A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, September 1, 2013
Ecclesiastes 3:16-17; 4:1 GNT
If you watch the news or read the newspaper, then you are aware that history was relived this week. Several thousand people gathered on the Washington Mall to observe the 50th anniversary (to the day, in fact) of the August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. At least 250,000 people packed themselves onto the National Mall in 1963 “to demand jobs and freedom and the passage of a civil rights bill.” That event has been described as “the biggest, most important civil rights demonstration in American history . . . the heart of the civil rights movement.”1 It was one of the most important and pivotal events in American history. But there are interesting details about that historic March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s speech that I find fascinating, some of them most appropriate to consider on this Labor Day weekend.
For instance, Dr. King was not the main organizer of that event. The chief organizer, one of a couple of civil rights activists to approach Dr. King about planning such an event, was Bayard Rustin, a pacifist Quaker from Pennsylvania. It was Rustin who masterminded the event and brought it all together in such an orderly fashion. Rustin had traveled to India in the 1940s to study the nonviolent tactics of Mahatma Gandhi. I think I have it correct in saying that there were no arrests that day due to violence or disorderly conduct.
The thing that most people remember about that March on Washington was Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But interestingly, Dr. King was not the only speaker for that event. And the “I Have a Dream” speech faded in importance following that event and was almost forgotten, some say—until Dr. King was assassinated five years later. At that time video clips of the speech were brought out of storage and replayed over and over, and ever since then the “I Have a Dream” speech has been looked upon as one of the greatest speeches in American history, taking its place alongside Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
The thing about King’s “I Have a Dream” speech that I find most fascinating is it was not the speech he had written and had planned to give; at least, not the second half of it. The second half of the speech that has become such an icon and piece of American history was serendipitous. The manuscript that King took to the podium did not contain the words “I have a dream today” that would become the powerful repeated refrain. That refrain was improvised on the spot. King had used the phrase several other times in the previous year in other speeches, but he had not planned to use it that day. So the “I Have a Dream” speech that has become such an important part of American history almost didn’t happen.
King began his speech by following his printed manuscript. “America has given the Negro people a bad check,” he proclaimed, “a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ . . . the bank of justice is bankrupt.” But after a few paragraphs King stopped. He couldn’t seem to continue with his printed speech. He hesitated. He stopped referring to his printed manuscript. And then he said, “I have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed . . .” And then he took off speaking extemporaneously, repeating the phrase “I have a dream” several times with increasing fervor. And then after his rousing, extemporaneous words, he stopped and suddenly returned to the last line of the written speech he had prepared: “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty—we are free at last!” And then he walked away from the podium, having proved himself to be one of the greatest American speakers of all time and having given the world one of the most important literary gifts in American history. And it was largely unplanned.
Well, five years later, the civil rights dreamer would be dead, victim to a bullet on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. But the dream didn’t die with him. King’s untimely death only served to revive the “I Have a Dream” speech, as well as the dream King envisioned that day. It is noteworthy, I think, that King was killed while lobbying for Memphis’s garbage collectors. He was advocating for better working conditions for the common laborers, which makes this topic so pertinent for this Labor Day weekend. That fact reminded me of those verses I read to you in Ecclesiastes about the poor and oppressed:
“Then I looked again at all the injustice that goes on in this world. The oppressed were crying, and no one would help them. No one would help them, because their oppressors had power on their side” (GNT). That is the way it too often is in the world—the oppressors have power on their side. And the oppressed are helpless.
King was the one who had gone to Memphis to help bring greater justice to the striking garbage collectors. He was one who heard the crying of the oppressed and stood by their sides and against the oppressors who had power on their side.
As an aside, this is not the sermon I had previously planned for today a couple of weeks ago. I had planned to speak on another passage from Ecclesiastes on the topic “Seeing Work as a Gift.” But then as I reflected on the anniversary of that March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and the call for justice, I realized that for many laborers of the world work is not seen as a gift, but rather, as an oppression. And it is all of those people in the world who labor on our behalf, but whose work is oppressive day in and day out, that we should be thinking about today.
Most of us Oak Ridgers are fortunate in that we have been able to do the work that we wanted to do. For most of us work could be seen as a gift. But I am guessing for most of the world’s masses it is just the opposite. Day in and day out the masses of the world are forced to go to oppressive forms of labor—coal mining, clothing sweatshops, factories, migrant farmwork, restaurant serving, to name a few—where no pleasure is to be found in their labor and their wages are not enough to make for a better life. And in many ways we benefit from the lives and labor of others.
So, on this Labor Day weekend, it should humble us a bit knowing that our lives are better because of the hard labor of others. We should be moved to express our gratitude for the good lives we have because of the labor of so many. And whenever possible, we can express our appreciation to those whose labor makes our lives better.
Dr. King’s life was taken while he was working to make better the lives of the common laborer. As much as possible, may we live and respond in such a way that we make better the lives of others too. As we say in our Table Fellowship liturgy, “Are our lives being poured out with self conscious intentionality and purpose?” May it be so, as we do what we can to make better the lives of those who labor on our behalf. Amen.
1USA Today, August 13, 2013.
USA Today, July 18, 2013; August 16, 2013; August 26, 2013.
USA Weekend, August 16-18, 2013.
Wall Street Journal, August 24-25, 2013; August 27, 2013; August 29, 2013.