“I think of the march which Martin Luther King led from Selma to Montgomery 50 years ago as part of the campaign to fulfill his ‘dream’ of full civil and political rights for African Americans.” These words of Pope Francis reminded me of a conversation with a friend after seeing the film Selma, a depiction of events in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and our nation.
I asked my friend, the Reverend Dr. Thomas L. Brown, if he had seen the film. He surprised me by telling me that he had seen the film several times. I asked him how he could have seen the film several times as it just opened in Indianapolis, not taking into account from our previous conversations that he and his family were familiars of Dr. King. He said he had seen several screenings of the film because he was a consultant for the film. He then went on to amaze me with backstory details of events I had seen in the movie. The film depicts the murder of several people who were demonstrating non-violently for Civil Rights. Dr. Brown related that several scenes and the violent things that happened to the people in them touched him deeply because they were his friends.
It seems that Dr. Brown was a foremost leader in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and any name that I gave him from the Civil Rights movement he had more than a passing knowledge of from Dr. King, the protagonist in the film Selma, to John Lewis, a major participant in the march across that bridge in Selma, and depicted in the film, now a distinguished member of Congress, to Ralph Abernathy and Stockley Carmichael.
From that time to now Dr. Brown has been someone who meditated. He is a man who holds various degrees in Religion, Philosophy and Social Science, some from the distinguished Martin Luther King, Jr. School of Social Change at Crozier Theological Seminary, others from Northwestern University’s schools of Religion and Urban Affairs. When I asked the retired professor / pastor how he came to meditation he informed me that he had come to it via the need to teach the primary tool of the movement – nonviolence.
As part of his work with SNCC in those turbulent days of the 60s he wanted to understand what this key tenet of Dr. King’s genius was really about. It seems that Dr. King was influenced by a little known mystic outside the circles of the progressive church, Howard Thurman. Dr. Thurman had been to India and met and studied with Mahatma Gandhi. There he learned the truths which supported Gandhi’s movement. There he was reminded that non-violence itself was a spiritual tenet akin to his understanding of the teachings of Jesus. In the Jain tradition of India, where some say this idea originated, the word for non-violence is ahimsa (a – non, himsa – harming). More recently this word has been popularized in the west through the introduction of Yoga, meditation, and Buddhism. In the time of Dr. King it was an alien concept.
Dr. Brown’s seeking to understand non-violence led him to meditation because it was clear to him that an intellectual understanding of non-violence was not sufficient for mastery of the tenet, at least not for him. In this he experienced the power of a meditation practice and how that supported non-violent resistance. Experiencing the spiritual depths from which non-violence evolved, he saw that meditation transcended the boundaries of the movement. He brought meditation into action, something that my very own meditation master would applaud, action that all great people like Dr. King have demonstrated, some at the cost of their lives.
I cannot begin to fathom the courage it took to live through those days and times with a price on your head for getting people registered to vote in the South, Dr. Brown did. I cannot begin to fathom the courage it took to continue the struggle after the forces that opposed the equality of all humans killed your leader, Dr. Brown did. I can only marvel at the fact that Dr. Brown attributes part of his survival to this date to the practice of meditation, and for me this takes meditation out of the realm of a new cultural fashion, or some irreligious group of ideas and shows it to be a major force for the evolution of human consciousness, as I was taught. People like the Reverend Dr. Thomas L. Brown help us to fathom what Dr. King knew intuitively and the sages teach. He is a shining example of meditation in action and his life fits perfectly with what Pope Francis went on to say about Dr. King’s dream and all our highest aspirations as a nation. “That dream continues to inspire us all. Dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people.”