The Scripture tells us that when Joshua and the Israelites arrived at the
gates of Jericho, they could not enter. The walls of the city were too steep
for any one person to climb; too strong to be taken down with brute force.
And so they sat for days, unable to pass on through.
But God had a plan for his people. He told them to stand together and
march together around the city, and on the seventh day he told them that
when they heard the sound of the ram’s horn, they should speak with one
voice. And at the chosen hour, when the horn sounded and a chorus of voices
cried out together, the mighty walls of Jericho came tumbling down.
There are many lessons to take from this passage, just as there are many
lessons to take from this day, just as there are many memories that fill the
space of this church. As I was thinking about which ones we need to remember
at this hour, my mind went back to the very beginning of the modern Civil
Because before Memphis and the mountaintop; before the bridge in Selma
and the march on Washington; before Birmingham and the beatings; the fire
hoses and the loss of those four little girls; before there was King the
icon and his magnificent dream, there was King the young preacher and a
people who found themselves suffering under the yolk of oppression.
And on the eve of the bus boycotts in Montgomery, at a time when many
were still doubtful about the possibilities of change, a time when those in
the black community mistrusted themselves, and at times mistrusted each
other, King inspired with words not of anger, but of an urgency that still
speaks to us today:
“Unity is the great need of the hour” is what King said. Unity is how we
What Dr. King understood is that if just one person chose to walk instead
of ride the bus, those walls of oppression would not be moved. But maybe if
a few more walked, the foundation might start to shake. If a few more women
were willing to do what Rosa Parks had done, maybe the cracks would start to
show. If teenagers took freedom rides from North to South, maybe a few
bricks would come loose. Maybe if white folks marched because they had come
to understand that their freedom too was at stake in the impending battle,
the wall would begin to sway. And if enough Americans were awakened to the
injustice; if they joined together, North and South, rich and poor,
Christian and Jew, then perhaps that wall would come tumbling down, and
justice would flow like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Unity is the great need of the hour – the great need of this hour. Not
because it sounds pleasant or because it makes us feel good, but because
it’s the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in this
I’m not talking about a budget deficit. I’m not talking about a trade
deficit. I’m not talking about a deficit of good ideas or new plans.
I’m talking about a moral deficit. I’m talking about an empathy deficit.
I’m taking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to
understand that we are our brother’s keeper; we are our sister’s keeper;
that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment
We have an empathy deficit when we’re still sending our children down
corridors of shame – schools in the forgotten corners of America where the
color of your skin still affects the content of your education.
We have a deficit when CEOs are making more in ten minutes than some
workers make in ten months; when families lose their homes so that lenders
make a profit; when mothers can’t afford a doctor when their children get
We have a deficit in this country when there is Scooter Libby justice for
some and Jena justice for others; when our children see nooses hanging from
a schoolyard tree today, in the present, in the twenty-first century.
We have a deficit when homeless veterans sleep on the streets of our
cities; when innocents are slaughtered in the deserts of Darfur; when young
Americans serve tour after tour of duty in a war that should’ve never been
authorized and never been waged.
And we have a deficit when it takes a breach in our levees to reveal a
breach in our compassion; when it takes a terrible storm to reveal the
hungry that God calls on us to feed; the sick He calls on us to care for;
the least of these He commands that we treat as our own.
So we have a deficit to close. We have walls – barriers to justice and
equality – that must come down. And to do this, we know that unity is the
great need of this hour.
Unfortunately, all too often when we talk about unity in this country,
we’ve come to believe that it can be purchased on the cheap. We’ve come to
believe that racial reconciliation can come easily – that it’s just a matter
of a few ignorant people trapped in the prejudices of the past, and that if
the demagogues and those who exploit our racial divisions will simply go
away, then all our problems would be solved.
All too often, we seek to ignore the profound institutional barriers that
stand in the way of ensuring opportunity for all children, or decent jobs
for all people, or health care for those who are sick. We long for unity,
but are unwilling to pay the price.
But of course, true unity cannot be so easily won. It starts with a
change in attitudes – a broadening of our minds, and a broadening of our
It’s not easy to stand in somebody else’s shoes. It’s not easy to see
past our differences. We’ve all encountered this in our own lives. But what
makes it even more difficult is that we have a politics in this country that
seeks to drive us apart – that puts up walls between us.
We are told that those who differ from us on a few things are different
from us on all things; that our problems are the fault of those who don’t
think like us or look like us or come from where we do. The welfare queen is
taking our tax money. The immigrant is taking our jobs. The believer
condemns the non-believer as immoral, and the non-believer chides the
believer as intolerant.
For most of this country’s history, we in the African American community
have been at the receiving end of man’s inhumanity to man. And all of us
understand intimately the insidious role that race still sometimes plays –
on the job, in the schools, in our health care system and in our criminal
And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that none of our
hands are entirely clean. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge
that our own community has not always been true to King’s vision of a
We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them.
The scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in our
community. For too long, some of us have seen immigrants as competitors for
jobs instead of companions in the fight for opportunity.
