My college roommate and I were fairly obsessive U2 fans; we even chose one year to wallpaper our residence hall room with free "Rattle and Hum" posters we had collected in bulk at an on-campus viewing of the film. (I take enough pride in this obsession to confess here to once having a dream in which Bono pulled me up on stage a la Courtney Cox and Bruce Springsteen. Alas, my only U2 concert included stadium seats so far from the stage, I could barely discern Bono's quintessential swagger .) I have watched "Rattle and Hum" enough times to talk--and sing--along, and no moment of that film moves me as completely as when Bono, in the midst of singing "In the Name of Love," calls out, "For the Reverend Martin Luther King. . . . sing."
You see, for me, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is first and foremost a Baptist minister, and a child of the same. I imagine it is because I am also the child of a Baptist pastor (and grandchild of two others) that I take particular pride in placing "the Reverend" at the start of his name. "Reverend" is a title that he earned with his education and his occupation, but also a title to which he was called, bringing unparalleled dignity and relevance to what it means to serve society as a religious leader. To fully experience our national recognition of his birthday, I find myself hungering for a celebration of this aspect of his legacy--the particular religious and spiritual roots of what have become for many of us universal values of community, justice, and racial and economic equality.
For five years I have spent King's birthday celebration at the University of Hartford's recognition ceremony, a ceremony filled with the beautiful particulars of our own community's intersections with King's dream. We are the only private college or university in the country to host two public magnet schools on our campus, and the university is also home to an internationally known school of music, dance, and theatre, The Hartt School. We readily employ these assets in our celebration, and today was no exception. I wiped a tear away as elementary children sang "Let There be Peace on Earth"--a visual reminder of King's dream that "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers." I held my breath as Shenel Johns, a vocalist from Hartt, stretched across her vocal range with the stirring melody of "Lift Every Voice and Sing." I marveled at the wonder of living in a community where King once spoke (when this fine university was only two years old), and where high school documentary filmmakers have now researched and recorded how King was called to the ministry, at least in part, in the tobacco fields of Connecticut.
For me, though, Baptist to my core, I miss the "Reverend" in the celebration. I long for a loud "Amen" (something that only occasionally appears in my own predominantly white, American Baptist congregation), or for someone to remind me that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. employed strategies from a variety of fields, but a vision that was firmly rooted in his own particular worldview. We celebrate more comfortably and readily the "Dr." in his title--it is language to which we can all relate in our shared commitment to education. We are a nonsectarian institution, and I understand at a rational level the value of a vision that transcends the particulars from which it was originally articulated, or even the reason why we celebrate through the lens of our own particulars--but it doesn't stop me from missing the "Rev."
Back in my office, with the glow of children's voices still surrounding me, I'm going to dig into King's old sermons, read his clergy-directed "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (an annual ritual that keeps me painfully honest about whether I have advanced or obstructed his vision), and, yes, listen once more to Bono's invitation: "For the Reverend Martin Luther King. . . . sing."