New Hope Baptist Church annual Martin Luther King Scholarship Breakfast
Buffalo Niagara Convention Center
January 16, 2017
Good morning, Buffalo! How wonderful it is to see so many familiar faces in the audience. Today, as we celebrate the life, legacy, and symbolism of Dr. King together, it is clear that his legacy has touched many of us.
As I considered what thoughts I might share with you today, I must admit that I found it somewhat difficult to put to words my thoughts. This week we see a transition in national leadership, and like many of you, I wonder what will lie ahead.
But nevertheless, this is a day to celebrate the work and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and the many other men and women who stood and stand against policies, procedures, and people who trampled or would trample with an “iron fist of oppression” on the rights of others.
Dr. King was a symbol of many things to me and to many of you in this room. He was a knowledgeable, passionate, committed, courageous, and visionary leader. He stood on the side of justice, equality, and peace during a turbulent period of our history, a time when the country was routinely endorsing or turning a blind eye to hateful and unjust acts. He was an orator extraordinaire. As a young girl growing up in the Midwest, I heard my parents speak of Dr. King in hushed and admiring voices. Only modest coverage of the reality of the civil rights efforts found its way to my small, rural, predominantly white town within the Bible belt, but we still knew and felt some of the important battles for justice that raged.
I admit that it took my college education to allow me to fully understand the depth of the injustices being fought by our civil rights champions in those days. The abuses felt in my community were unfair and humiliating but were not as lethal as those many faced in other parts of the country. These crippling injustices galvanized the leaders of the civil rights movement. Dr. King became a symbol and a representation of many others equally dedicated to a better world.
For many, Dr. King was bigger than life, and to many other Americans he stood for a world that was more equitable, free of discrimination, and where black, brown, and people of all hues and backgrounds could dream of a better world. A world where unthinkable cruelty, hatred of others, and rampant discrimination were intolerable. He stood for a world where opportunities would rain down on all people and where all members of our communities could share in the hope and promise of a good life and a positive future for our children.
As with so many heroes and sheroes, his life was snatched away prematurely. A few years after his death, as a college student and for many years afterward, I learned more fully of the battles for equality he led and those he joined. I became more acquainted with the struggles that were occurring not only in my backyard but all over the states and around the world. Some of you personally know of the struggles that were happening right here in Buffalo. Over the years, I have sat with Julian Bond, civil rights activist, politician, scholar, and leader of NAACP national; Walter Cooper, scientist, educator, and Rochester civil rights activist; Judy Richardson, SNCC member, filmmaker, civil rights activist, and author, and many others, and I have heard of the personal ways they fought for freedoms that we have become accustomed to enjoying. I listen to recordings of Dr. King’s speeches, and they move me to tears or action each time. From his sermon on the tragic murder of children in the Birmingham church bombing of 1963 to his most well-known speech, “I Have a Dream,” in Washington, D.C., in the same year, he simply had a way of exposing the pain we feel and felt while always offering a word of hope. He spoke of his quest and the quest of this country to be better than what was happening in the ’50s and ’60s. He called on all moral, educated, committed people everywhere to pick up the sword of justice and fight the battle of freedom. Of course there were thousands of others who worked tirelessly for social and economic justice during the same period and following the King years, and they continue that struggle today. We all know of the horrific accounts, so well documented over many decades, that moved women and men to fight for a better, more just world. Men were being brutally murdered by lynching and other means; a child who dared to whistle at a white woman met an unspeakable death; men and women of all colors who sought the right for all to vote were disenfranchised, fired from their jobs, beaten, hosed, or killed; women were raped, and the perpetrators went uncontested; the broadcast and sharing of some of these events on American TV are thought to have been pivotal to the signing of the Civil Rights Act. During King’s time, many men, women, and children in every corner of this country, not just in the epicenter of the Deep South, put their lives on the line to fight for equality and to end such outrageous acts and to demand a better world. People like Fannie Lou Hamer of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party insisted that all people hurting must be recognized and all people are owed human rights, basic decency rights, and especially voting rights. Here in Buffalo, Frank Messiah, local civil rights activist and longtime chair of the local NAACP, was one such warrior.
Some would say that today is yet another moment that we need to keep the spirit of Martin Luther King and the hearts of our forefathers and mothers of justice alive. We need to expose, discuss, and digest the pain that we see and anticipate will be exacerbated, while keeping our hope alive. So I begin today by recognizing the past pain and the current injustices that have been unearthed so fully during the national election season and by challenging us to be vigilant in staying the course of justice, peace, and economic equality. I begin today by asking us to keep the faith in a better community and a country seeking to be characterized by true justice and equality despite all obstacles and all pushback. I begin today by asking us to speak truth to the reality of our world as we continue to move ahead. A significant shift has occurred in the political focus on fairness and justice; in fact, many of us saw it coming over the past eight years. But we will not allow the shift to destroy the progress that has been made or to permanently derail a civil, caring, and just society.
