Monday, January 16, 2006

President's Address to the Kent County Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast

Chestertown, MD, January 16, 2006

Baird Tipson's Speech at the Rock Hall Fire House

[I recognize that the Chester Valley Ministerial Association was moving a little outside-the-box when it asked me to be this morning's speaker. When I told several of my friends that I had been asked to speak, they all said, "oh," and that "oh" meant, "what gives you the credentials to speak about Martin Luther King, Jr.?" So I want to begin by saying how grateful I am to be offered this chance to give the address this morning. I am honored that you have given me your ears, honored to have been asked by the Chester Valley Ministerial Association, and above all honored to have a chance to speak about one of the great Americans of my lifetime, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.]

As we Americans have come together to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, too often we succumb to the temptation to simplify. We think of Dr. King's remarkable "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington, and we imagine that in that speech were contained the hopes and fears of all Americans. We imagine that America recognized in Dr. King someone who could put into words a basic American value: that people should be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. We imagine that citizens and their leaders came to see the light, and that racial discrimination would shortly disappear.

But anyone who looks carefully at the events of those years comes to a different conclusion. Far from being universally admired, Dr. King was under constant attack throughout his lifetime, attack so unremitting that it required his utmost resolve just to continue his work. Yes, the goals he worked for were high goals, but the forces that opposed him were powerful. As we attempt to follow his example, we have to recognize that the struggle continues to be hard and the goals elusive. Like Dr. King, we cannot afford to lose heart.

Let me take us back forty-one years to December, 1964, about a year after the March on Washington [August 28, 1963]. Dr. King has just arrived in Oslo, Norway, to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. It had to be one of the crowning events of his career. Dr. King was not just thefirst African-American to be awarded this honor, he was also the youngest person ever to be receive it. A preacher from the segregated south was speaking to a distinguished audience that included the King and Crown Prince of Norway. But Dr. King did not bask in the glory of the moment. "Why [is] this prize awarded to a movement which is beleaguered and committed to unrelenting struggle," he asked, "a movement which has not won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize?"

"Only yesterday," he pleaded, "in Birmingham, Alabama, our children, crying out for brotherhood, were answered with fire hoses, snarling dogs and even death... only yesterday in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeking the right to vote were brutalized and murdered." The following day, he concluded his formal Nobel lecture at Oslo University by proclaiming that "mankind's survival is dependent upon man's ability to solve the problems of racial injustice, poverty, and war." These were not the words of a satisfied man. These were not the words of a man who believed that the fight was won, that it would be all downhill from there, that he could now turn his attention to other things. Dr. King understood that there would be no cheap victories, that nothing less than "unrelenting struggle" would be required, and that final success lay many years in the future.

And so it proved. A few weeks before he and his party left for Norway, FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover called Dr. King "the most notorious liar in the country." We know now that Hoover and the FBI conducted persistent behind-the-scenes efforts to discredit Dr. King. Whenever he saw the opportunity, Hoover would send secret reports to politicians, branding Dr. King a communist agitator and dangerous radical. Hoover also deliberately kept the FBI from preventing much of the violence visited upon the civil rights demonstrators by the Ku Klux Klan and its sympathizers. [I personally believe that the abuse of power by the leaders of the FBI during the King era must rank as one of the most disgraceful incidents in American history.]

But King also faced criticism from within the civil rights movement. The student leadership of SNCC and CORE called him too middle-class, too committed to an outmoded strategy of non-violence, too willing to trust white politicians. Those of you who have heard Malcolm X's famous "Speech to the Grassroots" know that Malcolm called Dr. King a dupe of the Kennedys and denounced non-violence as unmanly. [It was on November 24 of that same year that Malcolm X returned from Africa, already denounced as a traitor by Louis Farrakhan and marked for assassination by the Nation of Islam. The assassination came just a few months later.]

For many other African-Americans, on the other hand, including the NAACP, Dr. King was far too radical. Although he was proposed for an honorary degree at Morehouse College, for example, the College declined, because Dr. King had been in jail too often, and giving him a degree might hurt the College's fund-raising.

What about our political leaders? Even after Brown vs. Board of Education, the Eisenhower administration tried to keep aloof from the struggle to achieve equal rights for all Americans. And even though African-American voters were widely credited as having made the difference when they swung to John Kennedy in the 1960 election, Kennedy, too, was careful not to be seen as getting involved. Why? Because both parties were more concerned not to lose the votes of white segregationists in the South than they were to enforce the law. And their concern was not misplaced. It was Democratic support for civil rights, under the leadership of President Lyndon Johnson, that began the process of alienating conservative white southerners and led to the Republican control of the South that we have today. So despite some visible exceptions, Dr. King's urgent requests for protection for civil rights workers usually went unanswered.

Why am I taking us back to 1964? Because I want us to remember that the Dr. King we often like to remember, presiding over a unified civil rights movement and uniting most Americans behind the vision of non-violence and loving those who persecute you, never existed. Dr. King's life was a constant struggle, full of ups and downs, and for every peak—such as the March on Washington or winning the Nobel Peace Prize—there were valleys, when his segregationist opponents or his civil rights critics seemed to get the better of him.

How were things in Kent County? Let me start right at home. For the first one hundred and seventy five years of its history, Washington College was a segregated institution. Shortly after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, in 1954, The New York Times asked college presidents across the country when they expected real desegregation to be effected in their region. President Daniel Gibson responded "in 100 years," or in any case "no sooner than 50 years." The first African-American student, Thomas Morris, was not admitted until 1958, after faculty members put pressure on a reluctant Board, and the number of African-American graduates by 1967 can be counted on the fingers of one hand (One of these graduates, Dale Adams, '65, is now on our Board of Visitors and Governors, as is Norris Commodore, '73, who grew up right here in Kent County).

