MLK Day January 21, 2002
Thank you for allowing me to participate today. This is a very important day for me. I use today to celebrate the life of one of my heroes, and it is a day that I rededicate myself to his memory and the ideals for which he died.
In 1968, I was in the eighth grade. That was a formative year for me. My political views for the rest of my life were shaped by that one year. The war in Vietnam was on TV every night, the protests, the body counts…the Chicago riots at the convention, the election of Richard Nixon, and the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I was fascinated by Dr. King. I think that I said last year that he spoke to me. I had never heard anyone who could speak like him or rouse a crowd like him before. And his message was one of dignity and was so simple. It was the New Testament; Love your neighbor, treat everyone with dignity, and do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. Who could argue with that? To paraphrase the Harry Chapin song, “These were the things that made America famous. How could we not all see this? Martin Luther King talked of this. He said, “We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.” Think of his statement; our nation…not a black nation or a white nation, but our nation, all of us together. And our echoing statements. Once these words are spoken they shall echo because the truth has a way of reverberating through all of us.
Reverend King wrote these words while in a Birmingham Alabama jail. He was jailed for protesting. Some of the town leaders, white clergy, had asked him not to cause trouble. But Rev. King knew that he wasn’t causing trouble, but was speaking the truths that we needed to hear. That was more important than upsetting the status quo. Again, in his words; “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy. Amazingly simple, yet it took this humble man to speak truths that echoed throughout our country.
Here was a man of peace. Here was a man of courage. Here was a man of conviction. He was extraordinary. He held himself in a quiet dignity that just spoke to so many of us. He became one of my heroes.
There was a Boston Globe article a few days ago, where a guest columnist who is a lawyer wrote an article saying that we do not understand Rev. King’s speeches today. He went on to say that Dr. King was talking about legal equality, rather than universal equality. He wrote about how Dr. King’s purpose or work was to find ways to achieve legal equality in work, in school, and in society. He is very wrong. Rev. King wanted us to understand true equality. He spoke of human rights and the human condition. As a matter of fact, in 1962, Dr. King told the Wall Street journal that he knew you couldn’t legislate equality. Actually, he said, “I know that no law can make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.” He knew that we all just see that it was our sacred heritage embodied in the beginnings of our great land. We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He protested to change the way people thought about each other, but he also protested to change the way our nation treated one another. He knew we needed both. He said, “A social movement that only moves people is merely a revolt. A movement that moves both people and institutions is a revolution. That is what he created, a revolution of legal equality and a revolution that changed the way we think about each other.
Andrew Young, in his book An Easy Burden, talked of Doctor King and of the three evils of our society that Rev. King protested. These were race, war, and poverty.
Most of the time, we hear the words of King and think of them through the prism of race. He taught us great lessons on racial equality. And he asked people to love one another. “Darkness can not drive out darkness”, he said, “Only light can do that. Hate can not drive out hate, only love can do that.”
Dr. King protested war. He wrote and spoke extensively on nonviolence. Dr. King was willing to fight for what he believed in, but not fight back. He knew that violence begets violence and we must find ways to dig deep and discover our common humanity. He knew our commonality, what makes us brothers and sisters was far more important than those things that separated us. That is central in all of his writings. It was also unpopular at the time because of the Viet Nam war.
“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human contact a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation for such a method is love.”
Young says about the third evil, poverty, that it is the one we must do the most work on today. We have not made as much progress on this as with the others. Reverend King said, and I am paraphrasing here, True concern for those needy in our society is not flinging a coin at a homeless person in the streets as we walk by, but outrage that in a society as rich as ours, such poverty exists.” Today, millions still live in poverty, the gap between rich and poor growing once again. We must resolve to carry on the work of Doctor King and we must do all we can to address those in need, the impoverished. It is the voiceless in our society that need our help, not the powerful. For our society to stay strong, we need to fight that war on poverty.
Again, Dr. King’s words; “ There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society, with a large segment of that society, who feel that they have nothing at stake in it; who feel that they have nothing to lose.”
In April of 1968, Robert Kennedy was in Indiana at the time of King’s assassination. He issued a statement that had this line in it. “My favorite poet is Aeschylus. He wrote, In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon our heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” We must keep Dr. King’s memories, actions, and words alive. It shows that, after his death, we recognize the wisdom and truth of his words. We recognize the importance for each of us in our own way, to combat those three evils, racism, war, and poverty. It demonstrates our humanity, not as a national ideal, but as to how we treat each other especially when no one is looking. We need the courage of our convictions in order to make this nation a truly great nation for all of its citizens. That is the true legacy of Rev. King. That is our legacy!
Rev. King talked about freedom. “This is the faith with which I return to the South. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
Let us add to that: From the Taconic Mountains and the Hoosac mountain range in the Berkshires, let freedom ring. Let us do our part in remembrance and in action.
Kennedy went on to say, “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life in this world. That is the legacy of Martin Luther King.