Following is a speech presented at the 25th Annual Upper Merion Martin Luther King Jr National Holiday Celebration on January 9th in King of Prussia, Pa.
It’s an honor for me to be with you this evening to commemorate and remember the life and work of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Thank you to the planning committee for inviting me and to all of you for coming tonight. Can you believe it’s been 50 years since Dr King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC?
President Kennedy, Dr King and civil rights leaders
I listened to Dr. King’s speech on YouTube recently. His speech is just as contemporary and relevant today as when it was first presented in 1963. I remember the year well, I was just 15 years old at the time. And I remember that my mother wouldn't let me go to the March on Washington because she thought there might be trouble. So I was limited to watching it on television from the safety of our living-room.
Two years before Dr King's speech, I wrote a poem that embodied some of the same themes contained in Dr King's speech. I was 13 years old at the time, and at the urging of my eighth grade English teacher, I entered the poem in the National Anthology of High School Poetry contest. Not only did they publish my poem, but they also gave it special recognition for its depth and maturity. The poem is entitled Man and I'd like to recite it for you now:
Shall we judge a man by his race or creed; or shall we judge him by word and deed? By the good he's done for mankind; or by the memory he's left behind? What makes this man is not his skin. Instead, it's what he has within.
So deep within him it doesn't show; but by his words and deeds you'll know that this is a man of dignity. And by his side you're proud to be. For his memory will leave an imprint in the sand; an impression of greatness that will stand the test of time and eternity; as a beacon of hope for all humanity.
When I wrote Man, I’d never heard of Dr King. But like him, I was influenced by the times in which I grew up; and by the injustices I saw happening around me. Man, the poem, echoes the sentiments of the man we celebrate today.
Like many of you, I am a product of the 60’s also known as the decade that shaped a generation. Who here remembers Motown and the Beatles, Star Trek and the first moon landing, the first televised Super Bowl between the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs, Hippies and the summer of Love, Jimmie Hendricks and Woodstock or that fateful day in Dallas?
And likewise, who can forget the Birmingham church bombing that killed 4 innocent, young black girls, the brutal murder of 14 year old Emmett Till, the murders of Civil Rights workers Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney or Medgar Evers, segregated schools, Jim Crow laws, whites and colored only signs, Klu Klux Klan lynchings, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, lunch counter sit-ins, countless marches and demonstrations or that horrible day in Memphis?
Like now, the decade of the 60's was a difficult, if not transformative time in America's history. Dr King galvanized a generation of blacks and whites, Protestants and Catholics, Jews and Gentiles into a moral alliance for the cause of freedom, justice and equality. This moral alliance succeeded in unraveling and dismantling racially discriminatory laws and practices that had enslaved black Americans for some 300 years.
This moral alliance succeeded in achieving passage of federal legislation that outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodations and employment; that restored and protected the voting rights of black Americans, and that banned discrimination in the sale and rental of housing.
At the time of Dr King’s death in 1968, I was a 19 year old sophomore at Washington College in Chestertown, Md. I was the only black student at the College, which at that time had an enrollment of 635 students. After learning Dr King had been killed, I left the College intent on never going back because it had been a less than welcoming environment for me.
I arrived home to Baltimore, only to find the streets filled with National Guardsmen in anticipation of rioting. Somehow, I found out that one of the local churches had chartered a bus to Atlanta for Dr King's funeral, so I got on the bus with them. There was no stopping me this time.
Once in Atlanta, I left the group and made my way to Ebenezer Baptist Church where the funeral was being held. I was determined to get inside the church In spite of not having an invitation or the proper credentials. I accomplished my mission and took a seat in the balcony. When the service ended, I was exiting the balcony just as Dr King’s casket was passing by. I quickly joined the procession of mourners for the long procession to the cemetery. Glancing across my row of mourners, there was Sammy Davis Jr, Harry Belafonte, Diana Ross with the Supremes, and singer Leslie Uggams, who later offered to give me a lift back to my bus. Mrs [Coretta Scott] King, Rev Jesse Jackson, and Dr Ralph Abernathy were in the row of mourners just ahead of us. It was an incredible day.
When I returned home to Baltimore, my mother told me that someone from the College had called asking if I had planned on coming back to school. I guess someone noticed I was missing. That call was what I needed to motivate me to return to school, but now with the determination to make a difference. I decided to confront Washington College's long held practice of selectively admitting one black student every three years, a policy that needed to change. It would not be easy.
By the time I graduated in 1970, there were eight black underclassmen enrolled at the College—the largest number of black students ever admitted at one time (Class of 1973). I also initiated the first black student union at the College. I tell you this is to prove that everyone has the power within to make a difference, to impact the culture for good if he or she chooses.
If Dr King were alive today, he would say that the struggle for justice and equality is not over, that the Dream has not yet been fulfilled, that there is still work to be done before we reach the promised land of true equality, justice and brotherhood.
I have some concerns about state of our country. I am concerned about a generation of our youth that we are losing to drugs, alcohol, crime and gun violence. I am concerned about the fact that more black males enter prison than enroll in college. I am concerned about the high dropout rates in our public schools that exceed graduation rates. I am concerned that in this economy, the job market is shrinking, along with wages.
I am concerned about a growing underclass of poor people who lack the skills and the opportunity to compete in a global economy. I am concerned that our elected officials have failed us by not making our lives better. I am concerned that, as a nation, America has become too complacent and too comfortable with things the way they have always been.
But we must not lose hope. The torch has been passed and is now in the hands of a new generation. As torchbearers, we must show the way by investing our individual as well as collective time, talent and resources into fostering meaningful relationships with under-served and disadvantaged communities. As torchbearers, we must continue to promote the ideals of Dr King’s Dream in our daily lives. It’s time to go beyond the Dream and make it our reality.