The Fierce Urgency of Now: The Struggle for Racial Justice Forty Years After King

(Keynote speech delivered at Lehigh University, January 23, 2008)

On April 4, 1967 The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave what was his most controversial speech, “A Time to Break Silence,” his denouncement of the US war against Vietnam. Exactly one year later he would be assassinated.

In that speech King spoke about three forces of oppression he identified as the “giant triplets of racism, militarism and materialism.” As we gather together to honor the man and the movement he gave his life for, let us not only reflect on the eloquence of his words, but let us reflect on the relevance of his words for our time and be moved to action. For today we can still see the giant triplets of racism, militarism and materialism. These three forces work together like some monstrous hydra wreaking havoc on the poor of this nation who are disproportionately people of color, particularly African American as well as people of color around the world.

Now there may be some who would rise up and resist such an assessment stating that racism is no longer an issue. These folk would point us to the progress that has been made in this country as it relates to the treatment of African Americans in our society. Most recently many have wondered aloud if racism is history given the willingness of many white people to consider voting for a Black man for president. A white person’s willingness to vote for a Black person may point to a stage in their own personal progress on racism, but racism is greater than an individual or a group of people’s beliefs about one Black person. To think that racism can be voted away belittles the role that racism plays in American life and also belittles those oppressed by it.

The fact is that despite all apparent progress, we are witnessing the erosion of civil rights for Black and Brown people in this nation. Everyone would readily acknowledge that education is the foundation for any people’s successful progress and development. Yet in this nation, the promise of education has been kept at arm’s length for many African American and Latino American children in this country, especially those living in the urban and rural regions of this country.

The discussion of public education is riddled through with rhetoric, much of it worth no more than the hot air its words ride on. The Supreme Court decision of 1954, that ruled that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, failed to give adequate timelines on remedying the problem. They stated, “with all deliberate speed,” and some 54 years later, we continue to wait for the promise of integration to be realized.

America remains a nation divided. And the fault line remains the color line.

Our children are failing in public schools that look eerily similar to the segregated schools that were the subjects of the 1954 Supreme Court case. Dilapidated buildings, out-dated text-books, and we wonder why the drop-out rate is so high. Why, I am amazed that they come to school at all!

Our children fail to achieve not because of lack of parental involvement, but lack of books, computers and other adequate resources. It’s not because of disinterested or lazy students who fail to pass culturally biased exams, but disinterested and lazy legislators who fail to pass laws that would redistribute public school dollars; not because of poor teachers, but a poorly funded system in need of the money that is due us. We don’t need more finger-pointing. What we need is equal funding!

This refusal to ensure that poor African American children receive the same quality education that their predominantly white suburban peers receive speaks to the larger issue at hand. The specter of racism not only remains real, it is experiencing a resurgence. Just this past summer the Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional the practice of bussing students of color to predominantly white schools for the purpose of insuring an integrated school system. This ruling is a reflection of the nation’s willingness to turn its back on the promise of integration that was mandated in 1954.

With this ruling, America is stating that it is more expedient to keep alive the vestiges of segregation than get to the business of doing the hard work of eradicating institutional racism. Everybody knows that public schools in predominantly white neighborhoods are better staffed, better funded and better resourced. Yet this country remains unwilling to either integrate the schools or provide equal funding for the schools. This unwillingness has set the course for another generation of African American and Latino youth stuck in the vice grip of history. The result is a nation as divided as ever. The haves and the have-nots, where the majority of the wealthy in this nation remain white and the majority of the poor remain disproportionately not white.

Again, rather than address the racism that is inherent in such a reality, the power-brokers have decided to blame those that have been victimized by their policies or lack thereof. Tell me, how is a child supposed to compete when they sit in a classroom where they are lucky if they have an up to date textbook against a child with a laptop computer that is able to get access to the latest information at the touch of a button? It is the stone-age against the information age. There is no way they can win, let alone compete.

It is this collective American unwillingness that is withering away all hope within the hearts of the children that roam the concrete streets of the inner-cities to the backwoods of America’s country-sides. Dr. King had this in mind when he wrote in 1968 that, “Justice for black people will not flow into society merely from court decisions nor from fountains of political oratory. Nor will a few token changes quell all the tempestuous yearnings of millions of disadvantaged black people. White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, the entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change in the status quo.”

This is the lesson that America still must learn. The power of that lesson is no greater seen than in the human tragedy turned political travesty that is Katrina. Even today, a full 2 years and 5 months since Hurricane Katrina ravished the Gulf Coast and left thousands of Americans dead and still tens of thousands more homeless and helpless.

The social chaos left in the wake of Katrina is the haunting omen of King’s Poor People’s Campaign. If only this nation would have considered King’s movement rather than have him removed, we would not have thousands upon thousands of poor displaced Americans roaming this country locked in multi-generational misery. King himself declared, “We must develop a program that will drive the nation to a guaranteed annual income. … We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands, it does not eliminate all poverty.”

