MARTIN, THE DREAM IS HAPPENING!
I want to celebrate this New year, 2014, and culminate the old one, with the most fulfilling experience of my recent long hospital stay at Sutter Memorial Hospital. In my time there for heart surgery, I was taken with the ethnic and cultural diversity of the staff at the facility. Here was America in full representation, I felt.
As doctors, nurses, nurses aides and other staff came through my hospital life, I was delighted to see an international entourage of individuals. I found myself looking forward the next person that would come through the door. They were from all over the world, China, Malaysia, Japan, Philippines, India, Fiji, Russia, Ukraine. Mexico, Guatemala, Italy, India, Greece, Middle East, and more, a veritable United Nations assembled in a medical facility. The place had an open and ecumenical energy about it. My daughter Mary said, “You know the place looks like an old VA hospital (and it is decades old and will be torn down soon) but she said when you’re there, you experience the spirit of the place.” And that is just what I was experiencing.
Everyone had a part, everyone was needed. Each one seemed to know they were essential to the whole. As their stories unfolded, I found that many had immigrated here for opportunity they didn’t have in their home countries and appreciated being here. Long time workers were the rule. Though not unionized, it seemed there was fairness, people were all doing absolutely necessary work, and being paid and treated justly. It is a not-for-profit institution that has been here in Sacramento for over 70 years.
I was not naively thinking there weren’t plenty of unsettled administrative issues, or the usual human dynamics between staff, but overall I felt I was in the hands of committed and respected individuals. While the hierarchy of the skilled doctor’s authority reigned in medical aspects, it seemed all the staff carried a sense of dignity and importance, and were empowered to make decisions appropriate to their sphere of work and level of training.
Those that cleaned the rooms were especially friendly. Abinesh (it took me several tries to correctly pronounce his name) would proudly sign in on the white board, so I could remember who would be cleaning my room when he was there for the day. Many of the staff had spouses that also worked at the hospital, sometimes trading shifts so they could always have one parent with the children at home. More importantly,(and I asked a number of them) it seemed they liked their work and were committed to it. While always respectful of hospital rules, if a patient expressed a belief in God, supportive nurses would come forward to pray for them. Working so closely with life and death, they were also a community of faith.
The issue of race was done. That had been settled. Or certainly should have been. The hospital was a big ethnically diverse team with a common goal. Working with healing was their common calling, and I felt the mission for most of their lives.
I was impressed. I love the diversity of California, a microcosm of the world where every group is represented. Here it was happening in real life, real work, real time. What the country stands for, what it should be. I thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the America of true brother and sisterhood that he envisioned. It was here.
The transfer teams, the young men (I called them “The Boys”) who came to move people in ICU and the wards were a combination of macho energy and a gentle touch. As the hospital strong men they had the task to move flaccid and helpless bodies from gurneys to beds to chairs, and did so with care and skill.
Their buffed bodies were essential to the whole operation and everyone knew it. Especially as one viewed the double wide wheelchairs in the hall, a stark reality check of the fact; today’s population is far weightier than in the past. I queried one giant of a man with a shock of red hair about his workouts and his job and he told me he also “tossed the caber” ( a contest like spear throwing a telephone pole!) at the annual Scottish games that were celebrated nearby. Then for a moment he broke his stoic muscled stance to inform me that a vendor at the games sold the best Haggis pudding he ever tasted and smiled at the memory.
One morning, when I was still in my first vulnerable days in ICU, a young black man was one of my ‘lifters.‘ He had a pleasant open face, a deep kindness in his eyes. I told him to thank his mother for raising such a helpful son.
I brought up Martin Luther King and that this year was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. I have learned that most young people today, black or white (and older people for that matter) have little sense of their history and I took time to speak to him.
I have taught a course in t
he Spiritual Mission of America for over 35 years at Rudolf Steiner College, a class very dear to me. I always tell the students if I had to pick two outstanding representatives of the spiritual America in the 20th century, it would be Martin Luther King, Jr. and Peace Pilgrim.