Between the Spaces:
The question I would like to address today is how we keep our focus on a just society alive. How do we move ahead in an era where the world seems to have lost its way and to have steered away from a deep and honest value of civility, peace, justice, and equality? I believe we do this by working between the spaces.
We all have large and small spaces that we inhabit. Today we come together in the space of the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center to refuel ourselves so that we can continue the difficult journey. In this space today, we must dare to exhale! We are in the company of others who believe in what Martin Luther King stood for, what he shared in his speeches, and what he demonstrated by his actions. Today we remember those who fought so desperately for justice and sometimes died tragically for their beliefs. In this space, here and now, we can say, “I recommit myself to a world that is free of injustices and hatred.” In this space, we will smile at those who sit next to us; we will not move away from or bar the entrance of someone who is darker than we are, who wears her head covered, who speaks a different language, who worships in a different temple, or who loves someone of the same gender. In this space, we will feel the unity of our humanity. We will seek to link our energy with those around us and know that we are stronger together. As Dr. King would say—and I rephrase—we will appreciate each other for the content of our character and the insights we bring, and not judge others for the color of their skin or other physical attributes. Today in this space, we will feel and realize the red blood that flows throughout all our veins and unites us, and we will see and celebrate the unity of sisterhood and brotherhood.
We will carefully analyze the written word and see the space of writing as a place that requires careful and critical judgment. For many years, as a lifelong educator, I have used the written space as a sacred place to gather and seek the truth. This truth was sometimes grounded on careful scientific fact, careful and deliberate analysis, or time-tested evidential material that allowed the truth to emerge. This for me has been an important space. This had been a space and an understanding to which I had dedicated my entire life. Today we are seeing a deliberate interjection of falsehood, fabrication, and out-and-out conscious lies into the written and spoken space. Some have called this new era the time of “post truth.” We must fight against a world that embraces lies over truth. We must be careful and meticulous analysts of the written word. We must ask these questions: What is the science that informs this issue? What is the evidence that supports the claim? How does this information fit the body of knowledge we know? We understand at Buffalo State and many of our institutions that we have seen a seismic shift in the abundance of available information. The Internet is a wonderful tool, full of a great deal of authentic and sound information and a great deal of opinion as well, including unsubstantiated and misleading articles. Information finds its way to us through established and well-tested forms like newspapers, books, and monographs, but we are also bombarded with Facebook stories, e-mail chatter, and even tweets at all hours of the night. We must find ways to teach or share ways where all citizens can develop the ability to find and evaluate the efficacy of information that flows toward us. We cannot accept unsubstantiated information that is espoused or reported as truth. We cannot accept media illiteracy. The national newspapers are grappling with how to report news while also speaking to the truth. For the first time, we must also grapple with this when a national leader speaks. And if it is unsubstantiated, is it newsworthy? The written and spoken space has become contested space, and to maintain our faith in the positive movement of our world, we cannot be passive, accepting, or overreacting individuals. This requires more effort on the part of each person, but the careful exploration of what we find in our written space is essential.
Has anyone noticed that coded language has also increased? How many ways can we code underrepresented people as the “other.” Are we not tired of people of color, newcomers, Native Americans, and other underrepresented voices being described as inner city, urban, poor, untrustworthy, threatening, and undisciplined? We have to be vigilant that coded speech be exposed for what it is: ways to stereotype and discredit the accomplishments and strengths of so many people from diverse backgrounds. We must challenge the use of coded “speak” when we hear it and ask the questions that expose the prejudice behind the comment. We cannot afford to allow “those people” narratives within our spaces. We must insist on the precision of language and documented fact within our communities so that coded ways to denigrate our community members are not acceptable.
We will keep our hope alive within the space of our educational institutions. The space of our K–12 classrooms is where all our children meet and pass through as they move to and through late adolescence. In this space, we must hold ourselves accountable that all students, regardless of income level, background, or family situation, receive the education and preparation that will allow them to be successful members of their communities. Buffalo has been on fire with the reemergence of new jobs and new opportunities. If we are true to the dream of Dr. King, we must make the space of opportunity equally accessible for all our children. Through Say Yes Buffalo, as a community, we have dedicated resources and energy so that all children have a chance to be successful. The achievement and completion of a high school diploma is the first step toward college, career preparation, and the fulfillment of a dream not only to survive in our community but to soar and be a true contributor to our world. We must, right here in Buffalo and in every city large and small, invest in the foundation of our youth, so that they will be prepared to tackle the jobs, problems, and solutions that we are facing or constructing today.