On the other hand, when the "Freedom Riders" come to Chestertown in the mid-sixties (especially from Quaker schools like Swarthmore and Haverford), they were welcomed by some students and members of the faculty. The community reaction was more mixed; Pat Vickers Smith remembers that her sheriff father advised people to avoid getting involved with "outsiders"; and although resistance never reached the level it did further south, some local citizens did react violently by assaulting those who were marching to protest segregation in public accommodations, leading to at least two criminal trials. The movie theatre was still segregated late into the 1960s, and the Kent County schools were among the last in the country to integrate. Segregation died hard in Kent County.

This slow pace should not surprise us. Citizens of the Eastern Shore have always been especially cautious to accept ideas from "outsiders." When the Governor of Maryland, J. Millard Tawes, called a special session of the Maryland legislature to consider a bill that would outlaw racial discrimination in inns, hotels, and restaurants, the entire Eastern Shore delegation lined up in opposition.

So I give you a picture of a Dr. King who was constantly being attacked, openly and secretly, by white segregationalists, by less moderate African-Americans, by more moderate African-Americans and whites, and by the federal government. How did he persevere?

Let's ask first what Dr. King wanted. What was the goal of the "Civil Rights Movement," as Dr. King understood it? Some of you might answer, "integration," but that's not quite true. Dr. King himself was more likely to speak of equal justice for all Americans, the dignity of every person, and self-respect.

When asked in what areas of life unequal treatment persisted, he was most likely to answer, in jobs, housing, schools, voting, and access to public accommodations (hotels, restaurants). Remember his Nobel Prize speech. Dr. King did not confine his remarks to "racial injustice," he was just as concerned with poverty and war. Dr. King did not come late to side with the poor, nor was his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War inconsistent with his larger message. He always saw the connection between poverty and lack of opportunity. So Dr. King never dreamed that a single event—passing a civil rights bill, electing a certain person, something like winning the Super Bowl—would mean victory. He imagined a protracted struggle, and he believed he would be killed long before the end.

If we want to imagine Dr. King's dream for Kent County, I think it would look something like this. I believe Dr. King would certainly want all of us to respect each other, to be kind to one another, and in a Christian way, to love each other.

[I have to admit to you that it has been very difficult for me to prepare for this talk. Not because of the time to do the research; I enjoy history, and I was pleased to have a reason to go back and learn even more about Dr. King and the civil rights movement. No, it's been emotionally difficult. I think I've been depressed for the past several weeks, and I'm sure my family and my co-workers have been wondering why I seem so low in my mind. It's because I'm ashamed, ashamed that so many of my fellow Americans during the King years could have been so cruel, so just plain mean, mean to people who were acting with Christian non-violence simply to gain justice and respect, and ashamed that the rest of us didn't do more to help. I wonder, as Dr. King must have done, whether his faith in white Christians was misplaced, whether all their belief was ultimately hollow.]

But I know it wouldn't have been enough for him to know that we were all just friends. He'd ask about our schools: do all students, children of recent immigrants as well as long-timers, black as well as white, succeed at the same rate? He'd be pleased that anyone can stay in any hotel or eat in any restaurant, but can everyone afford those hotels and those restaurants? He'd want to know whether good jobs are available to everyone, whether anyone can succeed with enough hard work. He'd want to know whether everyone had access to good, affordable health care. I can't believe that Dr. King would be pleased that the gentrification of Chestertown has forced many low- and moderate-income people, black and white, to live elsewhere because they can't find affordable housing.

So I can't imagine that Dr. King would say that the Civil Rights Movement was over in Kent County, and I hope we wouldn't, either. But would he have let his disappointment overcome him? Would he have thrown in the towel? No one who has studied Dr. King's life can say that he would. Because Dr. King's personal struggle was fueled by convictions that lay deep in his soul. These convictions often found expression in words drawn from his seminary and graduate study, but they were rooted in his experience in the African-American church. In other words, Dr. King's struggle was a deeply Christian struggle. I want to conclude by holding up three Christian principles that governed his struggle.

First, and most famous, was his commitment to non-violence. Yes, this was a tactic, learned from Mohandas Ghandi, a Hindu, a strategy to force oppressors to confront their own behavior and to expose it to the world. But Dr. King made it thoroughly Christian. It was Jesus who said, "turn the other cheek" and "love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you [Matt. 5:43]."

Second, even more deeply Christian, was his belief in redemptive sacrifice. Those struggling for the good would be called to suffer, should expect to suffer, but through that suffering would come healing. Dr. King endured hardship, jail, and arrest because he believed that through these experiences he and those around him would further God's purpose to heal the nation.

Third, Dr. King believed in God's providence, that God had a purpose not only for his own life but for all of history, and that God's purposes could only be good. On those occasions, and there were many, when Dr. King was tempted to lose hope, he would fall back on his belief that in some way known only to God, things were working together for good.

Dr. King was no fundamentalist; he would be much too liberal for today's "Christian right," and one does not have to be Christian to share these convictions. But he did believe that all Christians, white and black, would come to see that his struggle was at its heart deeply Christian, that they would come to identify with it, and together all people of faith—Christian and non-Christian—would continue the struggle. Thank you.

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