Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Breakfast Keynote Address
Drexelbrook Events Center, Drexel Hill, PA
Monday, January 18th, 2016
On December 10, 1964, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. accepted the Nobel Prize for Peace. In the speech he delivered on that occasion, he was careful to acknowledge that he accepted the award not on his own behalf, but in the name of all who made the Civil Rights Movement, and thus his leadership, possible.
From the depths of my heart [he said] I am aware that this prize is much more than an honor to me personally.
Every time I take a flight I am always mindful of the many people who make a successful journey possible, the known pilots and the unknown ground crew.
So you honor the dedicated pilots of our struggle who have sat at the controls as the freedom movement soared into orbit. . .
You honor the ground crew without whose labor and sacrifices the jet flights to freedom could never have left the earth.
Most of these people will never make the headlines and their names will not appear in Who’s Who. Yet the years have rolled past and when the blazing light of truth is focused on this marvelous age in which we live – men and women will know and children will be taught that we have a finer land, a better people, a more noble civilization – because these humble children of God were willing to suffer for righteousness’ sake.
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On February 9, 1968, Dr. King preached what many have considered to be his own eulogy from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. This sermon, entitled “The Drum Major Instinct,” was, like so many of his sermons, speeches and writings, at once reflective and prophetic. In it, Dr. King analyzes the human desire for greatness and recognition. He explores various manifestations of this compulsion, from the personal and insignificant to the national and cataclysmic. For from his perspective, the desire among individuals “to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction,” is linked to the struggle among nations “engaged in a bitter, colossal contest for supremacy.” As he puts it:
. . . Nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. I must be first. I must be supreme. Our nation must rule the world. And I am sad to say [he continues] that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.
This sermon culminates in Dr. King’s eloquent and heartbreaking reflection on how he would like to be remembered. He tells his congregants:
If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. Every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize, that isn’t important. Tell him [sic] not to mention where I went to school.
I’d like somebody to mention that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day, that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try, in my life, to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.
Two months later, these words were broadcast at his funeral in the very same church.
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The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has achieved the status of an icon in mainstream US culture. Every year in mid-January, around the occasion of his birth, we recall the highlights of his remarkable and all-too-brief career: his leadership of the triumphant Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56; his climactic speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964; his assassination in Memphis in 1968. Furthermore, typically, we replay the most familiar sentences from his most famous speech, a speech we have come to know as his ”I Have a Dream “ speech. Those words, of course, include the following: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Without a doubt, the achievements that mark the high points of Dr. King’s career are extraordinary. And without a doubt, his words on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 22, 1963, are some of the most eloquent uttered by one of the preeminent orators of his generation or any other.
But by focusing on the same moments in Dr. King’s life, and on a few words from one speech in particular, we, paradoxically, reduce him to the status of an icon. We do a disservice to his memory, to the movement to which he gave so much and in the service of which he died, and to the legacy we seek to honor. For the struggle for freedom and equality preceded and extends beyond what we commonly call the Civil Rights Movement. By some accounts it began with emancipation; by others it began in the aftermath of World War II. Its battles are clearly not all won; they continue into the present. As he suggests so eloquently in his Nobel acceptance speech, the Movement was and is larger than his leadership. And of course, Dr. King was much, much more than these iconic moments.
To limit him to a few familiar phrases denies the boldness, the complexities and the contradictions of his vision for humanity. To freeze Dr. King at these moments of his greatest visibility is to ignore his frailty, his vulnerability, and his transformations. By seizing upon the image of Dr. King at the pinnacle of his success or at the moment of his martyrdom, we risk allowing him to stand in for the Civil Rights struggle in its entirety, thereby rendering invisible the less well-known or indeed unknown foot soldiers without whom there would gave been no Movement. To restrict him to these few representations limits his capacity to inspire us. For if we believe that he was somehow fundamentally and essentially greater than or different from who we are, then we render ourselves unable to follow his example. And to restrict the movement itself to his career, and to the battles to end the reign of Jim Crow in the segregated South, we risk seeing the movement as a domestic, regional phenomenon. In other words, to limit Dr. King to a few phrases and a few moments makes us complicit in an act of cultural amnesia, perpetuated in the name of memorialization.