King understood that this economic system is not set up to eliminate poverty. In fact, it functions to produce poverty. The waste produced by the gross pursuit for profit is the ever-perpetuating problem of poverty. And rather than eliminate or reduce that waste, America has decided to simply throw it away.

America is choosing to throw away the poor. We see it in New Orleans where Katrina survivors petitioned and then protested the city government for their right to return and were turned away, beaten and arrested. Just like their Civil Rights predecessors that were beaten at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in 1965. America’s response to those of us who are Black, Brown and poor has not fundamentally changed.

More and more this nation’s final solution for the poor is the prisons. Rather than guarantee them access to a quality education commensurate with that which their white suburban peers receive, rather than guarantee them the right to work for a liveable wage, the only guarantee this nation seems willing to give the poor is the guarantee of a life of misery, victimization and the promise of imprisonment or premature death.

Today there are upwards of three million people locked down in America’s prisons. They are, in effect, fodder for a new economy that is eerily reminiscent of an older economy. The legislative loophole left by the 13th Amendment enables the prison to serve as the new plantation wherein the prisoner like the slave has no rights that the system is bound to respect. Many of these prisons are private corporations that reap tremendous profits from the exploited labor of the poor who are paid wages less than the minimum allowed by law, i.e. “slave wages.”

This reality is the logical consequence of a society with an abhorrent history as this nation’s as it relates to the question of Black America and the exploitation of labor. We must have a new understanding of poverty, its origins, the reasons for its existence and preponderance within our society. We must move from the space of surface analysis to a deep-rooted resistance to the exploitation of the poor. This was the message of King’s final mission: The Poor People’s Campaign.

King stated, “A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”

King’s analysis did not stop there. He continued to extend his analysis to the relationship between racism and imperialism. He exposed and soundly criticized the hypocrisy of a nation that preaches peace and sells war, that counsels other nations on human rights even as it dismisses the rights of thousands and imprisons them at Guantanamo Bay, that proclaims democracy even as it denies rights to its own citizens, that calls itself a safe-haven for “the poor, huddled masses of the world, yearning to be free,” even as it criminalizes immigrants of color and sets up barriers of hostility to keep them out.

King responded to this hypocrisy by reminding us that, “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism … A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to [humanity] as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.”

This is the vision we all must embrace. Do we have the courage to view our world through the lens King provides? This is the challenge of our time. This is the choice we all must make. Social change does not require a particular gender identification, racial classification or sexual orientation. What it does require is an undying commitment to embody the revolutionary idea of justice for all. The Civil Rights Movement is the perfect example of this. We celebrate King, as we should. But King did not do it alone. He was a significant part of a significant whole. And if we fail to acknowledge these other activists, we run the risk of sending the wrong message as to who can best bring about the change we need in this world.

The fact is that the very man responsible for the movement’s embrace of non-violent direct action was not King, but a Black gay man by the name of Bayard Rustin, who at the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 had already given 15 years of service to the cause of Black freedom struggle.

A native of Pennsylvania, Rustin was principally responsible for the creation of SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Council that King would represent. He was also the architect and organizer of the March on Washington in August 1963. Were it not for him, America would have never been challenged by King’s brave, brilliant speech on that historic day.

Yet even Rustin was not alone in the creation and organization of the movement. He had a capable partner in the likes of Ella Baker. Baker too was a long-time activist in the field of Black freedom struggle. Not only did she aid in the establishment of SCLC, she would be the organization’s first director. A Black woman holding court in an organization composed of Black male clergy. This was unprecedented. This accomplishment alone would be enough to praise her. But it was only the beginning. She would go on to create the organization known as SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee that would be the bridge between the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements in the late Sixties. It was her strategic genius that would insure that the struggle would go on. James Forman, the executive secretary of SNCC, once observed that, “there were many people who knew the light that was SNCC without ever knowing the spark that was Ella Baker.”

And so as we conclude, let us know and remember Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin, and not just them but all of the activists who lived their lives in pursuit of a greater truth. A pursuit that has been bequeathed to us.

These persons’ lives and others like them best illustrate the fact that each of us has within us the spark of revolutionary change. That leadership is not the purview of any particular group, but each of us has the potential, no – the responsibility to act in the best interests of humanity and the world in which we live in our quest to make of this world a more just and humane place for all life within it. This is our task. This is our challenge.

So let us take it up and not worry over what tomorrow will bring. For as King reminds us: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. … We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace … and justice throughout the … world. … Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter – but beautiful – struggle for a new world. … The choice is ours to make.”

We must push past the privilege of our own indecision to action. We must wake up from the slumber of our collective apathy and believe again that a new world is not only possible but a necessity, and if it is to come, it can only come through us.

And all the guidance we need has already been provided by a small group of Black folk huddled together in a small church basement united in their collective will to be free. They were sick and tired of being sick and tired and were ready to move. They braved the terrorism of burning crosses, nooses and four-legged dogs and two-legged rabid racists brandishing rifles. They feared no one save their God and with that conviction they marched out of that church and changed the course of history.

For more information on Osayande and his work, visit his website at Osayande.org and follow him on Facebook: Ewuare Xola Osayande.