MLK Memorial Speech

In May 2004, I was the speaker at the Mother’s Day March for Peace in Norfolk when the march stopped at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. I was asked to speak on the topics of racial and economic justice and nonviolence. Below is the text of that speech.

Good afternoon. It is good to see so many people gathered here today for the causes of racial and economic injustice and nonviolence. And it is appropriate that we stop here at the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, a place dedicated to a man who believed, as I do, that all of these issues are intertwined.

But first I am reminded of the statement by Pastor Martin Niemoeller, the anti-Natzi activist:

In Germany they first came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me –
and by that time no one was left to speak up.

As we stand here today – black, white, yellow, brown, all together – we sometimes forget the struggle for racial equality that preceded us. We sometimes believe that the fight is over – and that we have won. We no longer have separate water fountains. We can live anywhere we choose. Our kids go to school together. Life is good, right? If he were here today, I think Dr. King might disagree.

Blatant racism is coming back into vogue. Driven underground by the Civil Rights movement, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, reports that there were 751 hate group chapters in the US in 2003, up 6% from 2002, with the so-called “Patriot” groups seeing a 20% increase. As 2003 came to an end, the number of racist Skinhead groups had doubled over the prior year. The neo-Nazi Aryan Nations boasted 11 new chapters. A newcomer on the scene, Arkansas-based White Revolution, has grown much more powerful and seems poised to keep rising. Several new Klan groups had appeared, and Klan activity was significant. Hate Web sites rose from 443 in 2002 to 497 last year, a 12% increase. Lest we think that this is all about white folks, the black separatist groups also increased in size in 2003. The count of racist black separatist groups went up almost 66% last year, largely driven by the addition of more than 30 additional chapters of the New Black Panther Party.

But it is the subtle forms of racism that result in injustice. The Justice Policy Institute reports that, in 2001, African Americans made up 28% of the general population of Maryland but accounted for 68% of drug arrests and 90% of the people jailed for drug offenses. A 1997 analysis commissioned by the Maryland Sentencing Commission found that “black and Hispanic defendants convicted of drug offenses were more likely to receive longer sentences than white defendants” even when they had committed similar crimes and had similar prior records. And the Burlington Free Press reports that Montpelier Police are more likely to arrest black Vermonters than white Vermonters for all crimes but illegal drug use. This, my friends, is racial injustice in America today.

In 1999, the Institute of Medicine, a private, independent, not-for-profit institute of the National Academy of Sciences, was charged by Congress with investigating whether racial/ethnic disparities in quality of care existed for those patients who enter the U.S. health care system. The IOM convened an expert panel that reviewed over 600 papers on health disparities, conducted four public workshops on professional and advocacy perspectives regarding disparities, commissioned papers from national leaders on issues related to disparities, heard expert testimony, and conducted focus groups involving both health care providers and patients. The IOM committee concluded that racial and ethnic disparities are consistently found across a wide range of health care settings, diseases, and clinical services, even after taking into account such things as economic status and stage of disease. Health systems, health care providers, utilization managers, and patients all were found to contribute to racial and ethnic disparities in health care. For providers, the report indicates that bias, prejudice, stereotyping, and clinical uncertainty all contribute to racial and ethnic disparities. Since then, numerous additional studies have been done which support the notion that minorities receive inferior medical care. This, too, is racial injustice in America today.

And let’s not overlook one of the most insidious examples of racial injustice facing us today: racial profiling. Racial profiling is far more than being stopped by the police for driving while black. It is being followed around a store. Or being thought to have gotten a position not because you were qualified, but because you are of color. Or being chastised for being late to a meeting. Or – and this one is a biggie for me – being asked to be the spokesperson for your race. How many times have I been asked “Why do black people…?” as if I somehow know all the black people in the world? I recently went on a trip where I was the only black person in the group. A few hours after our arrival, we were all sitting around enjoying a few drinks and getting to know one another. At some point, the conversation turned to music. I made the comment that I don’t particularly care for rap music and the woman I was talking to was surprised. “What? You don’t like rap music?” I took a deep breath and asked her why she thought I should like rap music. She blurted out, “Because you’re black!” Her husband happened to come by then and diffused the situation by calling her a racist.

But don’t think that racial profiling is limited to black people. Since September 11, the US has become obsessed with routing out terrorists. And what do these terrorists look like? Why they must be Arabs. Every person who looks even remotely like an Arab is under suspicion. The number of Arab students in our colleges and universities has decreased due to new visa regulations. Arab and Muslim groups are reporting more than 2000 incidents of hate crimes in the wake of September 11. The US government detained twelve hundred mostly Middle Eastern and South Asians people because of possible links to terrorism. We all want to fight terrorism but the last time I looked, Timothy McVeigh wasn’t an Arab.

