Have you ever watched or listened to something many times, but this particular time, something new grabbed your attention? Perhaps you were listening to a song you know well, and then for the first time, a lyric resonated with you differently than before.
Recently, I was listening to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1967 speech addressed to members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and titled, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” The title sounds ripe for today, doesn’t it? In the speech, Dr. King continues to advocate for human rights and a sense of hope. He first acknowledges the accomplishments of civil rights organizations and leaders. As I listened, I imagined how hearing such accomplishments must have replenished the men and women who had been dreaming and striving for freedom for decades. He admonished his listeners — those stripped of rights to make decisions concerning their destiny — to assert their own dignity and worth, to rise up with affirmation, and to sign their own emancipation proclamation within! His encouragement still rings with truth today, which is why we are so captivated by Dr. King’s words.
As I continued to listen, Dr. King pressed the listeners to “recognize where we are now.” And then he said something that, though I’m familiar with his speeches and work, jumped out and grabbed me this time. It’s so weighty, yet I’ve never seen it on any of the MLK-memes that flood social media when people want to share his words.
Dr. King said, “The plant of freedom has grown only a bud and not yet a flower.”
Wait, what? I paused the audio recording. I thought about how in that moment in 1967, after the passing of the Civil Rights Act, at a time when many of our nation’s citizens had pushed hard to manifest so much change, Dr. King was reminding them that they were not even close to the finish line.
Of course, a bud is significant! But a bud is not a flower. However, the presence of a bud does mean that the soil and seed are doing what they were designed to do and that a root structure is thriving. A bud is evidence of proper nourishment from the sun and rain. But a bud is not a flower or the fruit we are reaching for. A bud means we have more growing to do!
If I had been there listening in 1967, exhausted from constantly pushing back against powers committed to preserving injustice, I might have felt discouraged. I might have thought, “We’ve done all of this, and you’re telling me, Dr. King, that we are just getting started? That we’ve got more growing to do?” But listening now in 2022, I am relieved to know they understood they were tilling the soil, sowing the seed, and laying the foundation for future generations to build on.
So yes, we have more growing to do! This revelation caught me off guard because it shattered a narrative I had been taught about the civil rights movement. As a child, I thought it had concluded with the assassination of Dr. King. My misinterpretation was partially derived from the way I was taught history in school — a documented sequence of past events with a beginning date, an end date, and a dash between them. Also, adding to my misunderstanding was how people referred to the civil rights movement as a bygone era, a time overflowing with strategy and struggle, promise and progress — a tangible, radical outcry that has since lulled to a compromising nap. Of course, as an adult, I’ve come to understand that the civil rights movement lives on. As long as there are nations and people groups who treat the image of God unjustly and resist God’s plan for love, advocates for justice will rise up.
Later in the speech, Dr. King reiterated, “We still have a long, long way to go before we reach the promised land of freedom.” A popular misconception is that Dr. King and other justice advocates of his time had already delivered us to the promised land and that the present-day push for justice is somehow taking us backwards, away from the dream. But here’s what Dr. King knew back then: They didn’t complete the work of reconciling injustice; they helped instill it. They didn’t fix racial and economic injustice; they helped justice take root. When we wrongly perceive or assess the work as finished, we see threats where we should see growth opportunities. And recognizing where we are now — that we’ve got more growing to do — is essential.
We don’t have to be afraid, overwhelmed, or discouraged in the work that’s still before us. We have this promise from Philippians 1:6: ” . . . the God who started this great work in you [will] keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish (MSG). Jesus taught us how to manifest justice wherever we are, and Dr. King’s life is an example of what this great work can look like. Jesus first showed us; Dr. King reminded us. We are on course to flourish.
Today, as we commemorate the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the impact of the civil rights movement, may we be dissatisfied with a bud. In faith, may we flourish into a flower of freedom. May we choose growth over preserving the status quo. May we reach to learn beyond our current understanding, listening and hearing in a new way. And may we seek to see humanity as we were designed to be and continue the work toward change and freedom.
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