Fifty-five years ago, on December 24, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the message at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on what would be his last Christmas Eve, titled “A Christmas Sermon on Peace.” Once again, I share some of that powerful lesson. In a season when many people sing carols praying for peace on earth, Dr. King shared a sharp warning for our nation and world: “Now let me suggest first that if we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world . . . We must either learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.”
His words remain prescient. Are we any closer to heeding them? At the end of the sermon, Dr. King spoke about the day four years earlier when he had told the nation at the March on Washington that he had a dream for America’s future. He said in the turbulent years that had followed it already felt like he was watching that dream turning into a nightmare. But Dr. King said he was not willing to give up:
“Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that, I close today by saying that I still have a dream . . . I have a dream that one day men will rise up and come to see that they are made to live together as brothers. I still have a dream this morning that one day every Negro in this country, every colored person in the world, will be judged on the basis of the content of his character rather than the color of his skin, and every man will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. I still have a dream that one day the idle industries of Appalachia will be revitalized, and the empty stomachs of Mississippi will be filled, and brotherhood will be more than a few words at the end of a prayer, but rather the first order of business on every legislative agenda.”
He went on: “I still have a dream today that one day justice will roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream. I still have a dream today that in all of our state houses and city halls men will be elected to go there who will do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with their God . . . With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when there will be peace on earth and good will toward men. It will be a glorious day, the morning stars will sing together, and the sons of God will shout for joy.”
Decades later, Dr. King’s dream remains deferred, but every generation has a new chance to bend the arc of the moral universe closer towards justice, equality, good will towards all, and peace. Fifty-five years after Dr. King gave that Christmas Eve sermon, it is still up to us to make that dream and that day when the sons and daughters of God shout for joy real for all children and their families in America.
Marian Wright Edelman is the current President of the Children’s Defense Fund.