What Would Martin Say?

These are the words I used today in my sermon and I felt that they were relevant enough to post to my site.

To me, Martin Luther King Jr. is a mythic figure…larger than life, albeit flawed, but a principled, dedicated martyr. He was the visible, coalescing figure for a diverse movement seeking to end the oppression of a group of people defined by the color of their skin and their history of subjugation. When I celebrate his birthday, I, in fact, am celebrating the movement of which he was the visible head. He was the first to recognize that the movement was greater than he, but he also recognized that a symbol can be uniting and extremely powerful in getting the message out.

Each year as I prepare for this service, I always am surprised…I am surprised at the youth of the man who led this movement…he died when he was just 39 years old. What might he have accomplished had he lived to a ripe old age? So I am surprised at what he accomplished in his short life and the depth and wisdom he brought to the movement…the sheer volume of writing is phenomenal. Each year as I read material I find new gems, one of which I will share today.

Another surprise is the depth of my feeling about the movement…in some ways it, along with Vietnam, defined my belief in justice and peace and gave me a sense they are possible…it enlivens my hope, yet again, my belief that we can actually create a world ourselves that is just and fair. It hasn’t happened yet, but if we join together in common cause, it is possible…because you see…Martin Luther King, Jr. made a dent in oppression…it is possible for us to have an impact.

Some might say that racism has been eliminated. My response is – WRONG…there is racism. It may not be as overt as it once was, it may be difficult to see it in our daily lives in Maine because there are so few people of color in our lives, but racism is alive and well.

Race and our system of justice seem to have a direct correlation – that is when white, we tend to receive more justice. When black, the tables are turned. Just last Sunday in the NY Times, an article about capital punishment in the state of Connecticut explained that given the same crime committed in equivalent fashion, blacks are much more likely to receive the death penalty than white defendants. This continues to be true as it has been for the past 40 years since the death penalty was reinstated in the US. The article was not specifically about race, but rather the capricious nature of how the death penalty is applied and the article was advocating abolishing the death penalty. That said, it is clear that racial justice is part of the dynamic – that color as well as economic status play a huge role in meting out punishment.

I looked at some of the statistics related to economic status and to education that came from the 2010 Census. It paints an interesting picture. As of 2010 15.1% of the people in the US live in poverty. The rate for non-hispanic whites is 9.9%. And, I would never say that is an acceptable level. But the rate of poverty for black Americans is 27.4% – almost three times that of whites. That to me is scandalous particularly in a country that purportedly is not racist.

