01.16.2017: The following is the text of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day keynote talk I delivered January 16, 2017 in Manchester NH.
Several years ago, at a religious retreat in Garrison, NY a friend of mine was having a quiet coffee with civil rights activist and historian Vincent Harding.
“You seem a bit down, today,” she said.
“I miss Martin. A lot. You know, I wrote “Beyond Vietnam” the speech he gave at Riverside Church in 1967 – I believe that speech got Martin killed.”
“Did he work with you on the speech? Did he agree with the ideas you wrote?”
“His death’s not on you, Vincent. You didn’t get Dr. King killed.”
That speech – “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” – delivered on April 4, 1967, one year to the day before King was assassinated, denounced America’s Vietnam War, compared American bombings in Indo-China to Nazi atrocities, and called for America’s unilateral withdrawal from the war.
The problems eroding America in 1967, King said, were “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism,” and as a Christian, he had to “speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation.”
It was Dr. King’s most radical call, and one of its most radical points was that “the victims of our nation” included the oppressed beyond our borders.
Black leaders like Ralph Bunche and the NAACP distanced themselves from King because of fears of offending President Lyndon B. Johnson. LBJ himself never spoke to King again.
Washington Post and New York Times editorials called King’s Riverside Church speech a mistake.
It was no mistake.
It was a prophetic call – a prophetic moment.
It was perhaps King’s most radical call for social transformation. Anti-war and pro-social justice it recognized, long before the word existed, the intersectionality of struggle and conflict of oppressed peoples around the world.
It wasn’t just about Black vs White.
It was about justice and equity, dignity and respect, rights and honor and called upon us all to confront injustice in the name of the weak and the voiceless.
It was the 99% rising to confront the 1%.
It was to confront the privileged and powerful and hold them accountable.
That MLK – the man who spoke Truth to Power on April 4, 1967 – is the MLK I look toward today – the man who called upon the Beloved Community to fulfill the covenants to which it’s been called.
Today we are all part of that Beloved Community – there are no outsiders – there are those who embrace the community and those who resist it but who still belong – toward them we project our embrace and understanding.
We all belong.
I was born here in Manchester, born at a time when words like intersectionality, proportionality and cultural appropriation were unknown – at a time when most Americans like those here in Manchester believed that the normative American experience was based in Mayberry and witnessed weekly on Leave it to Beaver and Donna Reed.
The Manchester I grew up in was white. Both at Bakersville Grammar School and Manchester Central – there were only two public high schools then – I believed everyone to be white.
I grew up thinking I was white amidst Lebanese and Syrian, Greek, Italian, French Canadian, Polish, Irish and other communities. Weekly the Lebanese and Syrian community gathered on Cedar Street at the Lebanese American Society where the women baked, the men played cards and children ran around picking up tidbits of Arabic – sometimes some not very nice “col from parents who desperately wanted their children to be assimilated.
I remember no Bhutanese or Bosnians, no Nepalese, Congolese or Rwandans.
I remember no African-Americans or Hispanics.
Today, hopeful, I await the arrival of Syrian refugees, for whom we bear much responsibility.
I knew there was the North End and the West Side – I knew where you lived marked to a great extent what people thought you were.
No one had to tell you that.
You just knew.
Just as you knew that Central High had two buildings – Classical and Practical Arts. Where you took most of your classes determined who you were.
I remember especially the Summer after my senior year. I worked the 11pm to 7am shift as a roving-frame-tender at Waumbec Mills, took the bus home, showered and and changed and went to work at Jim’s Men Shop on Hanover Street – Louis Georgopolous and his family were the first Greeks I ever knew – and then some nights worked as a soda jerk at the Puritan Drive-In on the Daniel Webster Highway North.
And today I’m back here on Martin Luther King’s – and my – birthday.
What a treat.
I had left Manchester in 1960 and after college returned here to work. In January 1968 I was whisked away by a charismatic St. Thomas Aquinas-quoting Senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy who came to New Hampshire to challenge President Lyndon Johnson and LBJ’s criminal prosecution of the Vietnam War.