When we think of economic injustice, it appears to be closely linked to racial injustice. You often hear the term poverty and racism linked together. But the two are not the same. Economic injustice crosses all racial lines. Despite the relative prosperity of the US, the gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Tens of millions of people in the United States live in poverty. In the US, the top 1% own 38.1% of the wealth in the country, the next 4% own 21.3%, and the next 5% own 11.5%. That is to say, the top 10% of the country owns 70.9% of the wealth of this nation! Ninety percent of the country owns a mere 29.1%.

And why is that? Probably the biggest contributor is our minimum wage. According to a 2000 poll conducted by Jobs for the Future, 94 percent of Americans agree that “people who work full-time should be able to earn enough to keep their families out of poverty.” But we have a minimum wage that no one can live on, which leads to the inability to afford adequate housing, health care, education, child care, transportation and legal representation.

But it is not just the minimum wage. The economic structure of our country is designed to shift more and more wealth to the rich from everyone else. When it is time to raise taxes, the ones raised are often the ones that are most regressive and hit low income people the hardest. Right now, our legislators in Virginia are working on a budget that includes raising the sales tax and the cigarette tax. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the payroll tax was increased significantly. But when it’s time to lower taxes, the cuts go to the wealthiest among us. The latest round of federal tax cuts included a reduction in the rate paid on dividends. Capital gains rates are already at the lowest they have ever been and there is talk of reducing them further. And let’s not forget that even though our state legislators are dealing with inadequate resources, they are still talking about doing away with the estate tax.

But do not think that economic injustice is limited to the US. Dr. King himself addressed this issue in a sermon in 1968. He said “Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this.”

The world economic scene is one of extreme and worsening inequality, with a few experiencing great and increasing wealth while more than one billion people suffer intense deprivation and poverty. Here are a few statistics:

  • The richest 20% of the world’s people get 86% of world income while the poorest 20% get only 1.3%.
  • The ratio between rich and poor world per capita income, which is 70/1, is getting worse. In 1950 it was 20/1.
  • Half the world’s people have an average income under $2 per day. For 1 billion people daily income is under $1.. Shirt makers in Bangladesh are paid 15c a day.
  • Three people have as much wealth as the total annual income of the poorest 48 countries. There are about 400 billionaires and they have as much wealth as half the world’s people. Most of the world’s capital is owned by about 2% of the world’s people.
  • Access to resources is more important than income. The rich 20% of the world’s people get about 80% of the world’s resource production. Their per capita consumption is 15-20 times that of the poorest half of the world’s people.
  • About 1 billion people do not get enough to eat. More than 1 billion have to use dangerously contaminated water. More than 30,000 Third World children die every day because of deprivation of necessities like food and clean water.
  • The Third World situation is getting worse. In 1996 the United Nations Human Development Report stressed that the poorest one-third of the world’s people are getting poorer.

The global economy is a market system and in a market things go not to those who need them most but to those who offer to pay most for them. This is the main reason why there is huge amount of poverty and deprivation in the world. Billions of people cannot get a fair share of the available resources because the rich few take them by being able to pay more. And the US, as one of the world’s richest nations, is a great perpetrator in this. And it is the reason we are such a target for the rest of the world.

And so we see the violence that exists against us. But should we meet violence with violence? Dr. King, drawing on the teachings of Gandhi, would say no. But nonviolence is much more than just turning the other cheek. Gandhi saw nonviolence as a way of life, encompassing every aspect of human life. Nonviolence, Gandhi said, is not a jacket that you can wear today and discard tomorrow. He decided that what was necessary to save the world from the all-consuming violence was to restore humanity, human relations and understanding. Gandhi insisted nonviolence is about a change in attitudes, in relationship building and sustaining; in learning to deal with anger in a positive manner rather than abusing anger; and creating communities that are compassionate, understanding, accepting and appreciative. Dr. King’s adoption of the principles of nonviolence can been seen not only in his willingness to face the water hoses and the dogs, but also in his challenge to us. In that 1968 sermon, he said that “we must all learn to live together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”

At the end of that 1968 sermon, Dr. King reminded us that “there comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.” I believe that time has come. Guided by the principles of nonviolence, we need to stand together as a group and say that racial injustice is wrong – and that getting rid of it is right. We must say that economic injustice is wrong – and that equity is right.

Thinking about Pastor Niemoeller’s statement, we must speak up for what we believe in. For Dr. King said “Our days begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”


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