The Real Meaning Behind Martin Luther King Day

Today is Martin Luther King Day.  Since 1986 Congress has set aside the third Monday of January each year as a national holiday to celebrate the birth of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

Despite all the hoopla surrounding Martin Luther King Day, it seems every year King’s real message becomes more and more obscured. For most Americans he has been reduced to posters and postage stamps, an excuse for a long weekend. But in these days of heightened fear, acute injustice, and unjust wars around the planet, King’s example of nonviolent resistance becomes more relevant than ever before.  In fact, as unrealistic as it may sound, I believe King’s principle of overcoming enemies with love is the only solution to the problems facing us today, both at home and abroad.

And today, even though segregation may be outlawed in this country, racism and prejudice still exists.  We have come a long way since the 1960s – but we still have a ways to go.

Let me give you a few examples…..did you know…
African Americans make up just 13.2% of the American population – yet they make up 40% of those in prisons.  Our country has the highest incarceration rate of ANY country in the world.  We imprison 2.3 million Americans – if you include Hispanics with African Americans the incarceration rate is a stunning 60%. The number one cause of death for African American males is homicide.  Missouri leads the nation in Black homicide rate – higher than any other state. That means if you’re black and you live in Missouri, you’re seven times more likely to be murdered than non-blacks.  That is a stunning statistic.  I’ll never forget working with an inmate from the South side of Chicago who told me that every adult male in his neighborhood was either dead or in prison.  I find that a very sad state of affairs and it must change.

As most of your know the national unemployment rate has steadily been going down these past few years and is currently at 5.6% but for our African American brothers & sisters the rate is nearly double at 11%.  Of all black fourth-graders, 59% are functionally illiterate.  In many cities the dropout rate for African American males is as high as 80%.

And I believe if Dr. King were alive today he would be advocating for the elimination of prejudice not only against people of color, but the elimination of prejudice against any group of people who are different, whether the group is different racially, ethnically, religiously or even sexually.

Today, there is the ugliness of prejudice against our brothers and sisters who are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgendered – referred to as LGBT.  It is estimated there are 36,000 LGBT youth in K.C. and they are especially at risk.  83% of students who are, or perceived to be, LGBT report being verbally harassed.  64% report being sexually harassed.  21% report being physically assaulted.  And sadly, LGBT youth are estimated to comprise over 30% of all completed suicides.

After 9/11 in 2001 we saw the ugliness of prejudice against our Muslim brothers and sisters.  And it continues even today.

However, I sit before you today and tell you I am not prejudice-free.  And anyone who tells you they are, isn’t telling the truth.  Each of us is a work in progress and we need to admit to our prejudices and work on them.

Prejudice and discrimination are manifestations of negative emotions.  Instead of bringing or holding people together, prejudice and discrimination push them apart.

As you know the Buddhist concept of “bodhichitta” is the desire to alleviate the suffering of ALL beings without distinction.  We exclude no one.  In other words we accept all beings without judgment or prejudice.  This idea of not judging our brothers and sisters goes back 2,500 years to the time of the Buddha.

The first step in developing this kind of open heartedness is in admitting you are not prejudice-free.  It is through the meditation practice that we can work to transform our negative emotions and to work to develop bodhichitta in our hearts and minds.

In 1964, upon accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace, Dr. King said, “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”

Every year on Dr. King’s birthday I read his famous letter written from the Birmingham jail.  I have never been able to finish that letter without crying.  This letter he wrote in response to the local clergy of Birmingham who were criticizing Dr. King for his bus boycott, saying it he was trying to affect change too soon and he should wait.

I’d like to read to you one of my favorite paragraphs from this letter that I feel is especially poignant…

“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you know forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

Dr. King has always been one of my heroes.  More than 30 years ago I was in Atlanta over a weekend on business and decided I wanted to visit and experience the church where King gave his sermons – the Ebenezer Baptist church.  I got up early and when arrived most of the pews were empty.  I sat about two-thirds of the way from the front – not wanting to be too conspicuous.  However, I was the only white face in the congregation that day and will never forget that experience.  Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, came in, sat in the pew directly in front of me.  The service was wonderful with beautiful music from the choir.  The minister introduced a member who had immigrated from South Africa.  At that time apartheid was being practiced.  As a result his wife was not able to leave and join him.  This church had worked for over a year to allow her to leave South Africa to join him in Atlanta.  Finally, they were successful and this was her first visit to the church that morning..  The minister asked her to join her husband at the front of the church.  As she arrived at pulpit the congregation started spontaneously singing “We Shall Overcome.”  I remember joining in the singing with tears streaming down my cheeks.

This song was the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.  Some believe this song was born in slavery.  It began as a field song, a work refrain that helped men and women in bondage endure from sunup to sundown. They would sing: “I’ll be all right. I’ll be all right.”

Like many songs that began in slavery, it had no one author and no standard version. It spread and changed with the seasons and generations and as slaves were sold from one to another.

Then one night in the winter of 1957, officers of the law burst into an all black school – not policemen really, just angry white men who’d been deputized by the local sheriff and given license to put a scare into the students of social change. They cut the power and forced the students to lie in the dark as they smashed furniture and ransacked the place in search of “Communist literature.”

And there on the floor, the trembling students began to sing the song.  Softy at first. Then louder.  One of the students was a 13-year-old girl named was Jamalia Jones.  She knew only one way to control her fear. In the darkness, she made up a new verse and she began to sing, “We are not afraid, we are not afraid….”

I would like to close with one of my favorite quotes from Dr. King:

“We cannot truly be free until all human beings are free.  “As long as there is poverty in the world, I can never be totally rich……As long as people are afflicted with debilitating diseases, I can never be totally healthy…..I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”