James Weldon Johnson, born in 1870 during Reconstruction after the US Civil War, wrote the poem-song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” while his brother put it to music. They did this in commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. James recounts:
The song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred colored school children.
Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved away from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country.
This is how “Lift Every Voice and Sing” became cherished as the Negro or Black National Anthem: young people to young people, teachers to youth; sewing, growing and moving. Martin Luther King, Jr. closes his 1967 speech “Where Do We Go From Here?” with one of its stanza
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
The speech was MLK Jr.’s last presidential address given to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the African-American civil rights group that still exists and was founded after the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The speech’s timing was just one year before Dr. King’s assassination and a decade after the SCLC began. In the speech, he celebrates gains of the Civil Rights Movement including two monumental Supreme Court rulings.
He equally names the work still required of the Movement: to grow into or move into wholeness. He encourages to embrace “divine dissatisfaction” until this vision of wholeness becomes reality, stating: “that day when nobody will shout, ‘White Power!’ when nobody will shout, ‘Black Power!’ but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.”
He recalls the story of Jesus instructing the tax collector Nicodemus to be born again. So Dr. King says to America that the nation must be born again: “that your whole structure must be changed.” And to move into such deep change, he grounds “divine dissatisfaction” in Love for the work toward wholeness. Love for him is “a strong, demanding love”; and a choice in response to hate and oppression, able to endure even betrayal.
The turbulence of today is like that of 55 years ago when MLK Jr. asked “Where Do We Go From Here?” From our here-and-now, Love still is what sustains the making of the Kin-dom of God – a future sewn, grown, and moving us toward wholeness from our present moment of struggle.
Listening to Spirit and inviting wisdom from ancestors, I am compelled by experience that Love is God and requires me to “sink down to the seed” – a phrase from the First Friends, our faithful ancestors: spiritually-empowered dissidents living through civil war in England and during the Reformation.
The experience of “sinking down to the seed” requires me to draw-down into the Divine Source, also called the Living Waters, in order to draw-up Love. I believe that this is the legacy for the Religious Society of Friends and, thereby, the inheritance of Durham Monthly Meeting as a faith community: to act with confidence that with God all things are possible and that Love is required in the work of wholeness.
Let’s encounter and embody “God’s power and human power”, the kind of power that Dr. King bears witness to: “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on.”
So, it is in the name of Christ and Beloved Community, that I invite our embracing the movement of divine dissatisfaction toward wholeness: Where will we go from here? How will we ground ourselves in Love among the wider world and among one another? How will we nurture “a strong, demanding Love” as an enduring choice?
Will we be courageous, examine our hearts, and become willing to risk all? Like Early Friend James Nayler, whose last words were shared as the opening reading for today’s worship. Friend James was tortured as punishment for blasphemy. He made peace with God despite his broken body, and sought reconciliation with his spiritual brother George Fox despite being rebuffed repeatedly.
Will we hear Christ, and follow the call as did Ananias? The Ananias who Jesus called to heal the persecutor Saul, and who Jesus had recently blinded.
I believe that this is the legacy for the Religious Society of Friends and, thereby, the inheritance of Durham Monthly Meeting as a faith community: to act with confidence that with God all things are possible and that Love is required in the work of wholeness.
It is my prayer that we may be grounded in Love. May we sink down to the seed to draw-down to the Divine Source, the Living Waters. May we draw-up an enduring choice to work for wholeness, a work that requires all of ourselves: to heal and receive healing; to repair breaches and reconcile one to another; and to testify to God’s power and human power. Amen.
“A Gathered People.” Last words of James Nayler found in Quaker Faith & Practice, 5th edition, Britain Yearly Meeting, Chapter 19.12 <https://qfp.quaker.org.uk/passage/19-12/>
“Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Song and introduction by James Weldon Johnson found on the Poetry Foundation web site, <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46549/lift-every-voice-and-sing>.
“Where Do We Go From Here?” Speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. found on the Stanford University web site, <https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/where-do-we-go-here>.