This week’s observances in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., Atlanta’s most distinguished native son, have caused me to reflect on ways the civil rights movement and my personal story have intersected. One is hauntingly vivid. The Freedom Riders passed near our town, and some of my classmates left our all-white school and waited until the buses passed. My classmates hurled rocks, eggs and taunts at them. No one stopped them. The next day, they bragged about it. No detentions or suspensions. Such was the world in which I grew up in the segregated south.
At the same time though, a different world was emerging. Dr. King described the phenomenon eloquently, “The old order” is passing away, he said, and “a new dimension of love is being injected into the veins of our civilization.” And so it came to pass, through his great courage and moral vision. I am grateful to Dr. King, to the Freedom Riders, and to all the heroes of the Movement who reshaped the character of our nation. They stood up and walked out and sat in and rode on and did whatever it took to move our society to higher ground.
A fresh memory now gladdens my soul. This one comes from the Thursday’s glorious King Celebration Concert at Symphony Hall. The Spelman and Morehouse College Glee Clubs and the renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma lifted the human spirit through music and song. That was before the moment of moments for me. The roof rocking rounds of applause had ended. We were reaching for our coats, when, much to our surprise, the conductor re-emerged from the wings and retook the podium. The violinists lifted their bows. The famous cellist began to play. The orchestra joined in. We all sat back down, hushed and attentive. Then, suddenly and as one, the great host of young people from Spelman and Morehouse stood up. Their voices, at once soft and powerful, joined together and from their lips these words came like a balm from Gilead:
“We shall overcome,
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome some day.
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome some day.”
Oh, the surprise of that moment. Oh, the power of the hope. On and on they sang. Higher and higher we went into a vision of a world made right, of injustices overturned, of hatred usurped by love. Finally, the music concluded. We in the audience waved our programs in the air to express our joy. It was late, but nobody left. Nobody wanted to leave. Black and white together, we had been drawn into a dream that began in the heart of God. Forget the baby sitter. Who cares what time we have to get up tomorrow? We are in the Zone of Goodness!
The only thing that strikes the match of change is hope. Only hope has the power to inspire us to change that which is and ought not to be. Only hope can give us the courage to make what ought to be come to be. Goodness and hope don’t sound like much, especially in our deeply troubled times, but, listen, they changed the world before and they’ll do it again.
Rev. Joanna Adams