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Panelists reflect on Lincoln's emancipation and King’s dream of justice

  Ron Large, Lawrence Burnley and Roberta Wilburn discuss emancipation and civil rights.

On the occasion of Whitworth hosting the Smithsonian National Museum’s traveling exhibition on “Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863, and the March on Washington, 1963,” a panel reflected on Abraham Lincoln, the civil rights movement and the dream of equality.

Lawrence Burnley, Whitworth associate vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, and assistant professor of history, presented an alternate view to Lincoln as the great emancipator, a view intended to humanize him.

Ron Large, Gonzaga associate academic vice president and professor of religious studies, spoke on the historical context of the March on Washington.

Roberta Wilburn, Whitworth associate dean of graduate studies in education and diversity initiatives, discussed Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech and the elevation of the dream.

The exhibit is at Cowles Memorial Library at Whitworth University until May 20. 

Larry offered “a revised, balanced memory of Lincoln,” an unpopular perspective on his racist, white supremacist attitudes in the midst of his act of emancipation.

“We don’t want to disparage him, because he contributed so much to democratic society,” he said, “but looking at his thoughts and actions is important in realizing how difficult it was for him to make the Emancipation Proclamation and promote democracy.”

Larry said Lincoln did not think the Constitution was for indigenous people.  He allowed the execution of more than 10 percent of 300 Lakota Sioux for war crimes in Minnesota’s Great Sioux Uprising, “one of the largest mass executions of Native Americans.”

While the Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved Africans (only in non-border states), it did not make the black race equal to whites—allowing them to vote, be jurors or intermarry—or allow the two races to live together in social and economic equality, Larry said.

“Lincoln’s freeing the slaves did not enfranchise blacks,” he added.  “Lincoln abhorred slavery, but his primary concern was preserving the Union. While Lincoln may not have believed black and white people could live in harmony, we can thank God that Lincoln was politically expedient.”

Since the March, Ron said, “we are still dreaming.” 

The march occurred in the context of several key events.

It was at the Lincoln Memorial, the memorial to the Great Emancipator.  Behind speakers, marchers could see Lincoln’s statue.

Ron said King’s role in the civil rights movement began when he coordinated the Montgomery bus boycott after Rosa Parks’ arrest for not moving to the back of a bus.  The boycott and freedom rides drew opposition to civil rights and integration.  Opponents claimed the movement was communist.

Opposition served to solidify the movement, Ron said.

“The purpose of the March on Washington was to unify people around desegregation and develop strategy and leadership for the nonviolent struggle,” Ron said.

The dream speech began with King referring to Abraham Lincoln.  Then he proceeded through several repeated refrains—“100 years later,” “now is the time,” “we will never be satisfied as long as,” “I have a dream that,” “with this faith” and “let freedom ring.”

Roberta focused on the dream.

“I see the March as the defining moment in the civil rights movement, showing what success could look like,” she said.

The dream took understanding from Ecclesiastes that there “is a time for every purpose,” and this is not the time to fight, she said.

It would take years to bring the dream to reality, Roberta added.

“We do not understand King without understanding that he was a Baptist preacher, aware that it might take God to bring about the fullness of time to actualize the dream, as it took time from the Old Testament vision of the Messiah until God sent Jesus.

King had a dream.  He was a visionary who understood social and political reality. The dream, rooted in the American dream, was that black children would go to school, play in parks and swim with white children, she said.

“It was also about the beloved community, God’s community coming together,” she said, pointing out that there’s a difference between equality and equity. 

“Equal may not necessarily be fair,” she said, noting that an equal number of stalls in men’s and women’s restrooms in theaters is not equal because women take more time.  “King wanted equitable treatment.”

So King called Americans to come to the nation’s capital in 1963 to cash the promissory note for Americans that everyone would have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

“We have fallen short for African Americans.  There are insufficient funds,” she said, quoting King: “The ‘ bank of justice is not bankrupt.’ He called for people to come to cash the check for freedom, security and justice.”

He had spoken of the dream before the March on Washington, but did not plan to include it in his five-minute speech, the last of 16 speeches.  He had wanted to include the dream but his advisors said it was trite and cliché. 

King began by reading his typed notes on “Normalcy Never Again.”  It was intellectual, but not a moving speech from the heart. Midway, he put down the notes and shifted to extemporaneous Baptist preaching style after singer Mahalia Jackson said, “Tell them about the dream.”

Organizers saw the march as a defining moment.  They hoped for 100,000.  At first, it looked like fewer, but then buses and trains brought people, more than 200,000.  When King spoke, many had left.  Three major TV stations broadcast it.  While President Kennedy said the speech was good, William Sullivan of the FBI saw him as a threat.

While it boosted the civil rights movement and gave momentum to civil rights legislation, “the dream remains something to aspire to,” said Roberta.  “It has touched generations.

“Defining moments create more defining moments,” she said.  “Civil rights led to the Voting Rights Act and the election of Barack Obama.

Has King’s dream come true?

“No,” said Ron, “the dream is prophetic, a critique and an ongoing process—99.5 percent is not enough.  We are always making progress and not making progress.  A prophetic vision is already now but not yet.”

Roberta said, “We have made progress, but have not arrived.  It’s a journey.  We must continue to change attitudes and mindsets.”

“No,” said Larry, “we see glimpses of the dream in acts of love and sacrifice.  The kingdom is the redistribution of wealth.  There is still greed.  We build walls that create suffering.  We do not arrive.  We are on a journey.”

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