Yesterday I celebrated the feast of Martin Luther King Jr. (the only holy man this country has ever produced, according to a friend) as I have for the last eleven years at the Taylor Memorial United Methodist Church in Oakland and sat, as I have for about as many years, with my beautiful friend Harriet in the second pew. I saw dear friends, Matthew Fox and others I now see but once in a while, many of them on this day once a year.
It was a celebration different from the others. I thought back to the 6th Annual Celebration five years ago when it was I who gave the keynote address* and how much different the celebration was then. I thought back to an August day forty-five years ago when the martyred man this day honors spoke about his dream in the nation’s capital.
There was a swelling in my heart and my eyes were wet, the disenchantment of so many dreams shattered or deferred sweetened by the hope that they may be mended and accomplished, for the next day would be inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States one Barack Obama of direct African descent, something that in my lifetime of almost three-quarters of a century I did not think that I would live to see.
This morning I awoke early and made my way to the Oakland Museum of California, across the street from Laney College where I had spent thirty years of my life teaching, to witness with colleagues the inauguration projected on a large screen in the museum’s theatre. There was again that swelling in my heart, a knot in my throat, and wetness in my eyes. I am of that generation who first undertook civil disobedience for the sake of civil rights for all and Dr. King’s dream of justice and peace which had also been mine ever since I could remember.
It would have perhaps sufficed that the president is “black” (though he has as much claim to being “white”), but that he is also poised, intelligent, eloquent, kind, beautiful, and gracious makes my heart sing. I did not stand when the anthem was played (the betrayals have been too many and too great and the atonement and healing have yet to come) but I experienced hope renewed, made cautious though it be by the skepticism of a lifetime in the struggle for the dream.
But the president spoke of hope while stating starkly the obstacles (the betrayals) we must overcome and he spoke of a unity in the nation devoutly to be wished, and of our place in the community of nations and of peoples who must realize justice and peace and healing of the Earth if we are to live. And I rejoiced for hope was burnished in me.
This afternoon my compadre John called from New Mexico; the students of his school would hold a formal ball in gowns and coats purchased at thrift stores to celebrate the day. And my dear friend Dobré called from New Orleans to express her joy (though she said too many of her co-workers in the clinic said they would not watch the inauguration because it would make them sick — racism a cancer in the national psyche that persists, yet to be eradicated.)
But today, there is hope and joy. Tomorrow that hope and that joy must inform and renew our struggle for the imperative dream. The task is but begun.
Keynote address given at the 6th Annual
Martin Luther King Jr. National Holiday Celebration
at Taylor Memorial United Methodist Church,
Oakland, California, Monday, January 19, 2004
To honor Martin Luther King Jr., we need not praise him who has no need of praise. Such saints do much to change the world and inspire and raise our sights, but we do them little honor with our comfortable praise if we do not make their dreams our own. Instead we must ask why we have accomplished so little of his dream.
All saints have dreams and visions, but these are not the idle fantasies of indolent wishful thinking. These are instead real goals and often plans of action. The goals of King were not for those of a distant heaven populated by angels playing their insipid lutes, but for our nation as part of this blessed Earth.
The American dream of King was made of the best parts of the dream of the Founding Fathers of the nation. King’s dream was that we live up to the Constitution and Bill of Rights and that the Constitution and Bill of Rights live up to its very best intentions. King’s dream was justice and peace based upon a recognition of the dignity of and respect for all men and women throughout the Earth.
How many of our citizens would forthright repudiate that dream? But the dream is not accomplished because we have not made King’s dream our own. I think that as a nation, we have allowed ourselves to be seduced by another “American Dream”, much different from King’s, of endless consumption of the Earth. We have allowed commercial interests to shape our dreams through advertising, television, movies, and other forms of cheap entertainment.
An ugly dream it is, too. Full of cupidity, of greed. Full of violence and death. Fantasy and “reality” programs full of meanness and dishonesty, distrust and cut-throat competition. Full of deception and lies.
The fun is fluff and emptiness. The “real” fun, we are sold, is huge hulks of metal using tremendous amounts of oil-fuel for which we kill other peoples, and sacrifice our young, tearing through the sacred lands we have no business being on anyway. The “real” fun is guzzling beer because it makes our buddies and the sexy girls love us. The “real” fun is stuffing our mouths with greasy hamburgers or ersatz tacos stuffed with meat we tear down woods and jungles to raise and will clog and harden our veins, bloat our bodies. The “real” fun is wearing certain shoes with a meaningless mark on them for which we pay a hundred dollars while the men and women and children who stitch them get twenty-five cents an hour. So much “fun”, nay, so necessary are they that some of our children who don’t have that kind of money kill for them. Fun is buying and more buying, consuming and more consuming, drowning ourselves in useless things.
This is the distraction most of us cannot avoid. This, it seems evident, is the dream of most of us in this nation. But that was not King’s dream. He dreamt of the African-American citizen’s full integration into the dominant society that he/she might have equality and justice. King dreamt of equality and justice for all. And much has been accomplished: we may sit anywhere we like in public buses and drink from the same water fountains and swim in the same public pools. But are we to be content that there are no more signs on public toilet doors for the colored and for the discolored?
