Dr. LaBau's Martin Luther King, Jr. Assembly Talk
I will tell you from the beginning that this has been a difficult talk to write. More difficult than the talk about student activism, choir, or cat dissection. More difficult even than the talk on Integrity. It’s just not a box I can mime my way out of.
I don’t know how to express to you all that this man means to me or what it means to celebrate a holiday in his honor.
May I begin by recounting my earliest memory of Martin Luther King Day?
In 1986, after the first federal MLK Day, the governor of Arizona declared a state holiday to match. Then the new governor, in 1987, as his first official act, rescinded that declaration. That act spurred boycotts that cost the state a great deal of money. It was also when my family moved to Arizona.
In 1990, the state was set to vote on whether to adopt an MLK holiday. There was a lot of pressure to do so, including from the NFL. Though they had awarded an upcoming Super Bowl to the state, players pushed back and the league made their offer contingent on approval of the holiday. The backlash was sharp and voters rejected the holiday.
Only in 1992, after 6 years of fighting, did it pass. Arizona became the only state to approve the holiday by popular vote, but also the only state where such a step was necessary.
Did you catch the wrinkle in that story, the slight of hand that assigned blame?
“The backlash was sharp,” I said, “and voters rejected the holiday.” While I can’t account for every voter, that’s how I experienced the event and how it is usually reported. But that’s just the kind of thinking that Martin Luther King had to fight against.
Voters who voted against the holiday were voting against the holiday. They could blame the NFL or others all they wanted. But ultimately they were deciding not to honor King and the broader Civil Rights Movement he represented. Those in favor did not cause them to vote against - that was a decision they made themselves.
As I’ve grown older, Martin Luther King Day means more to me than that political fight in Arizona. As I have learned more about our history, that day stands out to me as a rare holiday not set aside to honor soldiers, war, or presidents. Instead, it honors a man who fought for freedoms long denied by our government, a man who fought to make America a more perfect union from within.
I developed a tradition of celebrating this day by re-reading King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. In it, King responded to the kind of thinking that blamed supporters for the rejection of the Arizona holiday. In Birmingham, Alabama, a group of white ministers had criticized King, suggesting that if only he would wait, if only he would be patient, white citizens would come around to giving black citizens equal rights. He rejected this logic, which blamed the oppressed for the resistance of the oppressors.
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation,” he wrote.
To those who blamed King for the violence that unfolded, he had this to say:
“Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.”
Such tensions exist in America today. I’m not here to tell you which side of them you should be on or which will be vindicated in the process of history. But I will share with you this further note of perspective:
We remember King today for his glorious dream:
“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 today…” he said.
“This will be the 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 mountainside, let freedom ring!” he declared.
But in between those words he said this:
“I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification”, one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.”
When King was assassinated, he was hated. The man who killed him didn’t do so because King was popular but because he was unpopular. Those “vicious racists” he spoke of hated him for his dream of racial equality. Others hated him for criticizing the Vietnam War and for fighting poverty. He was attacked as a Communist at a time when the Vietnam War was raging and the Cold War was in full swing. And so they killed him.
But in less than 20 years he had a federal holiday because the truth of his principles were recognized even by former opponents. And so we celebrate him today.
When you look around for a side to take in our current battles, use that as your measuring stick. “Will the principles I am aligning with stand the test of time?” If so, fight with your all, as King did. Thank you.