Prayer was offered by:
Guest Chaplain Senator Roderick Wright
Members and guests, today we celebrate the life of civil and human rights leader, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the often overlooked aspects of Dr. King’s life is how much he accomplished in such a short time. Dr. King was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis Tennessee at the age of 39. Sadly, Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated just two months after Dr. King on June 5, during his victory celebration after winning the California Democratic Presidential Primary election at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. 1968 was also the year of the Olympics in Mexico City where my friends Tommie Smith and John Carlos held their black fisted glove protest on the victory stand.
Last year on October 16, 2011 President Obama dedicated a monument to Dr. King on the tidal basin of the National Mall in Washington, DC. This is the only monument on the National Mall honoring someone other than a president or a war memorial. The dedication had to be rescheduled because of two rare events in Washington: a hurricane and an earthquake! President Obama said, “An earthquake and hurricane may have delayed this day, but it was a day not to be denied.” The symbolism of Dr. King’s memorial being on the National Mall is that it represents a triumphant return to the site of one of his more famous demonstrations, the August 28, 1963, March on Washington, where he delivered the legendary “I have a dream” message. Incidentally, the actual monument is the work of a Chinese artist, Lei Yixin.
Another of the often overlooked aspects to Dr. King’s life was the fact that he was not only a gifted orator but also a skilled organizer and visionary leader. I mentioned that Dr. King was a young man at the time of his death; however, he recognized that he was not a one man band and frequently relied on others who are commonly unsung. Today I want to lift the names of some of those unsung heroes, without whom the movement may have taken a different course.
The March on Washington for example was organized by Bayard Rustin, a labor leader and close associate of the founder of the union representing Pullman Car Porters, A. Phillip Randolph. It was Rustin who conceived the idea of the march and then recruited Dr. King to speak. The FBI considered Rustin a subversive because he was black, gay and a communist. He was also brilliant. When President Kennedy and the FBI prevailed on Dr. King to cancel the march and renounce Rustin, Dr. King said, “absolutely not!” And the rest is history. By the way, it was Rustin who directed Dr. King to the teachings of Gandhi which would become the foundation of the movement.
While we often hear about the work of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) we seldom hear of the name of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth who was one of its founders and on the front lines in Birmingham, Alabama having to confront the infamous Eugene “Bull” Conner, the racist Director of Public Safety in Birmingham. Unlike Dr. King, Shuttlesworth was not a believer in non-violence. However, he and Dr. King made a great team, like a good guy/bad guy duo. Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth died in October, 2011, at 89 years of age. Congressman John Lewis said of him, “When others did not have the courage to stand up and speak out, Fred Shuttlesworth put all he had on the line to end segregation in Birmingham and Alabama.” At the introduction of what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Kennedy said “But for Birmingham, we would not be here today.”
Another major event in the movement was the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955. The boycott was launched when Ms. Rosa Parks refused to give her seat on a public bus to a white passenger. She was arrested and charged with a crime. Dr. King used this incident to organize a boycott of the bus system in Montgomery which lasted 385 days. To sustain the boycott, the churches in the City of Montgomery organized transportation routes and car pools which financially crippled the bus system. The mayor of Montgomery actually ordered that tickets be given to car pools to try to break the boycott. The boycott ended with a Supreme Court ruling that ended segregation on public accommodations and reversed the charges against Ms. Parks. Today we refer to Ms. Parks as “the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Just this past November, in San Diego at the General Dynamics NASSCO Ship Building facility, the United States Navy launched the US Medgar Evers. His widow, Myrlie Evers christened the ship in the name of her husband with their children, grandchildren and thousands of witnesses looking on. Medgar Evers was assassinated on June 12, 1963, in the driveway of his home in Mississippi. Mr. Evers was the leader of the NAACP in Mississippi and was conducting voter registration drives in the state. A military veteran, Medgar Evers is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
From Ms. Viola Liuzzo, a white woman, the wife of a Teamster leader in Detroit who was murdered in Selma Alabama, March 25, 1965, to college students James Chaney, of Mississippi and Andrew Goodman, a Jewish kid from New York, and Michael Schwerner, also from New York, murdered together on June 21, 1964, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, to Rev. Ralph Abernathy to United Automobile Workers leader Walter Reuther, the civil rights movement was bigger than one man. It was bigger than one race or even one country. Lech Walesa in Poland and Nelson Mandela in South Africa credit Dr. King with the inspiration for some of their success. Members, today I just want to say that Dr. King was the leader of a movement that only grew more powerful with his assassination. That movement is why I am here now; and it’s why Barack Obama is President of the United States today.
Bullets can kill dreamers, but they don’t kill the dream.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.
May this be God’s will--AMEN