Now in my shapeless hospital gown, and a body frail from the massive internal bleeding from which I had nearly died a few days before, I longed to tell this young man of his noble and priceless racial heritage from this great man.
“Do you know it was fifty years ago the Martin Luther King gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the Lincoln memorial?” I asked.
He replied he had watched some on a documentary. “
“But did you know it was Mahalia Jackson, the gospel singer, who helped make it happen?” No, he didn’t know that.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was the last presenter of that day, following many popular singers and a dozen or so others making speeches. Mahalia Jackson was the last singer. Martin had asked her to sing a special song before his speech. They often stood together on the civil rights podiums. Her peerless leadership with the moving gospel songs became a uniting power for the whole civil rights movement.
Mahalia sang as asked, ‘I’ve been Buked and I’ve been Scorned‘ , a favorite of Martin’s which seemed to be a special spiritual connection for him to his slave ancestors. With a fancy tall hat, like an elegant queen’s crown, Mahalia was larger than life, impressive, powerful, and awe inspiring with her “once in a millennium” voice, as Martin called it. The crowd was moved, They couldn’t help but be. Mahalia said she didn’t sing to entertain, she sang to ‘minister to the soul’. And minister she did.
With the huge imposing statue of Lincoln behind him, King began, with eloquent intense seriousness:
“ Five score years ago a great American... signed the Emancipation Proclamation...a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice....... one hundred years later the negro still is not free....... still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the shackles of discrimination.....
When the architects of our country wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir... that all men - yes, black men as well as white men - would have the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. ......
We have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.... now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. now is the time, to lift our nation from the quicksands of injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all God’s children......Now is the time!......
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline........again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force......
.......many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence today have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny..... their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom........we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and freedom like mighty stream.”
King, who had been introduced as the moral leader of the nation, had delivered a great historic speech to this point, frequently looking down to his thoughtfully prepared text. He had spent nearly the whole night before writing and re-writing it. Boldly, he had addressed the sacrifice of Lincoln to try to heal the nation from the gaping abyss of hypocrisy that yawned from the founding of the new nation.The mighty human spiritual ideals that had flowed through the soul and pen of the young Thomas Jefferson, to be enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, were in no small part possible because of the esoteric spiritual striving of the founders. But in the common mindset of that day, these ‘inalienable rights‘ only applied to white males with property.
Now mid way through his speech on that fateful day, Mahalia Jackson rose up in the crowd and called out to Martin Luther King. And everything changes. She brought about a seminal moment in the spiritual truth of America.
Mahalia’s grandfather had been a slave and she was raised in hardship, but she rose up to sing at Carnegie Hall and the concert halls of Europe. World famous, she was the reigning international queen of gospel. She remained true all her life to her soul mission, the recognition that her voice was a gift of God, given to honor Him, and never she used it for secular songs. She kept that moral resolve throughout her career, even though she was relentlessly pressured to sing popular tunes by a gambling husband, (she later divorced), and continuous offers of money to change her mind.
She once said, “When you finish singing the blues, you still have the blues. When I sing the music of God, I am free.” Her interviews revealed a purity of soul; “God gave us the world, he doesn’t need anything, just wants us the love each other. When you think of all the things God’s done for you, then ask what have you done for someone else? With simple unanswerable logic she went on,”How can I love God if I can’t love you?” She looked upon her audiences as her family and longed to give them the uplifting spiritual nourishment of devoted soul imbued song.
That day in 1963 at Lincoln’s memorial, Mahalia was also performing where Marion Anderson, another black singer of compelling talent, had sung on Easter morning, April 9, 1939, two decades before. In her beautiful, cultured voice Marion gave America, “My Country Tis of Thee, Sweet land of Liberty.......
She was singing there because she had been denied the use of Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution because she was a Negro and would sing to an integrated audience.
