Not Just What Makes Us Comfortable
As we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birth, it is my hope that we reflect on King’s life and what he was really all about. If you read King and study his life and legacy, and not just repeat some unfinished quotes, I promise you, he will remind you of the works of Jesus Christ and how he too was taken out of context. Now, before all my good Christian brothers and sisters lose it and begin calling my words an abomination, just think. King, honoring the best of Christian tradition, did a number of good things, just as Jesus did, right? King spoke truth to power without regard to the consequences. King, like Jesus, put the people first, understanding that social justice was much more important than personal prosperity, and King, like Jesus, made the ultimate sacrifice, becoming a martyr and giving his life in hopes that we would have a better world. Oh yes, Dr. King gave his life; James Earl Ray didn’t just take it on April 4, 1968. So, isn’t that what we all should do as Christians-model our lives after Jesus?
Try to do this. When you hear that incredible speech Dr. King gave on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963, try to remember how it started. Remember he said, “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”
Moreover, King said, “in a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.” For the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were a promissory note that all people “would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” However, as he stated, “it is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note in so far as her citizens of color are concerned.” And “instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given (Black) people a bad check; a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient’ funds.” Therefore, “we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
Yet we still struggle for the basic benefits of freedom and justice. Now, don’t get me wrong, I do celebrate the progress that we have made as a people, despite living under the greatest oppression ever imposed on a people, and we had no choice but to come up because you can’t fall off the floor. But we still have a ton of work to do.
King words would have us remember that for the country as a whole, the unemployment rate fell in 2011, and that’s good, right, but, not so good for African Americans. Black unemployment is 15.8% and this does not include the brothers and sisters that just stop looking or are no longer receiving benefits. Also, about 10.4% of the entire African-American male population in the United States aged 25 to 29 is incarcerated, compared to only 1.2% of white men in that same age group. Furthermore, the unemployment rate for young African American men is more than twice the rate of unemployment for young white men.
In addition, fewer African American men between the ages of 16 and 29 are in the labor force compared to White, Latino and Asian men in the same age group. Over 20% of young African American men live in poverty compared to 18% of Latino, 12% of Asian and 10% of White men. And, perhaps, you all are aware that we are 14% of the US population, yet we are over 50% of the AIDS cases in this country. I think King would have something to say about this, don’t you? I think he would say despite all of our progress and gains, there’s still a lot of work to be done because this just aint right!
I would hope that as we celebrate King, remember he also said, “Politics asks is it expedient; vanity asks is it popular, cowardice asks is it safe, but conscience asks is this right?” Is the unemployment rate for us right? Is the incarceration rate for us right and why are we disproportionately infected and affected with every illness in the country? King would ask these questions and call us to united and continuing action. So, as we celebrate his life and work, let us ask the rightness and wrongness of things. And let us unite in struggle to make things right and change the conditions of our people so that, as King said, we can all have “the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”