(This is a speech I delivered at Arrupe College, Harare, Zimbabwe, on January 18, 2011, in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day)
Good afternoon, and thank you for the kind introduction and invitation to come here today to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr., one of America’s greatest and most well known heroes. First, I would like to thank Dean Daka, the Dean of Arrupe College, for his help in coordinating this event. I would also like to recognize the students and faculty of Arrupe College, Bishop Gaul Seminary and Wadzanai Training Center. It is a great pleasure to be with this particular audience today to celebrate the life of a great American preacher and activist, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Yesterday, Monday, January 17th, was a special day for Americans and many other people across the world. Every year on the third Monday in January, Americans reflect upon, honor and pay tribute to one of America’s greatest civil rights leaders, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, I want to talk to you about this man whose spirit, vision and ideals were extraordinary. Dr. King’s was a great leader and made tireless efforts to use his role as a pastor to shine a powerful light on some of the greatest injustices of his – and my - time. His work to end the discrimination faced by people of color in the United States 50 years ago led to some of the most important changes in American law and society in the 20th century. As a soldier and diplomat for many years, I have learned the importance of reflecting on history in order to better understand the present and anticipate the future. Dr. King’s life – both his words and his deeds – are as relevant today as they were 45 years ago. Martin Luther King Jr. was born in 1929, the son of a preacher at Ebeneezer Baptist Church, a very activist church in Atlanta, Georgia, the heartland of the southern United States. Reverend King’s family had very deep religious roots. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all been pastors. Reverend King was a brilliant student, attending Morehouse, a renowned all-male Historically Black College from the young age of 15. After he graduated, he completed three years of theological study at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and then continued at Boston University to complete a PhD in Theology. As a young man in the 1950’s, Reverend King grew up with racism and segregation – two concepts familiar to those of you who grew up in Rhodesia or apartheid South Africa. The Jim Crow laws in the American South at that time were written to provide ‘separate but equal treatment’ for blacks. But ‘separate and equal’ is an unjust concept that cannot truly bring freedom or equity; and as those of us who lived under it know, there is really no such thing. Reverend King’s parents had to ride in the back of the bus while the whites rode in the front, or on a crowded bus, stand to allow whites to sit. He was not allowed to go to school with whites. As an African-American, he could not eat at certain restaurants, use the same bathrooms or water fountains, or attend the same church services as whites. African-Americans were severely restricted in exercising a right we as Americans cherish most dearly today, the right to vote. Such a climate of harsh racism and oppression was the reality that Martin Luther King Jr. grew up in. He grew up ‘separate but unequal.’ In 1954, Reverend King became a Pastor at the Dexter Avenue Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. According to a recent pastor at Reverend King’s former church, Reverend King was hired as a non-controversial figure to smooth internal tensions. But he had different plans. When he arrived at the church in 1954, he arrived, like Martin Luther his namesake, armed with a detailed plan to improve the church. This plan was one of change, vision and drive. He intended his congregation not only to listen and learn about Christian ideals, but to live them and enact them in order to bring about change in the unjust society of which they were a part. You will know as priests and seminarians that trying to institute change in the church is not always a smooth and unchallenged process. While Dr. King was working on such a transformation for his church in Montgomery, other African Americans were also taking action in the same city that would lead to the launching of the civil rights movement across the entire United States. On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, a woman by the name of Rosa Parks, boarded a bus and took a seat in the first row of the black section of the bus. At that time, laws both written and implied in the South stated that black people had to sit in their own section at the back of the bus, but also that when a white person did not have a seat, the first row of the black section was to be given to whites. To add further insult, blacks were not allowed to sit next to whites. Rosa Parks had worked a long hard day as a seamstress and she refused to give up her seat. More importantly, in her heart and her outlook, she was an activist. She knew it was time to “take a stand by keeping her seat.” And in this way, Ms. Parks launched a movement that Dr. King was destined to lead at a national level. Rosa Parks was arrested for this landmark act of civil disobedience. Four days later, African-Americans organized a boycott of all buses in Montgomery, Alabama. They also formed an organization called the Montgomery Improvement Association. This organization