Pelton Speaks at MLK Luncheon

January 18, 2012
Bill Bordy Theater

These remarks were given at "The Struggle is Worth It," a luncheon celebrating the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

January 15 marks the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., born in Atlanta, Georgia eighty-three years ago to the Reverend and Mrs. Martin Luther King, Sr.

Dr. King's commitment to social justice, his struggle for dignity and respect for all people - no matter their circumstances or hues - has made our America a better place to live. His was a message of hope born of a fierce idealism.

His dream - though still unfulfilled - remains, nonetheless, an important American legacy.

When King was shot down, America lost perhaps its most effective prophet and server of the community. Preaching from the pulpit of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in February 1968, this wonderful and virtuous man foreshadowed his own death:

“Every now and then I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator, that something we call death. We all think about it. And every now and then I think about my own death, and I think about my own funeral. And I don’t think of it in the morbid sense. Every now and then I ask myself, 'What is it that I would want said?'

"And I leave that word with you this morning. If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral…Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize. That isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards. That’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. I would like someone to mention that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I would like for someone to say that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day, that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try, in my life, to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say, on that day, that I did try, in my life, to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

"Yes, if you want to say that I was drum major, say that I was drum major for peace. I was drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.”

I often wonder - wistfully - what America would be like today, if King were still alive and walked among us. He would be at an age in life when men and women are still making significant contributions to society. What would be the breadth and magnitude of his influence and leadership?

Certainly, none of the Emerson students present tonight was alive when Martin Luther King was murdered. His life and the times in which he lived is as remote to you as World War II was for those of us who came of age in the 60's and 70’s.

The America into which today’s undergraduates were born is very different from that into which King was born – a world where White businesses created separate accommodations for Black people. A society – supported and legalized by the laws of the land – that forced African-Americans to pay the same or more, for less: a society of separate parks, separate hospitals, separate public transportation, separate water fountains, separate public restrooms, separate libraries, separate hotels, separate restaurants, separate theaters, and separate schools. Even separate cemeteries were common in King’s America – not only in the South, but in the North as well.

The last decade of King’s life was dizzying, played out against the backdrop of a swiftly changing world. He witnessed the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X. (Kennedy’s brother, Bobby, would die only a few short months after King did.) The nation was awakening to the war in Vietnam. A major study of American society commissioned by the Johnson administration concluded that ours was a land divided by race and unfathomable poverty. The 1965 Watts Riots signaled the despair, the anger and frustration of Black America, especially its youth.

On college campuses – not only in America, but also in Paris and Mexico City – students, buoyed by Marxism and socialist ideals, were attempting to transform their universities. Some, such as those at Kent State, died on behalf of causes felt more in their hearts than understood by their intellects.

A new generation of young, angry and highly articulate Black Americans provided a sharp counterpoint to King’s non-violent message. The Black Panthers called for an armed struggle. Malcolm X vowed to revolutionize American society “by any means necessary.” H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael begot a new phrase, “Black Power,” that rang across the land, frightening many White Americans.

In the middle of this foment stood Dr. King, resolute in his faith in the power of nonviolent action to change society.

However, in the intervening years between his fateful death and today, King’s evolution as social critic has been diminished by the rapid fire and distorting images of television and other media – images that reappear each year during the observation of King’s birthday and of Black History Month.

Today, much of King’s message to America has been reduced to 30-second television images and 15-second sound bites that fail to tell the whole story of his moral and intellectual development.

Who in America has not heard, read, or even memorized parts of the famous King speeches? Best known, perhaps, is the stirring denouement of his March on Washington address delivered prayerfully in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, in August 1963:

"So I say to you, my friends, that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed - we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal… I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning - 'My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing, land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountain side, let freedom ring.' And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true."

These are powerful and moving words. It is important, however, that we not be lulled by their familiarity into reducing King’s life to static, bite-size aphorisms. King’s legacy deserves more from us as thinking human beings.

How many of us know, for example, that near the end of his life King had concluded that racism, poverty and the war in Vietnam were inextricably linked? Or that he argued for a guaranteed annual income for all Americans? Or that he believed that the entire American social and political system should be restructured?

“Now, when I question the whole society,” he said in a speech delivered at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in August l967, “it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated."

