I was pleased to visit the Greater Lansing Area Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr Holiday Commission’s celebration of the life of Dr. King.
Below are excerpts from my remarks as well as links to news coverage of the event:
Thank you to the Greater Lansing Area Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission and specifically to Dr. June and Ms. Hardy who coordinated with my office. I’m pleased to be here with you as we celebrate the birthday of a great American. When we consider the short time Dr. Martin Luther King was with us, his contributions loom larger every day. I’m honored to join with you in celebrating his legacy.
This year, we are in observance of the 400th year of Africans being brought to these shores. Four hundred years ago in Jamestown, a Dutch frigate brought some 20 Africans to a place in the New World. A place, I might add, that’s not far from Richmond, where I have spent most of my life, in my home state of Virginia. Women were also first brought here on this same ship and tobacco was brought for the first time to grow and BE used for trade and commerce. Thus, 1619 was known as “red letter year.” Of those 20 Africans some were brought as indentured servants, as slavery was not declared legal until sometime later in Virginia. Scholars still seek answers as to who were these people? From whence did they come, and what happened to them from that point on?
These are fair questions, though they only begin to unravel a tiny inkling of the history of our culture in this country and, I have always maintained, that the knowledge and understanding of such is vitally important. Therefore, I want today to talk about a bit of my own history and where we are today, how we got here, and perhaps more importantly where we are going.
I remember my good friend, Oliver W. Hill, a civil rights icon, now deceased, and others who were interested in commemorating the same event in 1969, observing that the numbers of African Americans in America had gone from 20 to 20 million at that time. This was at the same time that I was elected to the Virginia State Senate (in 1969) ten years after admission to the Virginia State Bar and I was not in the least bit interested in celebrating anything of the sort. I remember asking, “What are we celebrating?” I was criticized by members on all sides. I remember that being my first public “spanking,” but I obviously became used to that. If you succumb to flattery, then criticism can crush you. This year there will be celebrations aplenty celebrating that “red letter year.” But it is more accurately an observation, not a celebration as the fullest enjoyment of the rights of citizenship are not enjoyed by all of America’s citizens. That can and will come with redacted efforts to the fullest recognition that much work has yet to be done.
And so, I am also reminded of another commemoration… last year we celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report of 1968. We are made more keenly aware on occasions such as this honoring of Dr. King, on the lack of follow-through of implementing those changes. The report pointed out the National Commitment to bring about change. In fact, the report of the Commission in its introduction clearly stated, “only a commitment to national action on an unprecedented scale can shape a future compatible with historic ideals of American society.”
But it did not put the burden only on the National government. The report recommended, among other things, “enlargement of opportunities” for parent and community participation in the public schools and called for the revision of state aid formulas to assure having a high proportion of disadvantaged school-age children.
The commission recommended joint efforts with cities and states to create new jobs in the public and private sectors, job training, and other efforts to consolidate manpower programs.
I think that any observation of the sort here discussed is the acknowledgment that much good has come as a direct result of the report and tangentially as well.
What is lost by some observers of the clarion call for sustained national urgency is the need to adhere to and perpetuate the call.
We are made even more keenly aware of this need on an occasion such as this, celebrating the life and contributions of Martin Luther King, Jr. King was a visionary, but he was also a scholar, he often pointed out that increased numbers in and of themselves will not resolve the issues, as numbers in a column ultimately lead to zero.
Liberty and freedom are not the sole province of any people, anywhere. The fact that three of our first four Presidents were slaveholders would indicate that our nation was built on slaves. This history is rarely acknowledged but it is no less potent or influential for having been discarded.
As a boy, I lived eight blocks from the church where Patrick Henry made his most famous speech, that speech included the historic line, “give me Liberty or give me death”. Patrick Henry is noted as a patriot, but as a child in school, I came away from the church puzzled and confused at how he could speak of freedom when all people were not free. As a child, I remember asking my father whose mother and father were slaves, about Henry’s famed quote, “give me Liberty or give me death”. Henry’s plea further illustrates this glaring incongruity in our nation’s founding and allows us to confront the reality of what has been wrong and to make it right. But it also instilled in me a sense of knowing that I was an American too, as Jefferson had proclaimed, entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” though he also was a slave owner.
I remember how I felt when standing to recite the pledge of allegiance, “with Liberty and justice for all.” Despite many things, I am grateful for my childhood. We were taught in our communities, schools, churches, barber shops, even pool halls, that we could achieve the American dream. unlike today where so much emphasis is on self-interest, violence, and mediocrity.
I say to our young people when they speak of barriers; be not dissuaded. But there will never be a shortage of people telling our young people that they have no chance. They will say that it is a white world of the rich. But the freedoms we have achieved must be protected and advanced until they are firmly etched in the American fabric embracing all Americans.
Now, more than ever, I am grateful for my childhood. Looking back, I did not experience the ravages of racism and poverty, but the influence of a dedicated community of family, friends, teachers, pastors, neighbors, and heroes we looked to such as Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Carter G. Woodson, Marian Anderson, Sojourner Truth, and others joined in the chorus by achieving great success despite overwhelming odds. You did not have to have your radio on when Joe Louis fought; it was as if a loudspeaker was in the streets.
I knew that if these people could rise up, so could I. And as King so eloquently stated, “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” I don’t think I need to say to anyone here today that those times King described are here with us. I choose not to be cynical but instead remember that challenges are not insurmountable, and that controversy often leads to dialogue and ultimately, resolution.
It is most important, and in fact imperative, that we instill in our young people the need to become aware of the issues in our community, and not be satisfied with news snippets.
It is fitting and appropriate that we remember Dr. King, and what he tried to do. It is also important that we remember Dr. King as being of the people, and that he spoke for the people.
After having served in the Virginia State Senate as the only person of color for several years, I was pleased when my friend Bobby Scott came to join me. I am so pleased to know that he will now chair the Education and Labor committee, and happy in the knowledge that education is key and always will be.
But I remember when I ran for lieutenant governor and Scott asked the question of hesitant fellow senators, “If Wilder is not qualified, then who is more qualified?’ And I was not unaware that Virginia had one of the smallest African-American voting populations of any southern state, though it was only about 14% then. But I was not running to represent African Americans but all Virginians. So, I knew what I had to do, I took off around the state for 60 days straight visiting every city, town, and county. I did not stay in hotels but in the homes of people I met or may have known through legislative contacts. I was warned by “friends” not to do this as, “they may not see me again”. I carried Southwest Virginia.
I was so pleased when some 17 years later, Deval Patrick became Governor of Massachusetts and similarly thrilled when Barack Obama became President. But all three of us are gone. So where do we go from here?
Where is the sustaining of that national call? Where is the call being made, by whom, to whom? Much progress has been made in our nation. Many have tried to improve upon that progress and some still do.
We must be instruments for change in our country. We cannot wait for government to act; government must be prodded to act. We must make known to those entrusted to us for education and training the necessity to continue the thrust to demand what is right and criticize what is wrong.
I remember reading something a long while ago that has always stayed with me, “I will persist until I succeed, because I was not delivered into this world in defeat. Nor does defeatism run through my blood or the blood of my ancestors. I’m not some sheep waiting to be prodded by the shepherd, I am a lion. I don’t want to associate with the sheep, or sleep with the sheep, because the slaughterhouse of failure is not my destiny and I will persist until I succeed.”
“He never gave up” – The Lansing City Pulse
“First Elected Black Governor in U.S. to Speak in Lansing” – WKAR Radio