On a sweltering day recently, folks across the city – and perhaps the country – gathered in small groups to remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his historic speech, “I have a dream,” delivered on August 28, 1963. Faculty, staff, administration and students of Memphis Theological Seminary met together on the front lawn, some with bells in-hand to ring in tandem at 2:00 CST. For all, it was a time to reflect.
In 1963, I was not quite 2 years old, a white girl raised by parents who grew up in Charleston, SC, in the 1940s and ‘50s. At the time, we lived in Puerto Rico, preparing to move to Sarasota, FL, and from there, when I was about 10 years old, to Memphis.
In 1973, as I graduated from elementary school and prepared to enter 7th grade, busing laws were passed in Memphis. I was 12 and knew nothing about it. My parents chose to send me and my siblings to a private school, where I graduated in 1979, protected from the “undesirables” who were not admitted.
At LambuthCollege, I glimpsed black students, but knew somehow that I was to stay away. (I also knew of a gay community on the third floor of one of the men’s dorms, but that’s a story for another day.) Without a plan for the future – other than to get married and be a good, subservient wife – I left college after 2 years and did indeed get married at age 19. Clearly, it was time to get a job.
And this is where my education really began.
As one of hundreds of reservation agents for Holiday Inn headquarters, then located in Memphis, I suddenly found myself in a multi-cultural environment with no avenue of escape. I did not hate black people. I did not fear black people. I just knew that I wasn’t supposed to be around them! But why? Why had I been insulated during my high school years? Why had this subliminal message taken root (I never heard anything directly from my parents, teachers or other adults)? I don’t have an answer for then, but I do have a recommendation for now.
For the past 30 years, I’ve worked alongside, developed friendships, traveled, had deep spiritual conversations, worked for and supervised, argued and worshiped with African Americans of all ages, backgrounds, denominations and sensitivities. I regret the lost years when I kept at arm’s length all folks who did not look like me.
And since beginning work at Memphis Theological Seminary in January 2007, I have been forced with loving intensity to seek out and face my own discriminatory thoughts and practices. I have heard stories about highly educated African Americans who are treated as though they are “less than,” simply because of their skin color. Memories of insult and degradation by whites. Truths of how one culture seeks to integrate, not accept, another. How does this still happen, 50 years after King’s impassioned speech?
And more importantly, how do we all instigate positive change that doesn’t take another 50 years. How do we share the dream?
On August 28, 2013, whites and blacks, male and female, students, faculty and staff gathered on the front lawn of the seminary to honor Dr. King – and each other. I honor the teaching excellence of professor Carmichael Crutchfield, Ph.D. I honor the teaching, preaching and leadership gifts of dean Stan Wood, D.Min. I honor the students who are pursuing a Masters degree – who will be more educated than I and who will lead congregations large and small, making disciples for Jesus Christ. I honor those with a servant’s heart who provide the administrative support that makes the world turn smoothly.
I honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had a dream we should all embrace. And I pledge to continue my efforts in the years to come.
If you are looking for a place where scholarship, piety and justice are the guidelines upon which all our activities, programs and ministries are based, come to Memphis Theological Seminary. Whether clergy or layperson, you will be prepared for practical ministry in the real world.