In disgust, Eleanor Roosevelt had resigned her membership in that organization and helped arrange the concert outdoors at the Lincoln Memorial. Seventy five thousand listeners stood there on the mall on that Easter morning, in an integrated audience, incredibly rare for that time. Marion Anderson’s golden voice reached into millions of American homes via radio. Though world renowned, Marion, was living in a deeply segregated America, where she could not even stay in a hotel in New York. Albert Einstein took her in. They were life long friends. Marion was scheduled to sing the Star Spangled Banner for this event but couldn’t get there in time, but later sang “He’s Got The Whole World in His Hands.”
These two golden voiced women, both endured threats to their lives because of the color of their skin. But their moral courage, resolve and talent have shown the way to the revelation of the true spiritual America and the meaning of freedom.
When Mahalia took charge in that lightning bolt moment in American history as she rose and shouted out from the crowd, “Tell them about the Dream, Martin!” she passed a spark of inspiration directly to him. The organizers of the march had not been able to agree on a black woman to speak that day. Mahalia would in fact, be that ‘speaker’ history remembers. At that moment, Martin put down the prepared speech ( a speech that had contained no mention of the Dream) and began the inspired words. King would later say, “It just came to me.”
I believe that at this destiny moment, King began to speak out of the true spirit of America, a nation longing for its true identity. A nation longing to fulfill its mighty purpose in gathering together all the peoples of the earth to this land, in gathering humanity here in the hope we will ultimately one day be able to recognize one another as spiritual individualities, beyond all divisions of race and status.
I would go farther. As Mahalia lights that soul spark, the might of a higher power, the power of the Holy Spirit could transmit spiritual truths of human dignity and justice through the being of Martin Luther King, Jr., a man whose life was devoted to the recognition of the higher self in every human being...
Thus King continues his words, coming straight through the heart.
“ So even as we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow.. I still have a dream....deeply rooted in the American dream.... that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed; “We hold this to be self evident that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day my four little children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character....
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted every hill and valley made low the rough places will be made plain and the crooked places will be made straight And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. This is our.. hope....
With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, “My country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty of thee I sing.” Land where my father’s died land of the pilgrims pride from every mountain side, let freedom ring.” .........
When we allow freedom to ring- when we let it ring from every city and hamlet from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up the day when all God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to join hands and sing the words of the old Negro spiritual “Free at last, free at last, thank God All Mighty, we are free at last!”
Free at last. Brotherhood, sisterhood, and freedom.
That gathering was the largest ever assembled in the nation’s capitol. Nearly a quarter of a million souls were there, three quarters of them black, many going through great hardship to travel to get there. Hospitals and police were geared up for riots. None came, peace and good will reigned throughout the just and peaceful gathering on that sweltering August day in Washington, DC. Mahalia sent them home with a joyful, hand clapping song of hope and optimist endurance How I Came Over.
Of course, I didn’t tell the young man all these details of that fateful and momentous day. There wasn’t time, And he couldn’t stay long, for many others, helpless in their illness, were calling for him and needing to be cradled in his splendid arms to help lift them up and upright toward their healing. I just gave the short and essential facts ending enthusiastically, “This is the greatest speech given of the 20th century, one of the greatest ever in America.”
“You’re going to make me cry,” he told me.
Then he leaned down and kissed me on the top of my head, on my white haired, old white lady head. And I, who leaned my cheek against his hand that I had been holding, I kissed the back of his strong, warm, brown hand. With tears streaming down his face he turned and left the room
With my heart spilling over through my tears, I whispered inwardly, “Martin, it is happening. Not everywhere, not universally yet, but the dream is happening here at Sutter Memorial Hospital. Where the staff are known by the ‘content of their character’, where ‘justice’ is done in their work and pay, where ‘ a beautiful symphony brother and sisterhood must reign if they are to serve”, where they have ‘joined hands’ in a mission of mercy and healing for the sick in dignity and freedom.
It is no longer a dream, Martin, its happening.
Nancy Jewel Poer
New Years, 2014