tomorrow morning we will join a coalition, a moral fusion, of people who remember, who cherish, and who draw power from the life, the teaching, and yes, the death of Martin Luther King. I have no illusions that a march will solve anything in a morning. But in the short miles we will walk, what I suggest is imagining truly for moments during the march, what it would feel like to do that walk for 381 days. Shoes worn through the soles, imagine what in your life matters that much to you. Imagine who in your life matters that much to you. And imagine how far you’d walk so that they can breathe free.

We might start out with shoes fresh from the cobbler, fitted with brand new soles. And our soles might get worn out from the walking, and maybe worn clear through, but sometimes, just two feet is what makes all the difference. One more step is what’s needed to get home.

In the words of Dr. King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The change we want to see in the world begins in the mirror, but together we lift our eyes to the horizon to glimpse at the roads we will take together. And wherever our gaze may guide us, wherever our roads may take us, we will be there together, boldly growing compassion, justice, and joy.

May it ever be so.

Amen.

[1] See William J. Barber, The Third Reconstruction (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016), 21.

[2] Civil Disobedience, 1846 (emphasis provided).

[3] Coretta Scott King, My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Henry Holt, 1993).

[4] A translation/variant of a quote attributed to Victor Hugo.

[5] For the original document, visit http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/undecided/630416-019.pdf.

[6] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963),” 9.

[7] Barber, 118.

[8] Jeanne Theoharis and Say Burgin, “Rosa Parks Wasn’t Weak, Passive, Or Naïve—and 7 Other Things You Probably Didn’t Learn in School,” The Nation, December 1, 2015.

[9] Theoharis & Burgin.

[10] Barber, 57.

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