Often, when I come upon the name of a place, town or street, I ask the question – What’s in a name?
Examples in the past would be the airports Midway and O’Hare in Chicago, named for a pivotal WWII battle and the medal of honor recipient and fighter pilot, Edward “Butch” O’Hare, respectively.
I do this virtually every day, here and there, to pay quiet homage to those who have come before me, which is why I find it strange that I have lived on Hopewell Road for a decade or more in total (in two separate stretches of time), and yet I have never given the name any thought – until now.
Hopewell is obviously the combination of the two words hope and well, as in a fount or well of hope. If one thinks it through, the word implies that one needs to turn the earth, tap a water source, employ a vessel to bring it up, and drink of it. That is to say, it is a deliberative act requiring effort. To hope requires effort as well.
I thought about it because today is the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr’s. I Have a Dream Speech. He delivered it on the steps of The Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963. It is considered to be a rhetorical masterpiece and is believed to have led directly to the passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 the following year.
As it comes down to us through the fine lens of history, we might think that Martin Luther King, Jr. was the keynote speaker. In fact, he was not the headliner but made his way to the podium as the 16th person to do so that day.
King began his speech by making a reference to Lincoln and the 100th anniversary of The Emancipation Proclamation, “Five score years ago, a great American…” he uttered, before reminding his audience and the world, that while the Proclamation was a joyous thing, his people were not yet truly free.
He then turned to America’s founding documents, mainly Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and reminded the listener that those vaunted and “magnificent” words were a promise; that those who signed America’s founding creed “were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The tone became more stern as he admonished that they were here to collect on that promise; that the time was now and they would no longer “take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.”
Up to this point he was talking to the millions of people who were watching on television. People with the same skin tone as Jefferson, Lincoln and the descendants of those whose ancestors had fought, bled and died on both sides of the battlefields at Fredericksburg, Antietam and Gettysburg. He then redirected.
Next he turned to the massive throng before him, paused and continued. “But there is something that I must say to my people…Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred… We cannot walk alone.” “And as we walk,” he bellowed, “we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”
After a painful accounting of the injustices perpetrated against blacks, which were as yet still prevalent in the country, King said something which only the finely tuned ear could have heard. It is brief but profound, and could only be well understood by black churchgoers and those, white or black, who suffered through the Great Depression. He said something which was the very bedrock of his belief system, and it was this— “that unearned suffering was redemptive.”
The expression stemmed from his deeply held belief that when one has to suffer for the sins of others, without cause, maintaining ones faith in both one’s God and humanity itself, ultimately manifests itself in total redemption, a redemption ordained by God.
He was certain that enduring injustice with dignity rather than retribution, and using those painful moments creatively to demonstrate one’s faith in a righteous cause, was the only way to achieve equality of the races.
This, he believed, is what held the greatest hope of America making good on its promissory note. Through redemptive suffering God would “make a way out of no way.”
King himself, along with his family were subjected to enormous suffering and trials. Numerous beatings and daily death threats, two house bombings, several wrongful imprisonments and a near-fatal stabbing were just a portion of what he endured.
King thought that unearned suffering fortified the soul and prepared one for the battles ahead. Following is what Martin Luther King, Jr as a young seminary student wrote a decade before his famous speech:
“Who can deny that many apparent evils turn out to be goods in disguise? Character often develops out of hardship. Unfortunate hereditary and environmental conditions often make for great and noble souls. [Unearned] Suffering teaches sympathy.”
He called on his fellow sufferers to seek redemption non-violently.
He knew that, in time, white America would see the nobility in a downtrodden race which had endured so much and yet remained faithful and full of hope. He knew they would see the suffering as strength, not weakness, and come to admire it.
He had seen it in his own mother who suffered much in her life. Of her he would write, “No tears could blind her to His (God’s) presence, and she could not close her eyes so tight in sorrow or in rage that she did not see God’s hand reaching out to her.”
Dr, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a minister after all, so religion permeated his writings and speeches. To the secularist, God’s hand (faith) is the spiritual realm’s word for hope. Whether one is religious or not, hope is the better part of our human nature.
Nearly one hundred years had transpired since the horror of slavery had been eradicated and King’s I Have a Dream speech, but horrific suffering still remained. Blacks, who were supposed “heirs” to the American Creed, were still being subjected to Jim Crow laws, rampant discrimination and even lynchings. It was the enduring spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. and many men and women like him, that helped our nation march ahead.
We are fortunate for the great strides we as a nation have made. And yet there is more worked to be done. Dr. King’s lessons for us still hold true today.
To continue our journey toward realizing the dream of a color blind society we must understand the power of unearned suffering. It is not easy. But it is sure
Each if us, from time to time, must suffer the misunderstood meaning, the unknowing affront. We must suffer ignorance, both benign and born of malice as we take the time to discern wrong and right. We must not lash out as we suffer fools and miscreants when they challenge our hearts and ascribe false meaning. We must not answer tyranny of the mind or body with our own.
In order for us to heal and fulfill to all the promise of the American Creed, all of us, black, brown, white, (and every shade between), must yet endure unearned suffering the way Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrated so beautifully right up to his tragic death. We must do this that we may, in time, transfix and then hopefully, transform hardened hearts.
We must love well, hear well, sacrifice well, and most of all… hope well.
Perhaps now I have stumbled upon the true meaning of the road upon which I live.