In January of 2013, while still incarcerated at Oakdale, I gave a speech in a Toastmaster’s contest in the prison chapel to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (I got second place, by the way).
I am re-posting the speech, partly as a belated tribute to him, but also as a direct result of the debate swirling around about the Academy Awards. Now, to the best of my knowledge, MLK never directly addressed them directly. Indeed, he was too concerned with basic civil rights and freedoms.
But I do believe that had he lived, he certainly would have been disappointed in how what is meant to entertain, enlighten, and enrich us has also been used to divide us.
Perhaps you can imagine for yourself what he would have had to say about it all, were he with us today. The speech:
“WE ALL HAVE AN OPPORTUNITY TODAY” by Tony Casson
“With this faith we will be able to hew out of the Mountain of Despair a Stone of Hope”. Those words, spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963 became the theme for the four acre memorial honoring him in Washington, DC.
The figure of Dr. King is sculpted to appear as if he is stepping out of a 30 foot tall block of granite, which represents the Stone Of Hope. The expression carved into his face has been variously described as ‘determined’, ‘resolute’, ‘stern’, and by some, ‘angry’.
In preparing this speech, I looked to the words of Dr. King himself and I tried to imagine his voice as he spoke about his hopes and his dreams, not just for the black man, but for all of mankind; and not just for America, but for the world.
After carefully considering all that I had read, and after looking around at the condition of the world today, I came to the conclusion that the expression on the face of the man emerging from the Stone Of hope was one of disappointment.
Even though we are preparing to inaugurate an African-American as President of the United States for a second term, I believe Dr. King would be disappointed that it has taken so long, and that we still find it necessary, and appropriate, to refer to him as an AFRICAN- American, rather than simply as an American.
I believe that Dr. King would be disappointed that words he spoke during a lecture at the University of Oslo in 1964 are, sadly, just as true today as they were the day he spoke them. He said, “There is a sort of poverty of spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have grown materially, the poorer we have grown morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not yet learned the simple art of living together as brothers.”
While it is true that the law prevents us from posting signs over doorways, drinking fountains, and places of business that state ‘white only’ or ‘colored only’, INVISIBLE signs that separate people are still in existence today.
Within the confines of this institution, one doesn’t have to strain to hear reference to the ‘white side’ of the dining hall, or to the ‘black side’; to the ‘white entrance’ or to the black entrance’. And in the housing units themselves, official signs may contain words that are within the law and are politically correct, but it is the INVISIBLE signs that tell us we have ‘white TVs’ and ‘black TVs’.
In his Nobel Peace prize acceptance speech, Dr. King said, “I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies; education and culture for their minds; and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits”.
I believe Dr. King would be disappointed because poverty in the United States of America, and around the world, is at the same levels, or higher, than when he had the AUDACITY to believe that it could be otherwise.
Dr. King’s efforts opened up opportunities for education that previously had not existed for many people, but I believe Dr. King would be disappointed to know that cases of school segregation still languish in Federal courts in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama; cases that were begun BEFORE he was assassinated in 1968.
And he would be further disappointed that those opportunities are willingly rejected today by so many young people who choose, instead, faster, far more dangerous and deadly ways of traveling on the road to what they perceive is success. A road that leads many of them only to death, or to incarceration in institutions such as this one.
And on the issue of dignity for the human spirit, I believe Dr. King would be PROFOUNDLY disappointed that the most undignified, vilest, most derogatory term that a white man can use in reference to a black man is used with disturbing casualness and frequency BY black men in reference to other black men.
I believe Dr. King would be the FIRST to stand before us all and tell us that word has no business crossing the lips of ANY man, black or white, at any time, for any reason.
I believe that Dr. King would be disappointed that many of those he left behind have chosen to honor him with symbols, but have somehow forgotten his substance. I believe Dr. King would rather see safe, healthy, educated, and well-fed children playing on the streets of progress, rather than see his name on signs marking the streets of his forgotten hopes and dreams.
But we have an opportunity today, to resolve to pick up the hopes and dreams of Dr. King and carry them into the promised land that he glimpsed before he was murdered.
We have an opportunity today, to resolve to become a small part of the solution so we can never be accused of being a BIG part of the problem.
In 1963, in Detroit, Michigan, Dr. King challenged the world when he said, “If a man hasn’t discovered something he is willing to die for, he isn’t fit to live.”
We have an opportunity today to prove to the world that not only was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. VERY fit to live, but that what he died for was worth the price that he paid.
That what he DIED for was worth the price that his wife paid.
And that what he DIED for was worth the price that his 4 little children paid.
We have an opportunity TODAY to resolve to work to change the expression on the face of the man emerging from the Stone Of Hope from one of disappointment, to one of SATISFACTION for a job well done.
And I pray to God we do not fail to take advantage of it.
(Author’s Note 1/24/2016: Unfortunately, it seems we never really seem to.)