As a person who majored in political science and has been engaged actively in public
January 18, 2016 - Union Baptist Church, Stamford, CT - Keynote for Martin Luther King Birthday Breakfast
I want to thank the NAACP, the Stamford Community Collective, the Stamford Youth Foundation and the Union Baptist Church for giving me the opportunity to speak on this very special day.
We honor Dr. King’s life and legacy every year, both because of what he contributed during his tragically shortened life, and what we want to make sure we honor and emulate long after that. His legacy means different things to each of us, but I will focus on five transcendent qualities:
- His universal and inclusive message,
- His unique ability to find common ground with others with whom he disagreed,
- His courageous, unshakeable commitment to nonviolence and his renunciation of bitterness and hatred,
- His willingness to empower others, instead of enriching himself, even when it was inconvenient or even highly risk for him to do so, and
- His willingness to accept less-than-perfect outcomes, even as he acknowledged how far from an acceptable future we were.
Dr. Bernice King, his daughter and the CEO of the King Center, described his vision simply: “My father was for inclusiveness and the betterment of society and the world.” When he spoke toward the end of his life in opposition to the Vietnam War, he said “Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.”
Also, remember his closing words in the “I Have a Dream” speech at the end of the 1963 March on Washington, when he stated that freedom would ring “when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
Today’s leaders need to remember that they serve a broad societal purpose, not just their supporters, the “middle class,” or even “the 99%.” Dr. King’s message was for the “100%” around the globe because we are “all of God’s children.”
Second, Dr. King was inclusive in the individuals and groups with whom he was willing to find common ground and work together, even when opposition to him was continuous, ferocious, and came from all sides.
Dr. King’s abilities to inspire collaboration within and outside the civil rights movement between 1954, when he became the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, and 1968, when he was assassinated, were remarkable. He succeeded, because he always kept separate his disagreement with others on specific issues, and his willingness to work with them on others.
He recognized that working collaboratively whenever there was common ground was the surest path to success: “Anyone who starts out with the conviction that the road to racial justice is only one lane wide will inevitably create a traffic jam and make the journey infinitely longer.”
Roy Wilkins and other NAACP leaders were uncomfortable with Dr. King’s tactics, because they believed most strongly in the value of court cases and legislation, but he supported their goals and tactics.
Stokely Carmichael, the leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and the leaders of the Congress of Racial Equality strongly believed that “black power” and self-sufficiency among black people was critical to success. In fact, in 1966, SNCC voted to exclude whites from its leadership, and expelled many Jewish leaders who had been strong supporters and contributors as a result. Dr. King disagreed strongly with their decision to exclude white leaders, but he continued to work with SNCC.
Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam believed that there was no hope of accommodation with the white leadership. In is autobiography, Dr. King stated that his philosophy was completely antithetical to that of Malcolm X, but he recognized Malcolm X’s unique leadership gifts and was prepared to find a way to work with him.
He was criticized for working collaboratively with organized labor, particularly since many unions had kept black workers out. He worked with the Jewish community, when many black people considered Jews to be exploiters, and with Catholics, when senior conservative Catholic clergy harshly inferred that he was a Communist sympathizer.
Although others criticized him viciously for doing so, Dr. King was simultaneously complimentary of President Johnson’s commitment to civil rights, but highly critical of his prosecution of the Vietnam War.
When he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, he elevated those who had supported grass roots initiatives like the Montgomery Bus Boycott along side great leaders like Whitney Young, who focused on securing corporate support and economic empowerment differently. Dr. King called the Montgomery boycott participants the “ground crew” and leaders like Whitney Young as the “pilots and flight crews” of the civil rights movement.
Even within the narrower group of black civil rights leaders aligned with his direct nonviolent resistance initiatives, there were questions on which his and others disagreed, and which had to be resolved in every instance of direct action in which he played a leadership role:
- Would national leaders or people at the grass roots lead these resistance initiatives?
- What role would students, who were prominent in the anti-war movement, play in the process? In fact, would black America lead with older or younger people, a conflict that is still with us today? Dr. Bernice King recently commented that the generational divide may be the biggest current issue in the civil rights movement.
- Who would set agenda at any give event?
- What role would white people play?
