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From Promissory Note to the Promised Land

Keynote speech at Duluth's Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday celebration Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, As prepared for delivery Thank you, Dannika. Thank you, Keyon. Thank you, Grace. That was a wonderful rendition of a wonderful speech. W...

Keynote speech at Duluth's Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday celebration

Duluth Entertainment Convention Center,

As prepared for delivery

Thank you, Dannika. Thank you, Keyon. Thank you, Grace. That was a wonderful rendition of a wonderful speech. Wasn't it?

Let's give another hand to these young people.

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Keyon and Grace are on a beautiful journey and they chose a powerful place to start. "I Have a Dream" is part of the fabric of our nation. It's every bit as much as the Gettysburg Address. And every bit as much as the truths we hold to be self-evident that made us a nation. It's equal to the reassurance that we only have fear itself to fear, in the worst economic disaster in our history, and in the second worst today.

But the dream Dr. King described on Aug. 28, 1963, remained a dream on Aug. 29. And the promissory note that he and a quarter million others came to redeem that day remained uncashed. President Kennedy didn't come out of the White House to shake his hand on the podium. Congress did not immediately draft and pass a Civil Rights Bill or Voting Act.

And just two weeks later, the dream turned into a nightmare in Birmingham, Alabama. It was a scene we all can imagine today.

On Sept. 15 that year -- 'somebody crazy; crazy with hate, if you want to qualify it -- 'interrupted a peaceful Sunday morning church service with a bomb. It took the lives of four African American girls, three of them 14 and one of them 11 years old.

Twenty-three others were injured.

I know you can you imagine that today because you just saw something similar last week.

And in the aftermath people called for justice, some reminding the world that only a week before, Gov. George Wallace said all that was need to stop integration in Alabama was a few "first class funerals."

Sound familiar?

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I want to make an aside to say that people love to put words into Dr. King's mouth. They love to say that if Dr. King were alive today, he would do so-and-so or wouldn't do such-and-such.

I know you've heard this one: "If Dr. King were alive today, he'd be against affirmative action."

How about this -- I haven't heard it yet but I'm sure it's out there: "If Dr. King were alive today, he'd be against Obamacare."

And I know you've heard this one and I'm sure people don't agree about it: "If Dr. King were alive today he'd be against gay marriage."

Well, how would anyone know that?

What I do know is what Martin Luther King would say to the tragedy of Tucson last week, because he said it in his eulogy for the four girls killed in Birmingham, in 1963.

"These children -- unoffending, innocent, and beautiful--were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity. Yet they died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity."

Yes, the motivations then may have been different, if we ever do find out the motivation of last week's rampage. But the hate -- and the result are the same.

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The result is the same.

Yet even after that horror, Martin's dream still didn't become a reality. And the promissory note was still uncashed.

It would take another horror -- another national tragedy -- on Nov. 22nd that year, this time taking the life of the United States president. It was then, in his memory, that Congress passed the Civil Rights Act.

A year later came the Voting Rights Act and the promissory note was finally cashed and the check even cleared. No longer could blacks or anyone be legally denied accommodations or the right to vote or suffer any number of unspeakable indignities. If you're having trouble understanding just what those laws meant, I want to tell you how significant they were. The 14th Amendment guaranteeing equal protection would finally be enforced for blacks and everyone. But the greatest beneficiaries of the Act -- and this has been well documented -- were women, particularly white women. Everyone in this room has probably been affected by a white woman in some way, so it affects you. And to give you an example how it really affects us here and in the new arena over there, remember that if there were no Civil Rights Act, there would have been no Title IX to that act, and if there were no Title IX, then one of the most successful teams in all college sports that plays in that new arena over there wouldn't exist.

But if the promissory note was redeemed, Martin's dream still wasn't done. Early in his career, during the bus boycott in Montgomery, King began to see the difference between nonviolence as a tactic and as way of life. He said to the Rev. Glenn Smiley, a man I got to know many years later and a mentor to King, "Glenn, I want to know how to adopt nonviolence in my heart."

"The aftermath of nonviolence," King later wrote, "is the creation of the beloved community, so that when the battle is over, a new relationship comes into being between the oppressed and the oppressor."

So when Congress did its job King's heart was still unsatisfied. His knew the root of human suffering was more than laws that separated people by color, and that the sufferers were more than just black people. He knew that they were children in Vietnam and every other war zone. He knew the pang of hunger in poor people in Appalachia and on reservations, in every corner of America.

And when King spoke out against these evils, not a lot of people came to shake his hand that time, either. America wanted to hear the dream. It didn't want to see the reality.