I met McCarthy, was hired by Sy Hersch to be McCarthy’s personal photographer, and left the Granite State – Clean for Gene. Other than for visits I was away for over twenty years.
I was with McCarthy when we got the news that MLK had been assassinated. He went directly to Memphis and then to Atlanta and I was sent to Washington. There wasn’t enough money in the campaign coffers to bring a photographer along and, I’m sorry to admit, that as a young man from white New Hampshire I was less than fully aware at that moment what King’s life and death meant.
I admit too I came late to King and issues of social justice. When friends had asked me to go to Washington with them for the “March on Washington” I demurred simply because – this is the first time I’ve told this story – I finally had a date with a girl I’d been eyeing for some time – and I didn’t want to give it up.
Finally, though, April 4,1968 was our communal turning point, reinforced shortly afterwards when RFK was assassinated in Los Angeles and shortly after that when Mayor Daley’s thugs tried to crush demonstrations in Chicago’s Grant Park at the Democratic National Convention.
1968 was a tough year and that Fall I left for the Middle East anxious to find my roots – anxious to get away from the madness that had consumed my country the previous nine months.
And in that departure I was able to come home again.
A boy who had gone to the First Congregational Church in Manchester with his Aunt Lulu, had attended Melkite services with his family and had been confirmed at The Blessed Sacrament Church has returned here today as an Arab American Muslim who believes that there is one Beloved Community and that we are all part of it whether we know it or not.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu expands on this idea of community as a gift with the African insight of Ubuntu. Ubuntu, Tutu tells us, states clearly that to be is to be we, not I. That we can only understand ourselves in the face of each other.*
‘It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion.
“That the only way to understand myself, my name, my face, is through the roadmap of your name, your face and the faces of your ancestors.”
The Quran tells us “O men! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all-knowing, all-aware.”
We are here you and I so that we may know each other.
In Islam, we believe every person is born with fitra, an innate goodness that encompasses intelligence and compassion that comes from our Creator.
Fitra cannot be destroyed. It can be covered up, resisted, ignored, but it cannot be destroyed. While it’s parents who determine whether a child grows up to become Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, secular humanist etc., fitra is the attribute, the gift from God, the fundamental goodness, that we all share as humans.
Fitra, I believe, is what connects us within the Beloved Community. Healthy community needs the other, the different, even the strange, to find its path to Justice and Peace. And the Beloved Community is so much greater than our individual parts.
To Muslims this is true jihad – the struggle to reach into our soul and connect with our fitra – with each other.
This was MLK’s jihad. This is our jihad – to bring together the Beloved Community – to serve each other – to serve God – to understand ourselves in the face of each other.
Our struggle today, as MLK recognized and as Junot Diaz has written, is that “…you don’t love a country by turning a blind eye to its crimes and to a problem. The way that you love a country is by seeing everything that it’s done wrong, all of its mistakes, and still thinking that it’s beautiful and that it’s worthy.”
I believe, as I’m sure Dr. King believed, that America is beautiful and worthy.
We’re gathered here to celebrate the life of a prophet that believed so strongly in America that he gave his life for it.
That’s why we will leave here today and continue the struggle.
Today, even as we honor a prophet we struggle still to make sense of political tensions currently roiling America.
I can’t help you to understand Donald Trump but I think it’d be helpful to contextualize our communal experience, especially with regard to Islam and religion in the Public Square.
I believe the rise of virulent Islamophobia – over 450 incidents in 2015 alone – compels us to understand that Muslims did not just arrive in America on 9/11 like Topsy – speaking a language no one knew professing a religion few knew anything about – but that they’ve been part of our historical and cultural experience for nearly 400 years.
Muslims got here before the Mayflower.
Perhaps one-third of American slaves were Muslim, many converted to Christianity by supposedly “God-Fearing” slave owners. Today, one third of all Muslims in America are African-American.
In 1706, Cotton Mather, a Puritan church minister in Boston and the son of Increase Mather, President of Harvard College, received a present from his congregation – they bought him a slave.
