A brutal march from Selma. The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. A massive march on Washington, climaxed by the “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
These are just some of the images that came to mind as we honored the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. last weekend, and mourned his tragic death. Over four decades later, we continue to be inspired by his courage and his leadership in the long series of marches that led to a dramatic expansion of civil rights in America for so many who had been so long oppressed.
While time has healed some of the pain and blurred some of the harsh realities of that difficult period, it is good for us to remember that the gains for which he and others fought did not come easily in the face of often deadly opposition from the Ku Klux Klan and lynching mobs.
Nor can we overlook the soft resistance that King faced from a silent and even critical church, some of whose leaders accused him of being “extreme”. They urged him to stop the marches as being unwise, untimely, and too confrontational — charges that prompted him to write the letter from a Birmingham jail on April 16, 1963.
In that response, King cited the examples of Biblical heroes like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and American heroes like the Boston Tea Party patriots who engaged in “civil disobedience” against unjust laws. He also referred to other “extreme” examples like Jesus, the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther, and Abraham Lincoln who spoke out against injustice and oppression.
Finally, he expressed disappointment in the outright opposition of some churches and their leaders who “have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows”. King said he “wept over the laxity of the church” in this struggle.
At the same time, however, he expressed appreciation for other church leaders who were able to break loose “from the paralyzing chains of conformity” and who were able to stand up “for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values of our Judeo-Christian heritage”.
Beyond the issue of slavery, King’s legacy is also a reminder of a second battle that is similar in many ways to the one that he fought. That is the battle for life which, like liberty, is based on a principle that is enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, for “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It is a battle to which King’s niece, Alveda King, lends her support and her voice today.
The parallels between the two battles are striking. They both spring from misguided Supreme Court decisions, Dred Scott in 1857 and Roe v. Wade in 1973, that refused to acknowledge the “personhood” of black people in the first instance and unborn babies in the second.
As a consequence, both decisions – either explicitly or implicitly — reduced people to property belonging either to the master in the case of the slave or to the mother in the case of the unborn baby, to dispose of as they chose.
In addition, they both face(d) the same tired arguments that “You can’t legislate morality and should not impose your morality on others,” and “If you don’t want one (a slave or an abortion), don’t have one.” And in like manner, they face(d) similar attempts to silence their voices and to censor reports of the bloody atrocities taking place in both instances as being in “poor taste”.
The final parallel lies in the fact that both slavery and abortion were determined to be “legal” by the Supreme Court. Moreover, in the case of abortion, the Court mandated that all states make it legal as well, despite the fact that many of them had passed laws making it illegal. This was seen to be “an exercise in raw judicial power”, as dissenting Justice Byron White described it.
There is however, a major difference. In the case of slavery and civil rights, the victims had feet and voice with which to march and to speak on their own behalf. The unborn, however, have no other feet and no other voice but ours.
That brings us to the second series of marches, following in the footsteps of those led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Every year, for the past 40 years, tens of thousands of Americans gather on the Capitol Mall in Washington to mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, calling on the President, the Congress, and the Supreme Court to overturn this tragic decision that has led to an estimated 55 million abortions since 1973.
These marchers believe that we too must say today, as King said in his “I Have a Dream” speech, that “We have come here to dramatize a shameful condition, (and like the prophet Amos), we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”.
That is why we march and why we raise our voices. Silence is not an option. We will not give up, we will not give in, and we will march until we win!
Dean is Director of the Valley Family Forum, a network of families in the Shenandoah Valley that helps build Faith, Family, and Freedom in the culture and in the public square. He also hosts a weekly television program entitled “Valley Faith in Action”. More on Dean here.