It has been 50 years since Baptist pastor and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of Washington, D.C.
Reaching deep into the prophecy of Isaiah, this modern prophet memorably held out before his dream of a time when racism and prejudice against African-Americans would be at an end. Some call it the greatest speech of the 20th century. The full text of the speech is available here.
His words still reverberate around the world today, challenging racism and discrimination wherever it is found and wherever it is officially sanctioned by government.
I found it a moving experience on a visit to Atlanta, Ga., to visit both King’s birthplace and his last resting place after he was cut down in his prime by an assassin’s bullet in 1968.
That same evening, I attended the opening of the New Baptist Covenant – a great gathering planned by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and others.
This was the first significant meeting of its kind, which had brought Baptists across the U.S. together, black and white, more than 40 years later.
Despite all the progress toward racial equality that has been made in the U.S., South Africa and elsewhere in the world – the efforts to rid ourselves of racism and discrimination based on color of skin, culture or religion – the Dream has still been resisted by some.
In my own region of Europe and the Middle East, we cannot be complacent. In my country of Great Britain, the issue of immigration is often used by certain groups to display their prejudice and discrimination against the “other” who is different.
Black people still experience racism and inequality in our society. As British Baptists, we have taken some steps forward on the journey, an initiative which seeks to fully integrate black churches and their leaders into our life together, but we still have a long way to go.
In countries such as Russia, it is shocking to see the abuse suffered by black men and women who travel or work there, and this xenophobia is found in other nations, too.
Only a week or so ago, right-wing groups marched through Prague in the Czech Republic chanting hatred against the Roma people, who suffer discrimination in other European nations, too.
I give God thanks for the work of Baptist leaders in Romania and Bulgaria, who set their faces against such prejudice and engage in projects that share the love of Christ in word and deed with the Roma people.
From their earliest history, Baptists have stood for an end to discrimination based on religion, race, culture or nationality. Declaring the essential separation of church and state has meant that we are truly an inter-nationalist movement who believe that at the cross of Jesus Christ these human barriers fall in order to build what King called “The Beloved Community.”
But in my work among European Baptists, I see how difficult it often is for us to declare this unequivocally and to rise above nationalism, racism and the prejudices that are so deeply ingrained in many of our societies. King’s Dream still deeply challenges us.
Last year, I visited the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, D.C., not far from where he made his famous speech. The sculptor was inspired by King’s words about “hewing out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope” to form the statue of King coming out of a great rock which itself seems to come from a mountain.
All around the memorial carved in granite are King’s words, such as: “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” and “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
Some years ago, I met an elderly British Baptist lady who told me that one of the greatest experiences of her life was hearing King speak at the European Baptist Federation Congress in Amsterdam in 1964.
He has made his indelible mark on the history of all humankind, this Baptist preacher and prophet of nonviolence whose words “Let freedom ring!” challenge hatred, oppression, racism and discrimination wherever they are found.
May his Dream continue to inspire us and never cease to challenge us.
Tony Peck is general secretary of the European Baptist Federation. A longer version of this column first appeared on his blog, Europe Matters, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @EBFGS.
Tony Peck is general secretary of the European Baptist Federation.