needed a president, a leader that the community would respect and follow. Reverend King was a young, brilliant preacher at an influential church and respected by the community; therefore, he was the ideal candidate. The Civil Rights Movement took a quantum leap forward when he agreed to take up this role. African-Americans in the city of Montgomery refused to ride the buses for more than a year, and Reverend King led the boycott. He made influential sermons and speeches, negotiated with city leaders who didn’t support desegregation, and challenged the segregation of buses in the court system. Ultimately, the highest court in the United States, the Supreme Court, ruled that the segregation of buses was unconstitutional, and forced the city of Montgomery and cities across the nation to desegregate the buses. Reverend King studied the philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience in college. In 1959, he visited the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi in India, a trip he noted as very influential in his life’s future direction and his personal theology. As you know, Gandhi was a Hindu spiritual leader whose movement was founded on non-violent civil disobedience as a means for change. Gandhi’s philosophy was replicated around the world, including in South Africa. After meeting with Gandhi’s followers, Reverend King was even more convinced that non-violent resistance was the only way to achieve societal change in the United States. Unfortunately, non-violent protest does not necessarily mean that the people affected by change will also respond peacefully. Reverend King’s house was bombed and shot at. Dr. King himself was arrested over twenty times and assaulted at least four times. He endured these attacks against himself and his family with grace and tenacity, finding inspiration from his faith and Christian ideals, as well as his strong belief in the efficacy of non-violent protest. His strong belief that “the truth will set you free” kept him and his followers going; even during the darkest hours. Another critically important historical factor in Dr. King’s Civil Rights movement was that of technology, specifically the affordability and spread of television in America in the 1950’s. For the first time, Americans could not only hear but also see a young, articulate, charismatic African-American spiritual leader right in their living rooms. They experienced first-hand Dr. King’s clearly communicated theology of endurance and perseverance, as well as freedom, justice and equality. People all over the United States were mesmerized by the speeches and sermons of this previously unknown preacher in Alabama, who was not afraid to speak truth to power. They were also horrified at the footage of African-Americans being beaten by police for sitting in the “wrong” part of a restaurant or trying to integrate a school, and preachers being handcuffed and taken to jail for leading peaceful marches, or of dogs being unleashed on school children for merely protesting being discriminated against. Reverend King communicated the gross injustices of the American South and the clear Biblical mandate to fight such injustices with compassion and eloquence to a wide audience. To him, the message was simple and often taken from Isaiah 1:16 – “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.” And in part because his message was so articulate, strong and unequivocal, Americans on a wider scale began to get engaged and to demand change. His clarion call for freedom brought Americans of all colors and backgrounds to the South to fight shoulder to shoulder with African-Americans for the cause of equal rights for all. Reverend King led the Civil Rights Movement through the 1950’s and early 60’s. He was a leader in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a group that organized black churches in the South to fight for civil rights, such as the right to vote, to desegregate schools and for equal treatment in the workplace. His efforts contributed greatly to the end of legal segregation – the American apartheid - and to the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. For his tremendous work, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and, posthumously, the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. In 1963, Reverend King and other civil rights leaders led a march to Washington, D.C. attended by more than 250,000 people. It was at this march that Reverend King delivered a speech thought to be one of the greatest speeches in American history. It is widely known as the “I Have a Dream” speech. Reverend King started with one of the most important concepts of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson -- "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." The same speech urges the mutual forgiveness, which is a necessary pre-requisite for true reconciliation and healing - “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” Less well known today are Reverend King’s powerful sermons. Repeatedly, he used the pulpit as an opportunity to encourage his parishioners to apply Biblical ethics, Pauline precepts and Christian ideals to their own communities and situations of injustice and oppression. His many years of seminary and university study allowed him to bring a deep knowledge of theology and philosophy to enlighten his perspective on current affairs. It was this unique ability to inspire others to action through truth and through living their faith that made Martin Luther King Jr. a modern day American and world hero.