King’s dream embraced a future of much vaster visions and it was a dream for our children. That dream is King’s bequest to the children of our nation and to the children of all nations. But in truth, I believe that we as a nation do not love our children; we do not shelter, clothe, feed, heal — or teach them. In the United States children suffer the most poverty by far. When King dreamt, and demanded, integration of the schools, it was mainly because the Negro schools were so inferior to the “White” schools and he knew that without education for our children freedom is limited and precarious. Just simply, our choices are as limited as our awareness of what there is to choose from. For freedom resides first and foremost in the mind and in the heart. King knew in Birmingham jail, and every one knew, that confined in that narrow cell, he was more free than his jailers and more free than most of our countrymen.
Now our children, white, black, brown, yellow, all shades thereof, sit together before ill-paid, over-worked teachers in ill-equipped classrooms and become equally inadequately educated because we have not cared enough for the freedom of our children and have allowed public education to be practically destroyed. (Let us recall with shame that it was a mere ten years after King’s murder that voters in California passed Proposition 13 which initiated the dismantling of public education, not only in California, but throughout the nation and is the cause of California’s bankruptcy today. Even so, we spend fives time as much on prisons as we do on schools, even though it costs three times more to imprison a person than it does to educate him or her to become a useful and free citizen. We spend $35,000 per year to incarcerate an inmate, while public education spending is currently $7,000 per student.)
And now, crippled financially as our schools are, our beleaguered teachers are further hampered from teaching meaningful discourse and critical thinking by having to prepare students for meaningless testing, over, and over again; the arts are not taught and learning is made joyless. The great writer Ralph Allison knew this technique well and called it for what it is: “Keep‘em running.” And President George W. Bush, who has not mastered the language those tests are supposed to measure, cynically calls his program “No child left behind.”
But not all suffer this equally. The financially comfortable send their children to private schools (for which they have the unmitigated gall to lobby for subsidies even as affirmative action programs intended to give some measure of parity to minorities are cut.) Those of more modest means send their children to public schools, the poorest of which are in predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhoods. For still the greatest portion of the poor are African-Americans and Latinos.
Is it any wonder there is so much violence in our schools and in our streets? Many of our children are victims of a deep and general rage that more often than not is turned against themselves and the teachers who would help them. While our schools and teachers are hindered in their teaching, television, movies, and the way we confront international problems teach them most effectively that violence is a solution.
Of all the nations of the world, the United States has the highest number of its people in prison. Mostly our poor. And the greatest portion of these are African-Americans and Latinos. The same can be said of the armed forces. So much for the illusion that equality and justice has been achieved.
What the “no child left behind” plan to shackle education amounts to is that it reduces the choice of the poor youth (of which there are more and more) to either jail or the armed forces. For without the education with which to make a decent living, without the assistance of welfare, without healthcare, what prospects do we offer the poor youth? One of the provisions of the “no child left behind” farce is that the schools are forced to turn over the personal records of the students to the recruiters for the armed forces. It is nothing less than recruitment through economic extortion.
About the only thing parents can do is to individually call their children’s schools and demand that their own children’s records remain private and not be handed over to recruiters. But how many parents know this? How many parents, themselves poor and uneducated, will call? How many of us have called? Thus is the culture of poverty perpetrated and perpetuated and the children of poverty are made to fight imperialistic wars that profit only the rich in power. These are our children I am talking about — and they dare to ask us if we support our troops who had no choice in the matter.
Martin Luther King Jr. was very clear on this in his opposition to the war on Viet-Nam. And we must be equally clear on this in our war on and occupation of Iraq. We must be clear on this in all the wars we wage upon the world’s poor for the profit of the already rich and powerful, the Corporations to whom George W. Bush and his ilk belong and represent. In this we must educate ourselves and our children.
In Martin Luther King Jr.’s American Dream, equality in education went hand in hand with equality in the franchise, the means in a democracy through which the shortcomings of the nation are remedied, the right and exercise of the vote. For he knew that without the ability to read, without the means of reason and intellectual discourse, without the reverence for truth and the means with which to ferret it out, how can one determine and vote for one’s true self-interest, the self-interest of the people? The aim of public education is, or must be, to prepare our children to be free and responsible citizens — everything else is secondary.
Let us see it very clearly; the only ones who profit by the ignorance of the people are those of wealth and power who control the nation. Those who seek dominion of the nation and of the world know that it is difficult to manipulate educated citizens. And they rely on and cultivate our ignorance. They make their governing more and more secret. They make the issues more obscure by distractions and manipulative, misleading language. By misrepresentation. Downright lies. I have spent my life as a teacher of language, but I have to spend hours over my ballot to decipher what each of our famous propositions say. And once I have deciphered them, I find that they do not mean what they say they mean. If a life-long teacher of English has this problem, how is the poorly educated citizen to know how to vote?
Many, many do not. Even when Martin Luther King Jr. and those who marched with him suffered and too many died for the right to vote, too many of us still do not. Many claim that it is because we have lost faith, especially when it is often difficult to tell a Democrat from a Republican. But if a dream is worth making true, we cannot afford to lose faith, faith tested by a clear-sighted skepticism. We must vote in the knowledge that even not to vote is a choice and a choice against our own interests. And we must teach the youth to reason and to vote.
Even when elections are cynically rigged as they were in Florida in the last Presidential election, even when a compromised Supreme Court legitimizes that rigging. (And we let it stand with shameful docility.) Still we must vote.
When we are silent as electronic machines which leave no record of our vote and are solely in the hands of the wealthy and powerful few who own our government are forced upon us, still we must vote. Our very silence is indication the we have not made King’s dream our own; our absence from the voting booth says loudly that we have not made his dream our own.
Keith Rosenthal writes that “thinking that the Democrats are any better for us than the Republicans is like thinking that the bully who pushes you down and steals your money is worse than his friend who helps you up but shares in the bully's spoils.” But still there are degrees of evil and it is our responsibility to vote for the lesser so that we may open the way for a greater good.
But that should not be our only choice. We could have had a candidate, a Democrat, who speaks with a clear voice and holds as his own the very dream that Martin Luther King Jr. dreamt and works to make it real. I speak of the honorable (and I use the title with the full weight of its meaning) Dennis Kucinich, Congressman from Ohio. On several occasions I have spoken with Mr. Kucinich and questioned him on every point of the dream and I am satisfied that he holds the dream as his own and is bent on making it real.
But the press and radio and television have ignored him as if he did not exist, but we must not allow the mainstream media which feed us violence and lies and which belong to the same corporate interests who own our government to determine for us who is and who is not electible. It is not the polls they run which should determine whom we vote for. (In taking those polls, how many of us have been asked whom we support and what we believe? I, for one, have never been asked nor do I know anyone who has. But I know something of how numbers and statistics can be manipulated and interpreted and I do not trust the Fox News nor its ilk to speak truth. Their middle-of the road is so far to the right that it is meaningless.
Martin Luther King Jr. was called radical and extremist, and indeed he was, for he went to the roots of a problem and from there sought its solution. He went to the source at the roots of our Constitution and Bill of Rights and sought to make them true with direct action of nonviolence, of peace. But George W. Bush and his cronies are also radical and extremist; they go to the roots of our Constitution and Bill of Rights and seek to destroy them with deception and violence. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that “the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”
That is indeed a radical choice, the existential choice at the root of all choice. I say that the single most important thing for us to teach and for our children and youth to learn is to love. For if we have not learned to love, all else that we might have learned will be mean and lifeless. There are two kinds of power, one true and one false, that will decide our survival as a nation and as a species. One is the true power that comes from harmony with one another and with the Earth. The other is the false power that comes from power over others and over the Earth. The first comes from a sense of inner power of the heart to love; the other comes from a sense of impotence and insecurity, a sense of fear and greed. Do we not feel most powerful and secure and whole when we love and feel loved, when we feel ourselves in the exaltation of our joy? Above all else, we must live and act through love and hold sacred our joy.
I speak of a love that informs and gives strength to our thoughts and our acts, not the sentimental drivel that is foisted upon us as love on the television screen. I speak of joy, not the vacuous, counterfeit fun of a cavorting Pepsi-generation or Budweiser-generation or whatever that is foisted upon us as joy. I mean the love that made Martin Luther King Jr. one of the most truly powerful men of our times. I mean the joy that makes us realize God within ourselves and the Earth that sustains us.
Let us be very clear that in these time of a repressive government which does not love nor values life and freedom nor the holy Earth and creates a climate of distrust and fear, what we must protect most fiercely is the root of our power — our love and our joy. These we must not allow anything to touch.
From these and only these can we make Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream our own and make it real. We teach love by loving; we teach joy by making joy. If the schools do not teach art; then let us make art on our own, even with the waste we produce with our mindless consumption. Make masks to wear from our paper bags and wrappings; crowns and hats from our cardboard boxes, flags from our scraps of cloth, drums and bells from our plastic bottles and tin cans, dance and sing to our own music and go out into our streets with our grandparents, our fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles, with our friends, with our children — with our brothers and sisters all and make joy and remind ourselves that indeed we will overcome.
Let us begin making our art now. Let us get together with families, with friends, with clubs and organizations, with churches and schools, with unions and groups and make joy together in protest of darkness and fear. Let us flood the streets of San Francisco, Washington D.C., New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, of all the cities in the world in celebration of the Earth, of life, and sing loud our opposition to the forces of death . Let us take our art and our joy and dance our vote for life and sing our dream. Let us join our brothers and sisters in Europe and Latin America and flood the streets with rainbow flags, universal sign of peace and promise.
Let us begin right now, by speaking to each other about what really matters — on the street corner waiting for the bus, at the station waiting for the train, in the airport, in the waiting line at the post-office and the grocery store, around the kitchen table — everywhere we find ourselves. And let us work, with the commitment of love, with joy. to make the dream come true.
We have a clear choice. To love or not to love; joy or despair. We make the dream of peace and justice our own or we do not. And if we do not, god help us, for we will destroy ourselves — and the Earth.