Will we get to the Promised Land?

By the Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.[1]

Like many, I was reflective on April 4, 2018, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And, like many, I was drawn once again to the haunting “Mountaintop” sermon, the prophetic words of which served as King’s eulogy for himself, while beseeching us to carry on. He saw the Promised Land, but 50 years later, the land remains elusive. In the Promised Land King saw, there would be equality for African Americans because the United States would honor its founding commitments that all people are created equal. Economic justice for the poor and disenfranchised would be achieved because all people would receive fair treatment and an end to impoverished suffering. Stated this way, the Promised Land does not seem like it should be so unobtainable. Why can’t we get there?

At issue chiefly is that racism is alive and well, manifesting itself in the disproportionate disparities that we see in our nation. Systemic racial biases are present in situations of hiring, where equally-qualified black applicants receive 36 percent fewer interview callbacks than whites;[2] employment, where whites experience a 3.6 percent unemployment rate in comparison to a 6.8 percent unemployment rate for blacks;[3] and income attainment, as black families earn only $57.30 for every $100 earned by white families.[4]

Racial bias remains prevalent in housing, in which the practices that ensured segregated cities and neighborhoods remain in place. The Fair Housing Act of 1968, passed days after King’s assassination, prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin or sex. However, 50 years later, the enforcement provisions of the legislation remain neutered. In addition to making discrimination illegal, the legislation was to “affirmatively further fair housing,” but this portion of the provision has never been enacted.

Then there are the biases so widespread in the criminal justice system. African Americans make up only 12 percent of the U.S. population but constitute 40 percent of the prison population.[5] In 2012, black people accounted for 31 percent of police’s killing victims.[6] Statistics from 2012 also show that blacks, Native Americans and Hispanics had higher stop and arrest rates than white non-Hispanics and Asians.[7]

Equally problematic is this nation’s continuing struggle with systemic poverty. In 2016, 40.6 million people lived below the poverty level.[8] And 9.5 million people are considered poor or working poor, meaning that they have spent 27 weeks or more per year working or looking for work and yet their income falls below the poverty level.[9] Approximately 52.2 million people participated in government assistance programs in 2012.[10] It is no surprise that female-householder families, African Americans, non-high school graduates, children under 18, and the unemployed were primary recipients.

Moreover, systemic poverty is inextricably linked to greater health disparities and inequalities. Socioeconomically disenfranchised people suffer unequal access to quality health care, which relates to higher rates of preventable diseases and morbidity. African Americans are more likely to die from cardiovascular diseases, specifically stroke and heart failure.[11] Those who are economically most vulnerable were more likely to report fair or poor self-rated health, more physically unhealthy days, and more mentally unhealthy days than others.[12] Related was the fact that minorities, foreign-born persons, and persons who speak Spanish or another non-English language at home were more likely to be living near major highways in 2010, suggesting increased exposure to traffic-related air pollution and elevated risk for adverse health outcomes.[13]

Will we get to the Promised Land when seemingly little to no progress has been made in the 50 years that have passed since King’s death? As a Baptist preacher and a woman of faith, I am compelled to say “yes,” but I recognize that we will only get there when all take up the mantle to press for the rights of everyone, just as King did. He said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We have a mandate from God to be concerned for the welfare of our brothers and sisters, and none of us can sit idly by. All of us must “shoulder up our crosses” for the benefit of others.

Therefore, we must pool our power and our voices to demand change. King called it a dangerous unselfishness — an unselfishness that he linked to the narrative of the Good Samaritan, who radically went out of his way to help a Jewish man who had been beaten, robbed and left for dead by the side of the road. This is the kind of unselfishness that we need: the unselfishness that will advocate for the undocumented immigrant, the LGBTQ individual, the person of color, and the socioeconomically disenfranchised because these are our battles. Just as King said in that final dramatic sermon, we cannot ask, “What will happen to me if I stop to help this person?” but rather, “What will happen to me if I don’t stop?”[14]

The Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson is director of Lifelong Learning at Yale Divinity School. Her book “Spiritual Practices for Effective Leadership: 7Rs of SANCTUARY for Pastors” is available through Judson Press.

[1] James M. Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., “I See the Promised Land,” (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1986), p 286.
[2] https://hbr.org/2017/10/hiring-discrimination-against-black-americans-hasnt-declined-in-25-years, Accessed 4/10/2018.
[3] https://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t02.htm, Accessed 4/10/2018.
[4] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/09/18/upshot/black-white-wealth-gap-perceptions.html, Accessed 4/10/2018.
[5] http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/racial-disparities-incarceration.html, Accessed 4/9/2018.
[6] https://www.vox.com/cards/police-brutality-shootings-us/us-police-racism, Accessed 4/9/2018.
[7] https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/black-people-more-likely-be-stopped-cops-study-finds-n616546, Accessed 4/11/2018.
[8] https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2017/demo/p60-259.html, Accessed 4/10/2018.
[9] https://poverty.ucdavis.edu/faq/who-are-working-poor-america, Accessed 4/11/2018.
[10] https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2015/cb15-97.html, Accessed 4/11/2018.
[11] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-heart-disease-race/heart-health-disparities-take-toll-on-african-americans-idUSKBN1CS1SD, Accessed 4/9/2018.
[12] CDC Health Disparities and Inequalities Report — U.S. 2013, Center for Surveillance, Epidemiology, and Laboratory Services, Division of Epidemiology, Analysis, and Library Services, Updated: November 2013.
[13] Ibid.
[14] James M. Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., “I See the Promised Land,” (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1986), p 286.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

Like what you read? Give Home Mission Societies a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.