On this day I didn’t do exactly what my soon-to-be President told me to do, I didn’t paint any houses, or make meals for the poor; but I did spend some time rereading the words of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. and consider what he might think of 2009 if he could come visit us here now.
I studied in particular “A Realistic Look at the Question of Progress in the Area of Race Relations,” an address Delivered at St. Louis Freedom Rally (10 April 1957 St. Louis, Mo.). The full text is available here. In many ways the Reverend Doctor’s address could be delivered today.
To paraphrase his message I say: should we spend this day in depression that it is the children of people of color in this country who are systematically denied equitable educational opportunities, still, in 2009? No. Should we all rejoice in the election and inauguration of America’s first African American president? Yes. Should we let either of these emotional poles (depression, rejoicing) lead us to stagnation and fits of inaction? Absolutely not.
Yet, let us use this day to become activated to refuse to accept things as they are. Let us remind ourselves that just as the Reverend Doctor was appalled by the disparity of salary between blacks and whites in “A Realistic Look” so to should we be appalled with our census bureau data from 2008, which reveals that while the “median usual weekly earnings of [White] full-time wage and salary workers” was $739, the “median usual weekly earnings of [Black or African American] full-time wage and salary workers” was $589. See source here.
In King’s time he admonished the audience to support the NAACP and told them that the fight for freedom and equality comes at a cost–one with a dollar sign attached. So, today, why not give money to the NAACP?
King summoned the crowd to Washington to march to persuade the government to enforce civil rights laws. So, this year, why not organize a march?
As King said, to do so is not to fight for African Americans alone, it is to fight for this nation.
There is something about America that we like, but we are making it clear in the U.N. and in the other diplomatic circles around the world that beautiful words and extensive handouts cannot be substitutes for the basic simple responsibility of giving freedom and justice to our colored brothers all over the United States. [applause] That is what they are saying around the world. And I say to you my friends, because of our love for America we cannot slow up. (Yes, Yes)
The final point the Reverend Doctor makes is our need for leaders, leaders who cry out “Love your enemy. Bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.”
And we can’t solve the problem [of race relations] with misguided emotionalism. (No, no, no) This is a period for sane, sound, rational leadership. (Yes) We must be calm and yet positive at the same time. We must avoid the extremes of hot-headedness and Uncle-Tomism. (Yes, That’s right) Oh, this is a period for leaders. Leaders not in love with publicity, but in love with humanity. (Yes sir) Leaders not in love with money, but in love with justice. (Yes) Leaders who can subject their particular egos to the greatness of the cause. (Yes, yes, yes) Oh,
God give us leaders. (Yes)
A time like this demands great leaders. (Yes sir)
Leaders whom the lust of office does not kill;
Leaders whom the spoils of life cannot buy (Yes);
Leaders who possess opinions and will (Yes);
Leaders who will not lie (Yes);
Leaders who can stand before a demagogue and damn his treacherous flatteries without winking. (Yes)
Tall leaders (Yes), sun-crowned, who live above the fog in public duty and in private thinking.
And this is the need, my friends, of the hour. This is the need all over the nation. In every community there is a dire need for leaders (Yes) who will lead the people, who stand today amid the wilderness toward the promised land of freedom and justice. God grant that ministers, and lay leaders, and civic leaders, and businessmen, and professional people all over the nation will rise up and use the talent and the finances that God has given them (Yes), and lead the people on toward the promised land of freedom with rational, calm, nonviolent means. This is the great challenge (Yes) of the hour. (Yes)
As I sit in the wilderness poised between my depression and rejoicing I know one thing: we have a leader.