That’s right – A Christian church bought a preacher of God’s Word a human being as a present.
Mather “named” him Onesimus after the runaway slave found in Paul’s Epistle to Philemon.
Writing in 1716, Mather described how Onesimus had revealed to him a method of smallpox inoculation that “…; whoever had ye Courage to use it, was forever free from ye Fear of the Contagion. He described ye Operation to me, and showed me in his Arm ye Scar.”
In 1721, despite opposition, Mather used that knowledge, acquired from Onesimus and supported by other foreign sources, to advocate for mass inoculation when a smallpox epidemic struck Boston.
Many at Harvard’s Divinity School opposed inoculation because “only sinners got smallpox” and many at Harvard’s Medical School opposed it because because it wasn’t “Western” medicine.
Mather prevailed and, as a result, the preacher best known for his inflammatory role in provoking the hysteria and intolerance of the Salem Witch Trials, who himself had often excoriated Muslims as “Mahometan Turks, and Moors and Devils,” acted on the basis of Onesimus’s knowledge of smallpox – and saved perhaps thousands in the Boston area.
Onesimus was not saved – he remained a slave.
Only after after repeated failed attempts to convert his Muslim slave to Christianity did Mather, allow Onesimus to buy his freedom, cruelly conditioning his release by insisting that even as a free man he remain available to “shovel snow, pile firewood, fetch water, and carry corn” for Mather.
Mather was deaf to Paul’s message about that slave named Onesimus in the Epistle to Philemon. Though Paul urged Philemon to accept Onesimus “not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved,” Mather, his mind colonized by the institution of slavery, worshipped the profane rather than the sacred and the Word of God.
Mather to the very end failed to acknowledge the humanity of the man who may have saved much of Boston.
While there are contradictions between the limited privileges of a nation built upon the exploitation of slaves like Onesimus and a nation whose Founding Fathers aspired to be created upon Enlightenment principles espousing belief “that all men are created equal” we’ve certainly moved from the exploitation, prejudice and hysteria of Mather’s days closer to fulfilling the aspirations of peoples “yearning to be free.”
At least in the promise.
We just haven’t moved far enough and now we’re threatened with the rolling back of many of those gains – on health care, housing, voting rights, employment, equal justice and the list goes on and on.
We still haven’t moved close enough to fulfill the aspiration of Theophilus Parsons, one of the authors of the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, that America was designed to ensure “the most ample of liberty of conscience” for “Deists, Mahometans, Jews and Christians.”
In 1842, missionary Charles Colcock Jones wrote that many “Mohammedan Africans,” had found ways in America to “accommodate” Islam within their new lives in bondage. “God, say they, is Allah, and Jesus Christ is Mohammed. The religion is the same, but different countries have different names.”
While Jones didn’t get the theology exactly right he recognized an essential truth; that many Muslims and their descendants found ways to overcome the systemic proselytization and cruelty of slaveowners to both sustain their Islamic faith and embrace the aspirations of this nation.
Muslims fought and died in the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Muslims died in the twin towers on 9/11 and died as first responders trying to rescue the victims of that terrorism.
From within America’s slaves to early immigrants who built a mosque out of sod on the North Dakota plains to the millions of Americans who daily contribute in commerce, education, arts and the security of this nation Muslims are tightly woven into our common fabric – and that that’s a good thing.
Dwight Eisenhower, at the Islamic Center of Washington dedication in 1957, eloquently affirmed America’s bedrock principle of religious freedom: “America would fight with her whole strength for your right to have here your own church and worship according to your own conscience. This concept is indeed a part of America, and without that concept we would be something else than what we are.”
Islam’s not just a religion, it’s not just the faith of slaves, of immigrants and of many African-Americans reclaiming and naming it as their own – as did Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali – it’s part of who we are. In an America of diversity, pluralism and individual freedom – we should recognize that Islam is part of our national patrimony – and that that’s a good thing.
