January 15, 2006 – Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration
Grace Episcopal Church
It’s an honor for me to speak at New Bedford’s celebration of the spirit and courage of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King exemplified the ideals of sacrifice and commitment for the betterment of our fellow man. He led this country through a great social movement, the Civil Rights Movement, to a society that has finally begun to recognize all individuals as equals under the law, and in their communities. I know there is still, each day, tremendous work to be done in the area of social and economic justice for all, and that Dr. King’s dream of America, where “one day little black boys and little black girls, will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers” is still evolving at the present time. But on these issues and this cause, we are moving forward, and, in this City, we are moving forward with great conviction.
Congressman John Lewis, an original Freedom Rider, the son of a sharecropper and now a Congressman from Georgia, in his book, Walking with the Wind, described his first encounter with Dr. King in this way… “On a Sunday morning in early 1955, I was listening to our radio, tuned to WRMA out of Montgomery, Alabama, when on the air came a sermon by a voice I had never heard before, a young minister from Atlanta. I didn’t catch his name until the sermon was finished, but the voice held me right from the start. It was a strong voice, a deep voice, clearly well trained and well schooled in the rhythmic, singsong, old-style tradition of black Baptist preaching we call “whooping.” There’s a creative pacing to that style of sermonizing, a cadence, with lots of crescendos and dramatic pauses and the drawing out of word endings as if holding a note in a song. It’s so much like signing. He really could make his words sing.
But even more than his voice, it was his message that sat me bolt upright with amazement. His sermon was titled, “Paul’s Letter to the American Christians.” He’d taken it from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, in which Paul criticized complacent Christians for their selfishness and failures of brotherhood. He adapted it to what was happening on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama. I listened, as this man spoke about how it wasn’t enough for black people to be concerned only with getting to the Promised Land in the hereafter, about how it was not enough for people to be concerned with roads that are paved with gold, and gates to the Kingdom of God. He said we needed to be concerned with the gates of schools that were closed to black people and the doors of stores that refused to hire or serve us. His message was one of love and the Gospel, but he was applying those principles to the present time. Every minister I’d ever heard talked about “over yonder,” where we’d put on the white robes and golden slippers and sit with the angels. But this man was talking about dealing with the problems people were facing in their lives right there and then, and specifically black lives in the South.
This was the first time I had ever heard something I would soon learn was called the social gospel—taking the teachings of the Bible and applying them to the earthbound problems and issues confronting a community and a society. I was on fire with the words I was hearing. I felt that this man—his name was Martin Luther King, Jr.—was speaking directly to me. This young preacher was giving voice to everything I’d been feeling and fighting to figure out for years.” John Lewis
After reading Congressman Lewis’ impressions and recollections, I decided to search out a speech that Dr. King gave during that time-frame. In Dr. King’s autobiography, he labeled a speech he gave on December 5, 1955, as the most “decisive” he had ever given. The setting for this speech was four days after Rosa Parks was arrested for violating segregation laws, as a result of refusing to give up her seat on a public bus to a white passenger. In point of fact, refusing to move to the back of the bus. In Dr. King’s words…
“The chairman introduced me. I rose and stood before the pulpit. Television cameras began to shoot from all sides. The crowd grew quiet.
Without manuscript or notes, I told the story of what happened to Mrs. Parks. Then I reviewed the long history of abuses and insults that Negro citizens had experienced on the city buses.” Dr. King then began his speech…
We are here this evening for serious business. We are here in a general sense because first and foremost we are American citizens and we are determined to apply our citizenship to the fullness of its meaning. We are here also because of our love for democracy, because of our deep-seated belief that democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action is the greatest form of government on earth…
And we are not wrong. We are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
I want to say that in all of our actions we must stick together. Unity is the great need of the hour, and if we are united we can get many of the things that we not only desire, but which we justly deserve. And don’t let anybody frighten you. We are not afraid of what we are doing, because we are doing it within the law. There is never a time in our American democracy that we must ever think we’re wrong when we protest. We reserve that right.
Standing beside love is always justice and we are only using the tools of justice. not only are we using the tools of persuasion but we’ve come to see that we’ve got to use the tools of coercion. Not only is this thing a process of education, but it is also a process of legislation.
As we stand and sit here this evening and as we prepare ourselves for what lies ahead, let us go out with a grim and bold determination that we are going to stick together. We are going to work together. Right here in Montgomery, when the history books are written in the future, somebody will have to say, “There lived a race of people, a black people, ‘fleecy locks and black complexion,’ a people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights. And thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and of civilization.”
Clearly, these are inspiring thoughts, words and deeds and here in New Bedford, we need to be inspired every day, we need to be inspired to unify our City for the betterment of all of our citizens, inspired to speak up and take action whenever we confront crime, violence, injustice and inequality. We need to be inspired by each other to do what is proper and right and just each day.
To achieve this purpose, we should always be guided by Dr. King’s compass of a bold determination to unify, to stick together and to work together. Applying this creed to New Bedford today, we must act with unity, honesty, integrity, and respect, never forgetting that great issues and problems can be resolved when people come together for a common good, and a common purpose.