- To what degree would the poor and the unemployed play visible roles?
- What role would women play in these events?
Today, our political leaders casually and routinely consider members of the other party, or, in some instances, even their own party, as “enemies,” not as people who also care about the country and simply have a different way of thinking about issues. We also have too many leaders who create litmus tests on single issues, and define their potential supporters too narrowly. In so doing, they have dishonored Dr. King’s inclusive legacy.
Third, while Dr. King was accommodating to those who disagreed with him on strategy and tactics, he was uncompromising on his commitment to nonviolence. He was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and believed strongly in what he called “the courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love.” He believed strongly in the value of marches, sit-ins, boycotts, and other high profile public demonstrations to showcase the evil he was confronting, even though he recognized that a likely consequence of his philosophy was that he and other innocent people would become victims of violent acts.
It is easy to forget how much courage it took for him to adhere to his nonviolent resistance philosophy in the face of repeated and brutal violence over many years, including multiple death threats through most of his public life. In 1966, after James Meredith, who had integrated the University of Mississippi was shot, Stokely Carmichael demanded that marchers carry weapons to protect themselves and be prepared to use them. Dr. King opposed this idea and every other effort to respond to violence with violence. His objections were both moral and pragmatic. He particularly understood that violence destroyed the power of his message and that it begets and escalates violence, and he extended his commitment to nonviolence to a highly unpopular opposition to the Vietnam War. However, he did not wallow in bitterness or hatred, no matter what happened.
Fourth, he was a powerful voice to engage and empower everyone in the civil rights struggle. He did not expect them to participate in identical ways, but he demanded some level of participation. He insisted that every church member of his Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery become a registered voter and an NAACP member, a very uncomfortable demand, given the visible hatred violent white racists evidenced toward the NAACP.
Dr. King did not exploit his leadership stature to centralize power, to accumulate wealth or to enable others to do so in their own civil rights organizations. In fact, he wanted to empower as many black people as possible, not to keep them dependent or to define themselves as “victims.”
Thomas Jefferson once commented that the natural progression of societies is for government to encroach on the power of individuals, families and communities. Organizations of all kinds, including governments, large corporations, unions, and religions too often succumb to the temptation to centralize power to protect or fight for “victims” of someone else’s wrong behaviors. Eventually, preserving that power or growing wealth takes priority over empowering those whom leaders aspire to help. Dr. King never succumbed to that temptation.
Dr. King was also willing to empower people even when it was personally risky. He and other civil rights leaders agreed that the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington should be Bayard Ruskin, who reported to A. Philip Randolph. Mr. Ruskin’s role put Dr. King at great risk, since Dr. King was smeared throughout his public life with the false accusation of being a Communist sympathizer and Mr. Ruskin had previously been a member of the Communist Party.
Today, we must empower all people to take charge of their lives, and maximize their full potential, and to define policy goals in their terms, not those of the leaders or intermediaries who are uncomfortable with giving up the control or power they have acquired. Most importantly, in honoring Dr. King’s legacy, we should be empowering all citizens to participate must more fully and easily in the political process, instead of placing artificial barriers to their exercise of their rights to vote, to contribute to political campaigns, and to advocate for changes in laws and regulations.
Finally, among his contemporaries, Dr. King was the most realistic about what could be accomplished in his lifetime. He supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s passage, although he knew it was far from what was needed. He understood better than his fellow civil rights advocates that the “perfect is often the enemy of the good,” and that “the good” was all that could be accomplished in his lifetime. As he commented in the last sermon he delivered before his assassination in Memphis, he did not know whether he would get to the Promised Land, but was confident that the people would eventually get there.
Progress in civil rights does not happen in a handful of big steps, but thousands of small ones. It not only requires specific elimination of racial barriers, but also the building of capacity and pride among people who had been beaten down for centuries. After the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. King commented that, although eliminating the indignity of city bus segregation was a great accomplishment, he was equally pleased by the new sense of dignity, destiny and discipline those who had participated in the boycott had gained.
When we realize how much Dr. King accomplished in a short time on the public stage, we are eternally grateful for having had him among us. However, to give the greatest honor to his life and legacy, we must take the lessons he shared with us through his words and actions, and apply them uncompromisingly today.