And it’s because we think America IS worthy, we who are gathered here, we who have struggled together for this Day that until a few years ago white privileged New Hampshire didn’t believe we were worthy of celebrating, that we stand and celebrate not only Doctor King, Malcolm and Muhammad but we celebrate the Khan family and Beyonce, we celebrate Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad and Trayvon and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Barack Obama and here in our presence Sister Eva.
“And among His wonders” the Qur’an tells us, “is this: He creates for you mates, so that you might incline towards them, and He engenders love and tenderness between you: in this, behold, there are messages indeed for people who think.”
This is the Beloved Community and there is room for all.
And in that room are Jews and Christians and Jehovah Witnesses and Muslims and Wiccans – in this room are all who believe in freedom and justice. An anti-Semitic act is an attack on all of us, the rending of a muhajaba’s head scarf is a tearing at all our communal fabric – the desecration of a church scars us all, the denying of LGBTQIA peoples rights to affirm identity denies us all our name.
Yet, there is some hope.
Last summer two events highlighted what I believe is an an emerging social movement happening in spite of the Trump phenomenon.
A emerging social movement for justice.
First, quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers refused to stand for the national anthem
Then Beyoncé – who had rocked the Super Bowl months earlier – brought a few mothers of police violence victims to the MTV Video Music Award ceremonies.
These two events are connected in part through the social activism of Black Lives Matter (BLM), the grassroots civil rights movement that originated in the African-American community in 2013 after George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, and gained momentum following the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York – and then across the country.
It became a movement that can’t be turned back.
Out of these tragic conflicts arose the Movement for Black Lives manifesto – M4BL – a coalition of more than 60 organizations.
M4BL issued “six demands aimed at ending all forms of violence and injustice endured by black people; redirecting resources from prisons and the military to education, health, and safety; creating a just, democratically controlled economy; and securing black political power within a genuinely inclusive democracy.”
M4BL is a new manifestation of a courageous, principled, and globally informed, generation of civil rights uprisings picking up from where Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s left off.
I think Dr King would approve.
I think he would recognize the intersectionality of today’s conflicts in inequities just as he recognized, on April 4, 1968, the intersectionality of oppression and the the victims of our nation were not confined to within our borders.
I received an email this morning from Rabbi Arthur Waskow which read: “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood up in the face of evil and said: “No! We cannot keep doing this to each other. We are not each other’s enemies.” He answered Paul’s call to arms: the weapons being the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the spirit which is the Word of God.
I think today Dr, King would tell us that that is how to resist, that those are our weapons, that no matter how long it takes, no matter how dark it gets, fight back.
Declare that resistance is an act of love for all our Sisters and Brothers, whether gay or straight, trans or not, Mexican, Muslim, Jew, religious, secular.
Resist by helping the people who are being threatened with the loss of security, loss of rights. Stand up for women’s rights to their own bodies and to equal pay.
Declare that the exclusion of one is the exclusion.
Stand up for freedom and justice.
Stand up for the separation of powers, for a free press, free and open elections, for a fair electoral process.
Standing up for freedom is an act of love.
An act of love.
“We must rapidly begin,” King told us in 1967, “we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
Today, three months shy of 50 years of that prophetic call for a shift in American priorities we are threatened still.
As one who lives as “the Other” in this land called America, the Land of the Free, I welcome all of you whom these politicians are attempting to marginalize and demonize.
Let us work together to defend this land of great beauty and power, of freedom and opportunity that our forebears and families have fought to build and defend. We will grow by looking to the future with optimism, not with fear.
Welcome to the place where I live.
Where I live still with hope, where Dr. King still holds vigil.
“If we lock up Martin Luther King,” Vincent Harding told us, “and make him unavailable for where we are now so we can keep ourselves comfortably distant from the realities he was trying to grapple with, we waste King. … That’s the key for the 21st century – to answer the voice within us, as it was within Martin, which says ‘do something for somebody.’”
“Men do not get assassinated for wanting children of different colors to hold hands on a mountainside,” Harding said. “King was telling us to make America what it needs to be.”
That is our calling.
“We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.” Dr King told us 50 years ago at Riverside Church. “We must move past indecision to action… If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”