Every day, our politics fuels and exploits this kind of division across
all races and regions; across gender and party. It is played out on
television. It is sensationalized by the media. And last week, it even crept
into the campaign for President, with charges and counter-charges that
served to obscure the issues instead of illuminating the critical choices we
face as a nation.
So let us say that on this day of all days, each of us carries with us
the task of changing our hearts and minds. The division, the stereotypes,
the scapegoating, the ease with which we blame our plight on others – all of
this distracts us from the common challenges we face – war and poverty;
injustice and inequality. We can no longer afford to build ourselves up by
tearing someone else down. We can no longer afford to traffic in lies or
fear or hate. It is the poison that we must purge from our politics; the
wall that we must tear down before the hour grows too late.
Because if Dr. King could love his jailor; if he could call on the
faithful who once sat where you do to forgive those who set dogs and fire
hoses upon them, then surely we can look past what divides us in our time,
and bind up our wounds, and erase the empathy deficit that exists in our
But if changing our hearts and minds is the first critical step, we
cannot stop there. It is not enough to bemoan the plight of poor children in
this country and remain unwilling to push our elected officials to provide
the resources to fix our schools. It is not enough to decry the disparities
of health care and yet allow the insurance companies and the drug companies
to block much-needed reforms. It is not enough for us to abhor the costs of
a misguided war, and yet allow ourselves to be driven by a politics of fear
that sees the threat of attack as way to scare up votes instead of a call to
come together around a common effort.
The Scripture tells us that we are judged not just by word, but by deed.
And if we are to truly bring about the unity that is so crucial in this
time, we must find it within ourselves to act on what we know; to understand
that living up to this country’s ideals and its possibilities will require
great effort and resources; sacrifice and stamina.
And that is what is at stake in the great political debate we are having
today. The changes that are needed are not just a matter of tinkering at the
edges, and they will not come if politicians simply tell us what we want to
hear. All of us will be called upon to make some sacrifice. None of us will
be exempt from responsibility. We will have to fight to fix our schools, but
we will also have to challenge ourselves to be better parents. We will have
to confront the biases in our criminal justice system, but we will also have
to acknowledge the deep-seated violence that still resides in our own
communities and marshal the will to break its grip.
That is how we will bring about the change we seek. That is how Dr. King
led this country through the wilderness. He did it with words – words that
he spoke not just to the children of slaves, but the children of slave
owners. Words that inspired not just black but also white; not just the
Christian but the Jew; not just the Southerner but also the Northerner.
He led with words, but he also led with deeds. He also led by example. He
led by marching and going to jail and suffering threats and being away from
his family. He led by taking a stand against a war, knowing full well that
it would diminish his popularity. He led by challenging our economic
structures, understanding that it would cause discomfort. Dr. King
understood that unity cannot be won on the cheap; that we would have to earn
it through great effort and determination.
That is the unity – the hard-earned unity – that we need right now. It is
that effort, and that determination, that can transform blind optimism into
hope – the hope to imagine, and work for, and fight for what seemed
The stories that give me such hope don’t happen in the spotlight. They
don’t happen on the presidential stage. They happen in the quiet corners of
our lives. They happen in the moments we least expect. Let me give you an
example of one of those stories.
There is a young, 23-year-old white woman named Ashley Baia who organizes
for our campaign in Florence, South Carolina. She’s been working to organize
a mostly African American community since the beginning of this campaign,
and the other day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went
around telling their story and why they were there.
And Ashley said that when she was nine years old, her mother got cancer.
And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health
care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that’s when Ashley decided that
she had to do something to help her mom.
She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley
convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat
more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was
the cheapest way to eat.
She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone
at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she
could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need
to help their parents too.
So Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks
everyone else why they’re supporting the campaign. They all have different
stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come
to this elderly black man who’s been sitting there quietly the entire time.
And Ashley asks him why he’s there. And he does not bring up a specific
issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education
or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He
simply says to everyone in the room, “I am here because of Ashley.”
By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white
girl and that old black man is not enough. It is not enough to give health
care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children.
But it is where we begin. It is why the walls in that room began to crack
And if they can shake in that room, they can shake in Atlanta.
And if they can shake in Atlanta, they can shake in Georgia.
And if they can shake in Georgia, they can shake all across America. And
if enough of our voices join together; we can bring those walls tumbling
down. The walls of Jericho can finally come tumbling down. That is our hope
– but only if we pray together, and work together, and march together.
Brothers and sisters, we cannot walk alone.
In the struggle for peace and justice, we cannot walk alone.
In the struggle for opportunity and equality, we cannot walk alone
In the struggle to heal this nation and repair this world, we cannot walk
So I ask you to walk with me, and march with me, and join your voice with
mine, and together we will sing the song that tears down the walls that
divide us, and lift up an America that is truly indivisible, with liberty,
and justice, for all. May God bless the memory of the great pastor of this
church, and may God bless the United States of America.