We have heard the unemployment numbers – in December that rate for white folk was 7.5%, for blacks over 20 years of age, the rate is more than double – 15.8%. By the way, the rate for unemployment for blacks has always been higher than for whites, but the disparity between the two is the highest since the early nineties. What is even worse, for black young people ages 16-19, the unemployment rate is 42.1%. Our non-racist, capitalist system seems to be failing young people of color.
We often speak of education as a great equalizer and it can be if the other elements of the playing field are level. Looking at education the percentages of blacks graduating from high school compared to whites is improving – the gap is now down to 3 percentage points…while in 1970 only 31% of blacks graduated from high school, now 84% graduate. That is a great accomplishment on the part of our educational system. This should somehow equate to jobs and a rise above poverty. Or perhaps, we now need a college education for that to happen. We have not done so well for college education – in 1970 only 4.4% of blacks graduated from college, now it is almost 20%. That increase is good. But, the gap between black and white has increased…in 1970 11% of white students graduated from college and it is now 30%. So the gap has increased from 7 points to 11. There still has been an improvement in graduation rates, but the gap still exists and the impact on the population as a whole does not appear to have been as substantive as we might have hoped.
All this is heady stuff…facts that appeal to my head, but do they touch the heart? Probably not. And, that is where I must go this morning – to your hearts, to your sense of justice, to your hope for a more fair world.
As a parent I never doubted that my son would go to college, that he would be able to choose a profession that he would like, that he would live where he wished, that he would be able to have a relationship with anyone he wished, that he would be treated with equity by a legal system designed to protect his rights…I never doubted those things…but … if I had been a black mother – would I have those same expectations…could I have hoped for those things? Yes, we now have a president of color, we see celebrities who are black; we have press representatives, but are they token? As a percentage of the whole, blacks are underrepresented in government, in entertainment, in law, in medicine, in basic wealth. According to some statistics it should be the expectation of the sons of black mothers that fully one third of those sons will spend time in jail or prison. Somehow this wrenches my heart – this is not fair.
We continue to live in an unequal society – racially, educationally, economically, socially. Martin Luther King, Jr. was well aware that it would take time to make the changes, but he also understood that it also took will. I ask what Martin would say today if he were alive, would he feel that progress had been made? I am not sure, but here is some of what he said in an essay that he had written prior to his death but which was published after his death. It is entitled “A Testament of Hope.” It says:
These words may have an unexpectedly optimistic ring at a time when pessimism is the prevailing mood. People are often surprised to learn that I am an optimist. They know how often I have been jailed, how frequently the days and nights have been filled with frustration and sorrow, how bitter and dangerous are my adversaries. They expect these experiences to harden me into a grim and desperate man. They fail, however, to perceive the sense of affirmation generated by the challenge of embracing struggle and surmounting obstacles….it is possible for me to falter, but I am profoundly secure in my knowledge that God loves us; he has not worked out a design for our failure. Man has the capacity to do right as well as wrong, and his history is a path upward, not downward. …While it is a bitter fact that in America in 1968 I am denied equality solely because I am black, yet I am not a chattle slave. Millions of people have fought thousands of battles to enlarge my freedom; restricted as it still is, progress has been made. …Why is the issue of equality still so far from solution in America, a nation that professes itself to be democrative, inventive, hospitable to new ideas, rich, productive and awesomely powerful? America is deeply racist and its democracy is flawed both economically and socially. All too many Americans believe justice will unfold painlessly…(1)

As you listened to these words, don’t you think they apply today as much as they did in 1968?

He goes on to say some words that I fear are uncomfortable for most of us to hear. He says:
Justice for black people will not flow into society merely from court decisions nor from fountains of political oratory. Nor will a few token changes quell all the tempestuous yearnings of millions of disadvantaged black people. White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure to our society. The comfortable, the entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change in the status quo.

When millions of people have been cheated for centuries, restitution is a costly process. Inferior education, poor housing, unemployment, inadequate health care – each is a bitter component of the oppression that has been our heritage. Each will require billions of dollars to correct. Justice so long deferred has accumulated interest and its cost for this society will be substantial in financial as well as human terms. This fact has not been fully grasped, because most of the gains of the past decade were obtained at bargain prices. (1)

I believe that Rev. King would be saying the same thing today as he wrote in 1968. We have made some progress, there is no doubt about that, but underneath it all lays a system, a culture that supports racism and inequality. Our systems are structure in such a way that we who are white are privileged and we first need to recognize that and then work to dismantle our privilege in favor of equal rights for all. It is not simple, nor is it easy; it means sacrifice of some of our privilege so that others may share in that privilege.

To me this is a soulful issue. I should have no more rights that any other person, but I do have rights…we all do, but our system eviscerates those rights for some – and some of those some are people of color. I am not saying, by the way, that racism is the sole issue in our society – but we are all affected by racism because we are all interconnected.

What might Martin Luther King have us say on this day? Perhaps it might be something like this: Brothers and Sisters in our struggle, do not give up hope for progress is being made; do not give up your dreams because some dreams have been actualized; do not stand aside and wait for others, stand up for yourself – work the system, test is limits, use non-violent communication, develop relationships, help make change happen; do not lose hope for love is at the core of what we do, love your neighbor and know that together all things are possible…it may just cost a few billion dollars.

As we celebrate the birth of a modern mythic man, let us remember that he was an optimist as well as a realist. Know that we can continue his work, he would want us to.

(1)Source: “A Testament of Hope.” Playboy, January 1969, pp. 175ff. ( From: The Essential Writing and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., Edited by James M. Washington)