It was the first time I ever prayed with my face touching the earth…and the first time I have ever had a prayer interrupted by a President of the United States. I lay prostrate on the green grass surrounding the Washington Monument, praying with ten other men in a tight circle, and a half million men all along the Washington Mall. It was October 4, 1997, a Saturday afternoon, and the Presidential helicopter with William Jefferson Clinton aboard, had just powered over our prayer huddle flying barely higher than the Washington Monument peak as if by governmental mandate.
As dusk neared, I looked behind where we sat, and I noticed the reflecting pool leading to the Lincoln Memorial. This was near the place Martin Luther King stood and delivered in his sing-song style perhaps the greatest speech I’ve ever heard, the I Have a Dream speech of the civil rights movement in 1963.
“Abraham, Martin and John” is a 1968 song written by Dick Holler and first recorded by Dion in response to the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King in that same year. The song refers to the loss of Lincoln, both Kennedys and King. I could imagine on this day, sitting on the grass beneath the Washington Monument, humming that song and gazing along the length of the reflecting pool as Martin Luther King delivered his speech in August, 1963. Then I saw something amazing. Through the shadows and slanted sunbeams piercing the foilage that lined the pool walkways, I watched men baptizing other men, dunking all comers, and they would come up out of the water looking like they had just remembered the bags of cash they had left under their mattress before they left for the war, and they were hugging the wet and the dry. Black and white men, all sizes and shapes, all getting wet, they were getting saved in that long shallow pool where words exploded along the surface 50 years ago. It was a surreal scene from a distance of a hundred yards, like a silent movie since they were out of earshot, but the men seemed to be rejoicing in their mass washing away of sins. It seemed that only Abraham, Martin and me had any interest in this scene, and I looked through the gathering dusk at Abe seated on his concrete chair, and I thought of what he had meant to our country so many years ago…and I wondered what Honest Abe thought as he sat serenely listening to Martin Luther King’s passion in the summer of 1963. That speech still gives me chills. Cue up YouTube and listen to the words. It’s over 17 minutes, so fast forward to 12:45 and you’ll see an outtake from 12:52—13:10 of Lincoln viewing the speech. I’ve copied below the last few paragraphs to celebrate Martin Luther King Day. Dr. King’s words still point a beacon of hope into the dimmest caverns of our individual and national conscience.
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. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. And this will be the day — 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 fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!