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Free At Last

Saturday, January 15th, 2011

This week’s Free Ride* muses on the lyrics of the old spiritual Martin Luther King used to close the historic I Have a Dream Speech at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom:

Free at last, free at last
Thank God Almighty I’m free at last

I’ve often wondered how important that old slave song was in the life of the church when Dr. King was organizing and preaching the people into freedom. I wonder if he favored the version popularized by Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers back in the mid 1950s. I wonder if MLK would be able to make any sense of Bono’s song, Pride (In the Name of Love), which references  Free at Last and the tragedy of April 4, 1968, the event that finally gave the spiritual’s lyrics a literal meaning for Dr. King.

Two experiences here on King Day cause me to lean more fully into that fantastic dream of freedom. One is a story I heard about Nelson Mandela. When the South African hero was freed from prison in 1990 after serving 27 years as a political prisoner, Bill Clinton was Governor of Arkansas. It was early in the morning, and the Governor woke up his daughter, Chelsea, to watch the release, believing that it would be one of the most significant events of her lifetime. As they watched Mandela walk out of the prison, 10-year old Chelsea asked, “why does his face look so angry?” Three years later, the newly-elected President Clinton met soon-to-be President Nelson Mandela and asked him about that event, sharing his daughter’s observation. Mandela said no one else had ever asked him about the look on his face, and he confided that indeed he had been extremely angry at that moment, thinking about 27 lost years of freedom. But, he said, as he walked on, he heard a voice telling him that during all those years of physical bondage, he had been spiritually free. And now that he was physically free, did he want to be in a spiritual bondage of hatred and rage for the rest of his life? He decided then that he did not want to experience any kind of captivity, and that in order to be free, he had to forgive. It was in the grace of forgiveness that he was able to finally realize the full reality of the old spiritual, free at last, free at last.

And then, while driving home from Atlanta today, I was channel switching and came upon a talk radio show featuring Richard Land. He is an ethicist and the chief public policy spokesperson for the Southern Baptist Convention. I had not thought about him for years. But as I heard his voice, many things flooded back, including anger and rage. He was part of the extremely mean-spirited fundamentalist takeover of the SBC back in the early 80s, when I was a college and seminary student preparing for ministry in Baptist life. I associate him with his leadership in steering the SBC into an unholy marriage with the religious right and the Republican party, throwing out all semblance of the historic Baptist principle of the separation of church and state in the process. But, as I said, I hadn’t heard of him or thought about him for years, until hearing his voice on “Richard Land Live.” And that experience let me know how easy it is to be in bondage to anger and how hard to forgive folks who have done great damage.  So I reflected on King, and Mandela, and the old spiritual, and gave it a try. I started breathing out anger and resentment, and breathing in grace. And then after a few minutes of this, I started breathing in the understanding of Richard Land as a fellow human being and a fellow traveler on our road of faith. And I started breathing out mercy. And I listened to what he was saying on the radio. He took a phone call from someone completely outraged with President Obama, lashing out with great bitterness, and referencing Obama’s response to the Tuscon shootings. Richard Land did something I would never have expected him to do. He praised the President’s speech in Tuscon, saying it was the second greatest speech he had given, next to his speech on race when he was candidate Obama. Richard Land spoke of times when we need to rise above partisanship in our country, this being one of those times. He reiterated the President’s point that we need not all agree, but we need to be honorable in the way we disagree. Wow, I thought. Richard Land has apparently found some freedom. Maybe I have, too. At last.

*Free Ride is a Saturday blog from Stan Dotson that takes a different song each week and muses on the lyrics of freedom. You can click on the live links in the post to hear the music referenced in the blog. If you have a favorite “freedom” song (it could be any song that has the word free or freedom in it), feel free to suggest it in the comment box below. As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.



  • January 15, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    For a good movie about Mandela watch “Invictus” with Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon and directed by Clint Eastwood. It is about Mr. Mandela’s first year as President of South Africa.

    Comment by Jerry

  • January 15, 2011 at 5:40 pm

    Thanks for the recommendation, Jerry. I look forward to seeing the movie. Morgan Freeman is always good.

    Comment by Stan

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