Today I ask us to consider how we commemorate Dr. King not to suggest that we as a nation dispense with such ceremonies and celebrations. Rather, I raise this question to challenge us to determine the most meaningful way to honor his legacy. I suggest that as we remember Dr. King, we consider that memory is a critical, active engagement, and not only a contemplative exercise. Let us draw inspiration from “The Drum Major Instinct” speech and look beyond the prizes and the more familiar moments. Let us explore the deeper, more profound meanings of his life and ministry and their implications for the present day and for the future.
We might use the occasion of the King holiday to question why certain moments in Dr. King’s magnificent body of sermons, speeches and writings have achieved canonical status while others are all but forgotten. Whose interests are served when Dr. King Is remembered as the champion of a “colorblind” society: and not, for example as an advocate for the poor or an outspoken opponent of war? Indeed, we might take this opportunity to restore to its true meaning Dr. King’s notion of a society where people would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. When Dr. King uttered those words, he looked to a time when we would be free from racial subordination. Too often, when those in positions of authority say that they don’t “see color,” they invoke this idea to subordinate others, to render their experiences invisible and deny the value and meaning of their specific cultures. Indeed, the very fact that they can champion this view of color blindness bespeaks their own normative position of power and privilege.
In the spirit of Dr. King’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, we might use this occasion as a time to learn more and draw inspiration from the lesser-known activists associated with the struggle, men and women as such as Septima Clark, E. D. Nixon, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Bob Moses, Diane Nask, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bayard Rustin, as well as the many, many others without whom there would have been no Movement. In learning about them and the multifarious struggles that comprised this struggle for social justice, we can see that the Movement was not a unified linear progression. Its gains and successes were the product of varied, sometimes complementary, sometimes conflicting agendas, strategies, personalities, talents and temperaments. Through a critical engagement not only with Dr. King’s work and words but also with the nuanced labors and sacrifices of the multitudes of other foot soldiers, we will have a deeper and renewed understanding not only of the changes they made possible, but also of the work that lies ahead for us and for generations to come.
A decade or so ago, it was not uncommon to hear people refer to the late 20th and early 21st century as the post-civil right era. That phrase is no longer so common. At a time when an African American president and his family occupy the White House and African Americans occupy positions of leadership across the professions, we can certainly celebrate the progress we have made as a nation over the last 60 years. And yet, every day we are reminded of the paradox of the present moment – signs of the intransigence of systemic racial and economic inequality are everywhere around us, and the struggle for justice and equality continues: in educational and health disparities, environmental racism (seen most recently, of course in the water crisis in Flint, MI), the rise in voting restrictions, to the displacement of black and brown people and the poor from major metropolitan areas, disproportionate incarceration rates. In a period where incidents of unarmed African Americans killed by police or dying while in custody have gained heightened attention, and officers are exonerated; when even conservatives have begun to call for the decriminalization of drug offenders now that heroin use is on the rise in white communities; and when nine black worshipers were slaughtered in church by a man acting in the name of white supremacy, it has become clear that the struggle persists and there is much work to be done. All around us, in the Black Lives Matter, student activist, environmental justice, LGBTQ, peace and justice, health care, immigrant rights and prisoners rights movements, we are reminded that we may never truly be “post” civil rights.
During his lifetime, Dr. King was often criticized for stepping outside the categories into which others sought to confine him, his message and his mission. When, for example, a group of Birmingham clergymen accused him of being an outside agitator when he went to that city to oppose its system of segregation, her responded in the 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” that
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
As we seek appropriate ways to remember Dr. King, let us not limit his vision as his critics sought to limit him in life. He saw the interconnectedness of diverse struggles against racism, imperialism and economic exploitation. Let us likewise draw inspiration from him and speak out and stand up against not only these injustices but also against xenophobia, religious intolerance, misogyny, homophobia and the violation of human rights across the globe. In remembering and paying tribute to Dr. King, let us remember above all our place in the network of mutuality within which we are inescapably placed.