In one sermon entitled The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life, preached at the New Covenant Baptist Church in Chicago in April 1967, Reverend King used the parable of the Good Samaritan to reveal our ultimate human links and responsibilities to act. I believe sentiments from this excerpt are just as relevant in 2011 in Harare as they were in 1967 in Chicago:
“The first question that the priest, the Levite asked was, ‘’If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But the Good Samaritan came by and he reversed the question. Not "What will happen to me if I stop to help this man?" but "What will happen to this man if I do not stop to help him?" This was why that man was good and great. He was great because he was willing to take a risk for humanity; he was willing to ask, "What will happen to this man?" not "What will happen to me?"This is what God needs today. Men and women who will ask, "What will happen to humanity if I don’t help? What will happen to the civil rights movement if I don’t participate? What will happen to my city if I don’t vote? What will happen to the sick if I don’t visit them?" This is how God judges people in the final analysis. Somewhere along the way, we must learn that there is nothing greater than to do something for others. And this is the way I’ve decided to go the rest of my days.” Unfortunately, such courage and ability to create monumental change cut short Martin Luther King Jr.’s life; he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. His achievements raised the education and standard of living for millions of people of color in America. His achievements paved the way for integration at the highest levels of office. Today, our President, Barack Obama, the son of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother, leads us in our ongoing struggle for freedom and equality. To honor his success and legacy, the U.S. Congress declared in 1986 the 3rd Monday in January to be a national holiday. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we honor this great man and assess what each of us can learn from his radically simple approach to life, from his words and from his deeds which underscored those words. When we read Dr. King’s speeches and sermons, we hear him talking about a brighter future for all of us, in every country, not just America. Whether addressing segregation, discrimination, corruption or human rights abuses, all of us can play a powerful role in pushing for positive change. Dr. King summed up his views of human society in this quote, “All I'm saying is simply this - that all life is interrelated, that somehow we're caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Civil rights include democratic ideals such as freedom of speech, and free and fair elections. When a free press can publish and broadcast without fear of intimidation, censorship and harassment, then the people are in turn free to communicate with their leaders about what they want to see happen in their society. With free and fair elections comes an elected government whose rule is based on democracy, legitimacy and laws consistent with what the people desire. Civil rights, the basic freedoms that are the birthright of citizens in a free society, are the foundation not only of democracy but also of true justice. They are the cornerstones of a progressive, developed society. When people cannot enjoy these freedoms without fear of persecution, of discrimination or intimidation, they are not truly free. Reverend King exemplified a life of service. He used his God-given talents and leadership role as a pastor, theologian and academic, to push others out of their comfort zone to demand civil rights for themselves and for their society. I will leave you with what I consider to be one of Dr. King’s critical concepts for creating and maintaining civil rights - “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” In challenging times all over the world, the clergy have not been silent, but have been voices for hope and freedom, reconciliation and justice. Indeed, Zimbabwe has gone through and continues to face great challenges and controversies. In this era of change, I urge you to never let your voices be silent, but instead to let them rise to the rafters as Dr. King’s did, time and time again. Whether speaking to vast congregations on Sunday mornings or to inmates in prison, Martin Luther King Jr. used every engagement with others as an opportunity to share, to teach and to encourage people to shun silence and apathy in favor of righteous and compassionate action. Like Dr. King, you are leaders of flocks who want and deserve a just and peaceful society. Your parishioners want to create progressive communities and better opportunities for their children, and you can guide them on the path to building this brighter future. Like Dr. King, may we not become silent about things that matter. Thank you very much. I wish you tremendous strength and grace in your academic and pastoral careers. And now I would be happy to listen to your questions and ideas.
Causes Charles Ray Supports
The Nature Conservancy
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial