Keynote Address, 3rd Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast Celebration,
John Harmon Community Center, Hastings-on-Hudson, NY
delivered January 19, 2015 by Sarah Bracey White
Good Morning. I’d like to begin by thanking the Village of Hastings’ 3rd Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Breakfast Committee for inviting me to join this celebration of the life and work of a great man. It has been 47 years since Dr. King’s murder, but the goals he espoused and the principals to which he held fast continue to be kept in the public eye through events like this one.
When Merle and Jerry Sternberg first asked me to speak at this event, I immediately wanted to say no. After all, who am I to give a keynote address at an event celebrating such an illustrious person? But Dr. King is a man on whose shoulders many of us -- including me - stand. Thus, I’m obliged to add my voice to those who celebrate his birth.
In truth, my immediate response was because I will always be a bit shamed by my personal lack of involvement in the civil rights movement for which Dr. King served as the lightning rod. When he gave his “I have a dream speech,” I was 17 years old. When he was murdered in 1968, I was 22 years old. Young people my age were at the forefront of the civil rights movement of the late 50s and 60s. But not I. History and circumstance kept me on the sidelines. Let me explain.
I was born in Sumter, South Carolina - fourth daughter of two schoolteachers. Just before my birth in 1946, my father, also the principal at his small school, refused to give the white superintendent the names of teachers who had attended an NAACP meeting about getting equal pay for colored teachers. My father believed he was his brothers’ keeper, so the superintendent fired my father and blacklisted him from ever again teaching at a colored school in SC. My family lost everything. My father’s shame at having to work menial jobs, and his inability to provide for his family led him to seek solace in alcohol. Periodically he left home - sometimes, for years at a time. I never knew him. He died in 1963 while laboring as a migrant worker in a Florida orange grove. My family knew first-hand the cost of trying to change the status quo. Until her death in 1963, my mother refused to leave her home in the south, and counseled her five children to accept life as it was. So when the March on Washington for Jobs and Equality took place, though I was in DC with my oldest sister, I didn’t go. We feared that the march would result, like every other march before it, in violence. So, I stayed home with my sister’s baby while my sister went. She came home raving about all the white people who attended the march and all the prople like our mother who came to demand respect for themselves and opportunities for a piece of the American dream.
Like some of you, I first heard Dr. King’s “I have a Dream” speech on television. Still, it had a profound effect on me. You see, I grew up in a house where I was taught to hate white people. But Dr. King didn’t preach hatred. He dreamed that the world he lived in would change, and that his little children would one day be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. He verbalized a dream that I held for myself. A dream my mother couldn’t begin to embrace. I reasoned from Dr. King’s speech that you can’t ask others to give what you’re not willing to give in return. If Dr. King wanted acceptance for his children - and by extrapolation, for me -- then I too had to apply those same principals of acceptance to people I had considered my enemy. They truly were my brothers and sisters. I had what is known as “a change of heart.”
We all know Dr. King, the icon. But who was this man who said in one of his speeches, “We must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools?” Like most young boys his age, Dr. King wanted to be a fireman, then a doctor. Ava DuVernay, Director of the recent movie “Selma,” said in an interview that Dr. King was “a prankster, he had an ego, he was just a brother from Atlanta who got swept up in history.” How does a brother get swept up in history and become worthy of a national holiday?
While I worked for the Mayor’s office in Baltimore, I had the privilege of meeting Martin Luther King, Sr., years after his son’s death. Rev. King, Sr. was in Baltimore to witness the re-naming of a local park in his son’s honor. I wrote and delivered the speech dedicating the park. As we waited for the program to begin, Rev. King made small talk. “We loved, Marty when he was a boy,” he said, “but we never had any idea he’d ever become so important to the world.” They never told Martin, Jr. that he could be anything he wanted to be. They simply loved him. Their love was the driving force in Dr. King’s life. Love, not hatred is what makes us do the seemingly impossible.
Dr. King was a man who decided to do what he felt must be done to stop brutality against people of color, and the inequality that excluded then from the basic rights of Americans -- despite their own efforts at inclusivity. King believed in the basic goodness of man and his ability to change, even though he behaved badly. Educated, widely read and motivated by the principals of non-violence, King applied the principals of religion to the groundswell of life changing efforts black people were making throughout the south.
If you’ve seen the recently released movie, “Selma,” you saw that much of the Civil rights movement was carried out by young people. Young people who labored in the fields, invisible from the general public outside the south. Every movement for change needs a leader. Dr. King became that leader. When the spotlight of press and television was beamed upon the despicable actions of legitimate authorities in the south, people of all races, creeds and religions joined Dr. King and demanded change. The “we” of brotherhood is a mighty force. The Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s was like a seismic shift in racial relations. Non-blacks saw and began to feel the pain that blacks endured simply because of their skin color. And they rose up, joined forces, bringing the spotlight on the system that perpetrated that pain. Blacks were doing the work to enforce change -- in the dark. The power over blacks lay in the hands of people who were not receptive to their struggle for equality. Their actions had to be “called out.” Wrestling rights guaranteed by the constitution from bigoted southerners was a real threat to life and limb for blacks.
For more than 14 years, young people had picketed at a “whites only” amusement park in Baltimore Maryland. In her book, “Round and Round We Go,” author Amy Nathan tells the story of how during the summer of 1963, those young people adopted the tactics that Dr. King honed: they engage like minded whites to join their ranks and bring an end to a social scourge above the Mason Dixon line.
I don’t believe that Dr. King wanted to be a martyr. He was simply a man of conscience, a man of God who wanted religion to have application in this life, not just in the hereafter. He saw what needed to be done, and did it. Judging by the multitude of photos showing him in somber repose, planning the next step in a battle which often extracted grave consequences for people who followed his lead, it was not an easy task. Doing the right thing is never easy. But it is the thing that makes our lives count. Remember, you are your brother’s keeper. Today, the issues of racism are more subtle. But we each know right from wrong. Each time you see injustice - especially on a small, familiar stage, you can make a difference. Speak to the issues. Highlight them. Or reach out and lend your hand to some one person who needs your hand because you’re standing next to him. Every man, woman and child has witnessed an act of injustice. It’s only when we speak to these issues that those perpetrating them realize that they don’t speak for the masses.
Many changes have taken place since MLK’s appearance on life’s timeline. But there’s much left to do. As always, it’s our young people who stand on the front lines of that change. Today’s young people don’t know the trials endured a little more than two generations ago. I encourage parents to take their teens to see “Selma” and The Story of Althea Gibson. These movies are about real life people who refused to surrender to the status quo. People who achieved their own personal greatness. Ignorance of the past leaves us floundering on the front lines. Our children see the world differently. For many of them, segregation is not an institutional thing, it’s a personal choice. A choice to be with the familiar, the known, rather than venture into the unknown. Our schools and colleges are no longer segregated. And yet, there is great social separation. In crisis, we come together. But we cannot depend on crisis to motivate us. I ask everyone here today to - just occasionally - step outside their comfort zone. Recognize the magnificence of difference and get to know your brothers and sisters across the color lines. When I told the man who is now my husband that I could not date him because he was white, he told me that he would stick around until I stopped looking at the color of his skin and looked at the color of his heart. I did just that and discovered that our differences were few.
I close with one of Dr. King’s quotes: “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”