That reality led him to shift gears and concentrate on social injustices of the north as well as the south. He brought his movement to Chicago, where my family and many others had been fighting against de facto segregation. In the south, segregation was de jure, or by law. But in the north, de facto means segregation by fact, or just the way it is, with white people living on one side of town and people of color another, and the same for economic segregation. You know it -- just look at Duluth.

And I want to make it clear that on the marches I went on in Chicago as a small child, we chanted "Two, four, six, eight -- we want to integrate!" We didn't say desegregate. We said it because we were for something, not just against something, and that was the same vision of the beloved community that Dr. King had. And I was going to take my friends at ISD 709 to task because I had thought that the new positions they have were "desegregation specialists," but I learned just now from Allegra (Henderson) that it's "diversity integration specialist." So that's progress.

Don't think that this was popular with black people; how many times for those of us in black circles have you heard, "we were better off under segregation?" Maybe a few of us did have some money in our pockets, but the cost was the dignity of the rest of us.

Chicago wasn't a victory for Martin Luther King. He spent two years in the city and if any of you have been there recently you know that de facto segregation is alive and well, economically. Again, I hate to say it, take a look at Duluth.

By the time he got to Memphis in the spring of 1968 for the Sanitation Workers strike, Martin Luther King wasn't the popular preacher he had been. His talk about nonviolence and integration was laughed at by militant black groups, and his pacifism -- against the Vietnam War and against any war -- was an irritant to President Johnson.

The first march King led in Memphis for the sanitation workers was a disaster. It was not nonviolent, and he got the blame.

But if he should have been in the depths of despair, he didn't show it. Something had happened to Martin.

In his speech late on the night of April 3, he recounted the triumphs of human history and told of his own brushes with death. He told of an attack 10 years earlier by a demented black woman who stabbed him, and how the blade almost punctured his aorta. He said if he had sneezed he would have died. He told how a young white girl from suburban New York wrote to him saying she was glad he didn't sneezed. And he was glad, too. And he told of a bomb threat that very day when he boarded his plane to Memphis. "Like anyone," he said, "I would like to live -- a long life. Longevity has its place." And with his voice cracking and I swear on the film I see tears in his eyes, he said "But I'm not worried about that now, because I have seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the promised land!"

The next day we learned he wouldn't get there with us, and the words have become immortal and hauntingly prophetic.

It chills us to hear them. But if we listen, we hear more than the foretelling of tragedy. We hear this time of a promised land, a beloved community of all people, free of war and pestilence and assaults on dignity, not of a promissory note to right past wrongs.

And I think he really did see that promised land, even in the depths of his despair and the crushes of his defeats, by maintaining a belief in the inherent ability of human beings to love.

He often said, and he said that night in his final speech, that ours is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence; it's a choice between nonviolence and nonexistence. And if we somehow made it through the terrors of those times, then maybe it was because of our love. What else could allow us to persevere?

That may be Pollyannaish. Maybe he truly was prophetic, or simply in touch with the obvious signals he would not live long. And possibly he thought, like with the Kennedy assassination, his own death would bring a passage of another act -- an act of human kindness.

It didn't. History since then has served us no end of inhumanity to one another, from the riots following his death to Holocausts -- that's plural, with an "s" -- and ethic cleansing in Cambodia, Rwanda and former Yugoslavia. Even after the lesson of Vietnam, the United States has used war as an early option, not a final one. And our de facto social inequities continue today; again, even in Duluth.

But if Martin Luther King saw anything from his turbulent times, he saw their ebb and flow; that following the height of inspiration at the March on Washington -- came the unspeakable horror of the Birmingham church bombing. And following the horror of the Kennedy assassination -- came the Civil Rights Act.

Today, we are little more than a week removed from another horror. Our president -- a direct inheritor of King's sacrifice and that of so many others -- spoke to it in the loss of a 9-year-old and of 19 others caught in gunfire.

"If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate," Barack Obama said, "let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost. The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better.

Obama followed King by choosing not to rub salt into the wounds of his adversaries, but instead to ask his nation to move beyond blame. It was not, "a simple lack of civility that caused this tragedy," he said, "but only a more civil and honest public discourse" can lead us from it.

I think he took a page from King, who wrote: "The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform oppressors into friends."

Like the sixties, these are troubled times. All times are. There really are no good old days -- can you think of any, for real?

But when the worst happens, we can be our best. I think that's the promised land King saw. And if so, I know why he said we'd get there, because it's here -- in every one of you.

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