“I Have a Dream”: 50 years later
On August 28, 1963, more than 200,000 religious leaders, civil rights activists and citizens took to Washington, D.C., in what was called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The event united black and white organizations in a cause that shed light on the political and social struggles of the African-American community. It also gave platform to a key leader of the civil rights movement—Martin Luther King, Jr.
Standing at the Lincoln Memorial in front of thousands, the Baptist pastor began to share his “I Have a Dream” speech. After a brief welcome he proclaimed, “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.” This would be the beginning of a speech that would not only be quoted for decades, but one that would renew hope for millions of Americans awaiting the time when “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.”
This day that Dr. King dreamed about became more plausible with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law marked the end of the Jim Crow laws, which made all public facilities “separate but equal.” Segregation on the basis of race or religion was now banned. Schools, restaurants, bathrooms and parks now had the potential for “little black boys and black girls…to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
Great progress has been made since Dr. King powerfully and prophetically shared his vision for the nation. The signs “colored only” and “white only” have been down for decades and hate-crimes are reported less and less. Yet, we know racism and segregation continues to exist. On Sunday, Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, tweeted a link to a story about 25 black patrons being asked to leave a restaurant in South Carolina after a white customer complained of feeling threatened. Dr. Akin expressed grief writing, “Shameful this could still happen in America!” If there was ever any doubt that segregation still exists in our nation, these maps of racial segregation in America’s largest cities provide confirmation.
The Law Doesn’t Change Hearts
Paul affirms in Romans 13:1-2 that God established civil government: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Therefore we must submit to the law because we know that “whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Rom. 13:2).
Americans submitted to the Jim Crow laws because they were established by the government; however, through non-violent civil rights protests, those laws were eventually determined to be unlawful. As a new law was established Americans submitted once again. But submission to the law doesn’t always equate a change of heart.
What does this mean for the church’s approach to the issue of race? And how should the church think about ways its heart could be still be hardened toward racial issues?
In Deuteronomy we see a similar obedience without a heart change among the Israelites. The Law—established and commanded by a holy God—was given to them for their good. But without changed hearts they are merely rituals. Moses challenged them to “circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” (Deut. 10:16). The Israelites were a chosen people by a holy God who is “God of gods and Lord of lords, great, mighty and awesome” (Deut. 10:17). God does not want a bribe; he wants their hearts (Deut. 10:17).
Jesus came to fulfill the Old Testament Law, paving a way for salvation through faith and grace alone. We can now freely and joyfully obey God’s law because of his perfect sacrifice. God doesn’t want our obedience to the law; he wants our hearts and from the outflow of changed hearts will come obedience. We obey out of a love for God not to earn his favor or our salvation—Jesus earned it for us.
While we now have laws determining desegregation and outward change, some will remain partial in their hearts towards those not like us (James 2:1-13). We adhere to the laws of the land and send our children to schools that are desegregated, and yet not allow them to play with certain children because of the color of their skin. Similarly we walk down the street and make assumptions about others before they speak a word. Or we can sit in our pews, pray and then not allow those unlike us to break bread by our side (1 Corinthians 11: 17-22). If we want to see the dream of Dr. King fulfilled it won’t do much good to have changed laws and unchanged hearts.
The good news is the same gospel that transforms us to obey God’s law is the same gospel that transforms our prejudices, partiality and racism. God loves to change hearts. He takes our hearts of stone and makes them hearts of flesh (Ezek. 36:26). If we ask, he will surely do it (1 Thess. 5:24). Today, as we celebrate 50 years since thousands marched to Washington, D.C., for freedom and as we remember Dr. King’s dream, let us thank God for our new laws and pray that he will continue to transform hearts by his grace and for his glory.
Note: A transcript of Dr. King’s speech can be found here.
Trillia Newbell is an ERLC Contributor who is a wife and mom from Franklin, TN. She is an avid writer for outlets including The Gospel Coalition, Desiring God, and the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Her website is trillianewbell.com.