King’s later, evolving social critique of America created something of a bind for him. On the one hand, many of his followers were afraid that his protests against the war in Vietnam would diminish the strength of the civil rights movement, diluting its focus on racism. On the other hand, a younger generation of more “militant” African-Americans seriously questioned the effectiveness of non-violent protest. King responded to these criticisms bravely, and with intellectual vigor he stood his ground.

King understood that in order to create a truly just society, we should remember that, while it is always important to recognize individual merit, it is equally important to distribute benefits to achieve a social ideal.

This principle of distributive justice needs a living hero or heroine to champion its cause and to remind us of how much it has been a part of the great American social tradition. Thus it is that I try to imagine what America would be like today if King – the great champion of social idealism – were still alive, if his influence was not merely a “legacy” or a “dream deferred,” but a living, breathing presence among us, awakening us daily to the redemptive power of love, to faith in God, and to the promise of a better future.

I know this, however: he would have been at Occupy Wall Street. He would have been at Occupy Boston with his tent and sleeping bag.

Who among us would have answered his call to march as a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness? We will never know.

I am always aware that King was struck down in mid-sentence – while he stood talking on the balcony of his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. His assassin knew what King knew all his life: that in words are found the redemptive power to change, to transform, to transfigure, to persuade, to spur to action, to provide solace, to smooth troubled waters and, yes, to provide hope of a better day.

Let’s not trivialize King. Nor let us permit others to misread him or misuse his words to further their own stingy and narrow-minded political ends.

If we are truly to understand King and give meaning to his sacrifice for a better America, we need to read his speeches, writings and letters – in all of their fullness and complexity.

Let us remind ourselves during our celebration of his brilliant, but too, too short life that we must continue to grow, to challenge our own view of the world and to speak out as King did. Let us add our voices to his call for a committed life. Words were his redemption and they are ours, as well.

Our nation looks to colleges and universities to help solve its most pressing problems. And, yet, there is deep skepticism about what we do and how we do it. This, we must seek to change.

First and foremost, we must lend our academic resources to help make the rewards of this nation available to all - not just the few.

The best education, to paraphrase Plato, prepares students to be fit company not merely for themselves, but for others as well.

Our nation is still in want of students awakened to the powerful lessons of human history, enlightened managers trained to shape and give order to human experience, teachers ready and equipped to educate our nation’s youth, and legal minds prepared to carry out those wise restraints that make us a free and just society.

For many of us living in this bountiful land, the “sea is calm, the tide is full, the moon lies fair… and [the night air is sweet].” (from Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach).

But what about those who are not at the table – the uneducated, the rural poor, the migrant family, the young children of working welfare mothers, the uninsured, the homeless and those simply down on their luck? What, if any, is our duty to them?

In 1916, John Dewey described democracy as the most ethical aspiration conceived by ethical communities. This aspiration was unobtainable, he wrote, without a society’s commitment to a lifelong education to develop the “capacities for associated living” in a society characterized by complexity and diversity.

This is the great American dream. That we can create out of the rich diversity of human experience communities of learning - communities made both beautiful and effective by their pluralism - communities of learning that will turn the tide of human want into a sea of joy and light.

This is our hope as a nation committed to equality.

And it is to our colleges and universities that the nation looks to fulfill its best ideals. It looks to us to lift up the nation so that it might live out – in full measure – its democratic ideals of inclusive excellence.

Education is that instrument of change that inspires us and our students to look through the confusion of the moment so as to make a new period in history.

Education holds before us the promise of what Whitehead called “habitual visions of greatness.” Our business is to prepare a new generation of leaders to make of this old world a new world.

I challenge you as you go about your important work to accept the call to greatness with a sense of urgency. Life is a long and dusty road.

Our journey does not end here. There is so much more to see and so much more to do.

Like Martin Luther King, I, too, have “the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, other-centered men can build up.”

I challenge you to lift up your sweet and strong voices wherever you work or play; lift up your hand of compassion, your hand of hope, your hand of faith. For history instructs us that this nation when it meets its challenges head on with honesty, integrity and a commitment to doing what is right that we will come together again, we will work together again, we will pray together again, we will hope together again, we will reach the other side together and we will stand united as one nation with the hope to set the table for all to enjoy life’s bounty and where our nation’s motto – e pluribus unum – the one out of the many – may become a living creed.

Thank you very much.