‘I have a dream’: Remembering Prathia Hall and her impact

“Telling the history of how our respected groups of of people or ancestors lived and endured in the past is
important to group identity.”
(Photo sourced from: UnSplash)
“Telling the history of how our respected groups of of people or ancestors lived and endured in the past is important to group identity.” (Photo sourced from: UnSplash)

“He took on the wilderness.”

Her voice trembles, filled with a passion strong enough it could sound like rage.

“And the cliff.” The woman with short dark hair and an ecclesiastical white blouse stands behind a large, broad-shouldered pulpit. 

“Every briar. Every thorn. Every thistle.”

The congregation responds after each phrase with a loud murmur alongside a powerful, dissonant chord on the organ.

“Every rock; every quagmire; every dozen; every deadly deed; dope; disease; disappointment.” 

She is chiseling a picture of the unjust suffering of Jesus for a congregation that is suffering unjustly in some of the specific ways that He did. Her voice quavers as it rises and falls and thunders over the cement walls of the sanctuary, remembering.

Prathia Hall was a preacher, theologian, civil rights activist and ethicist in the second half of the 20th century. She received her doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary and was one of the first women ordained in the U.S. as a Baptist minister.

In 1962, Mount Olive Baptist Church, in Chickasawatchee, Georgia, was burned by the Ku Klux Klan. The next day, a prayer vigil was held in the footprint of the decimated church. The attendees included Martin Luther King, Jr., and Hall, along with many other prominent Black ministers. In her public prayers there, Hall repeatedly used the phrase, “I have a dream!” Dr. King was so moved that he began using this phrase in his sermons and later asked her permission to use it in his famous speech in Washington. 

In her sermon closing quoted above, Hall recalls the suffering of Jesus. She reminds us to remember the powerful and dark narrative of His temptation, His inquisition and the crown of thorns being forced into the flesh of His head after His tormentors tore the clothes from His body and then the skin from His back. We remember His suffering –  and we also remember and live out His triumph. Through Him, death was “rendered idle,” “terminated,” “deprived of strength.” 

Telling the history of how our respected groups of people or ancestors lived and endured in the past is important to group identity. Remembering how Christians have been persecuted (as well as have persecuted others), how Africans were enslaved and mistreated and forced to work in the region around Southern Adventist University and how that depreciation of humanity survived in different forms, how other religious, ethnic, gender and racial groups have suffered throughout the history of our country serves to help us understand our present. 

We must not forget the tragic events that shaped the people and communities we belong to or the suffering of Jesus. And we must also remember the places where hope came to fruition and victory was realized. Prathia Hall reminds us not only to cultivate and bring to pass the dreams we have in the future but to remember where we’ve been.

“‘Memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair,’ the theologian Walter Brueggeman noted. It’s an extraordinary statement, one that reminds us that though hope is about the future, grounds for hope lie in the records and recollections of the past. 

We can tell of a past that was nothing but defeats and cruelties and injustices, or of a past that was some lovely golden age now irretrievably lost, or we can tell a more complicated and accurate story, one that has room for the best and worst, for atrocities and liberations, for grief and jubilation. A memory commensurate to the complexity of the past and the whole cast of participants, a memory that includes our power, produces that forward-directed energy called hope.” – Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities

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