Within our elementary, secondary, and higher education institutions, we must use this space as a means to analyze the history of the past, the trends of today, and the hope of the future. We cannot afford to let our children wade in the mud of despondency. Within the spaces of our classrooms, in ways that are developmentally appropriate, we must wrestle with the current political climate and keep moving toward a world that advances equity and justice. I believe staying engaged in our world will keep our youth moving forward. Buffalo has a wonderful history of supporting people in need within our community. Whether it is providing a warm space for the marginally housed in the middle of winter, collecting food for the Western New York Food Bank, or supporting the rights of children to grow up healthy in a safe home, you will find Buffalonians working alongside each other in spaces throughout the community. Today is yet another time when we must think about how to serve and support. However, we need to inculcate this sense of oneness in the next generation if we hope to continue to move forward. I remember years ago as a Girl Scout recognizing how even a young person could make a difference. Even a young girl could provide support and assistance in ways that helped someone have the lift that was needed. In our educational institutions, we must not only teach the history of unspeakable injustices of the past and their present manifestations so they will not be repeated, but we must also explore the spaces of how indifference and injustice continue to be manifested in our world. But the lesson is just the beginning; the next step is connecting our youth in ways that make them see the humanity of us all and feel the reciprocity of giving back. At Buffalo State, we have a long history of educating college students to understand the historical and current context of our world, but we also provide opportunities to encourage students to enter the space of community service. Currently we are in a climate where we fear federal programs that assist women, men, and children are in jeopardy. So today and moving forward, it is particularly important to cultivate the commitment to enter and work within the spaces of helping others in need within our communities through individual action and state- and city-sponsored programs.
Although we must keep our attention on the global and national policies and understand how they affect Western New York, I remind us that we must also act locally. We inhabit the spaces that have a profound impact on the daily lives of each and every community member. We must insist that the opportunity to soar not be denied to any of our citizens. In Buffalo, the most diverse city in Western New York, we will harness our energy to bring opportunity, success, and health to all citizens. We will be a model to others near and far in that we will not marginalize, denigrate, or discriminate against any of our community members. We know that poverty, inequality, or lack of opportunity is not turned on and off like a light bulb. We understand that to have and embrace opportunities of today, we must be ready to participate in the industry of today and the opportunities available in 2017 and the future. We will bring the light that is illuminated by the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King—“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
In closing, here in Buffalo, New York, we will work to elevate our community in ways that are true and consistent with hope, peace, justice, and economic equality for all. We know the problems we face and the unequal distribution of resources and varied possibilities that are seen within our city and the area. We know that many people still are desperately climbing and attempting to cultivate a better life. In some ways, what Langston Hughes wrote in 1922 in his poem “Mother to Son” is the reality of some of our families:
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps.
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
So I say to my fellow Buffalonians, life has not been a crystal staircase for many members of our community. Some have felt hardships and doored slammed in their faces. Whether they have faced long-term suffering or the plight of a newcomer, many members of our community have not seen or certainly climbed a crystal staircase. I have heard Mayor Brown, other elected figures, and heads of social service agencies challenge us to not forget about the most disadvantaged among us during this period of growth and possibility in Buffalo. I echo this sentiment here. We must shine light into all the spaces around us and seek opportunities to support progressive chances for all members of our society. If he were here with us today, Dr. King may not feel that we are at our most shining moment nationally, but I believe he would say the hardships we see around us can be made better. I believe he would remind us that when we see unanticipated obstacles and sieges on justice, peace, and civility that this only means we have to work harder—harder to expose the solutions to true justice. We must work more collaboratively as we move forward. We must stay hopeful, so that we can do the work ahead. We must demand civility in our discussions and unity in our work.
As Anne Frank said, “Look at how a single candle can both defy and define darkness.” Here in Buffalo, New York, I ask you to join me in shining light into the spaces and the contradictions we see. I ask you to light the way for opportunity, justice, and equality for all. I ask you to stay on the path that Dr. Martin Luther King and many other known and unknown women and men have walked, so that we can move forward our dedication and commitment to a civil, just, peaceful, equal, and successful world. We start here in Buffalo and let our dedication and commitment to justice and opportunity be replicated throughout New York, our country, and the world.