Celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
Bell asked listeners to ponder which direction we are running in today, “because 50 years after gaining access to the voting booth, the fires are still burning,” he said. “There is still injustice. There is mass incarceration. There is economic inequality. Some of our communities are caught in a stranglehold.”
Eliminating these inequities will require that we think differently, more expansively and more inclusively. Just as King elevated his thinking to a mountaintop level, Bell urged each of us to move to a mountaintop vision.
This was Tacoma’s 28th annual celebration of Dr. King’s birthday. The theme for the event, attended by nearly 2,000 people and largely led by youth, was “Ordinary Men, Extraordinary Change.”
Thank you, Victoria, and good afternoon, Tacoma.
You know, the South Sound Men’s Chorus must have been told earlier that they had a Baptist preacher that was going to follow them, because I sat there starting to feel the power.
I want to say thank you to Mayor Strickland and Councilwoman Woodards, first, for your many years of service to the citizens of Tacoma, and secondly, for inviting me to be part of such a great day; a great day in a nation, and a great day for the City of Destiny. A day that we’ve set aside to honor and celebrate a man whose very life represents extraordinary change.
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the presence and support of my amazing wife, Dorian Glasgow-Bell, and our two daughters, Morgan and Kaylia.
I want to also thank our friends, Bill and Anne Marie Carr, and their children, Marshall and Keely, for joining us.
You know, this theme of ordinary men and extraordinary change resonates with me, and it is fitting that we use this theme at this time in our nation — that we use this theme for the man that we celebrate today because, you see, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an ordinary man.
He was not deity, although we sometimes want to think that he was. He was not perfect, as so many people have tried to make sure that we understood he wasn’t. He was an ordinary man. And by saying that he was an ordinary man, I want to draw attention to the fact that Dr. King was a son.
I want to draw attention to the fact that Dr. King was a husband. He was a father, and he was a brother. He was a friend, and he was a preacher. And he was one of the fiercest advocates for social justice for all men, not just some men.
Dr. King had many roles of humanness just like all of us gathered here in this room today. For example, he loved to laugh. He loved to take his children to amusement parks. He loved music. He and I both had a mother whose name was Alberta Williams. And he and I both loved the songs, “Amazing Grace,” and, “If I Can Help Somebody,” neither of which I will venture to sing at this moment.
But Dr. King was an ordinary man. But what set Dr. King apart from other men of his time was this. When Dr. King realized that the human behavior being exhibited by those who were in power had caused a fire that threatened humanity, he decided that he must run toward the fire.
He could have thought about the ministry that he had just begun. He could have thought about the family he was ready to build. He could have thought about the wonderful woman that he was ready to settle down with as his wife. And he could have chosen to run the other way, but Dr. King was different than many of the men of his time. And dare I might say that he was different than many of the men of this time because he chose — he chose to be a first responder.
When Dr. King realized that the fire burning in America was a fire designed to burn up all possibility of African Americans becoming full citizens of America as the words of our Declaration of Independence suggested they were, he ran toward the fire.
Even when he realized that this fire did not start as a result of an accident, but in fact, this fire was intentionally set, he still ran toward the fire.
Even though Dr. King realized that this act of arson was being perpetuated, and the flames were being fueled from the highest levels of authority in our society, he still ran toward the fire.
And I want to pause here for a minute because I’d like to give each of you an opportunity to contemplate and consider a question. It’s a life-changing question. And the question is: In what direction are you running?
You see, the fire that Dr. King responded to is still burning in America today, almost 50 years after his assassination.
Dr. King ran toward the fire without regard for the fact that he might get burned. You see, you can’t be a great first responder, a fire fighter, if you’re overly concerned about what might happen to you.
Dr. King asked himself a deep and abiding question, not about what will happen to me if I run in that direction, but what will happen to others if I don’t run in that direction?
Dr. King ran toward the fire.
And the only tools that he took with him toward that fire were his words, his actions and the nonviolent example of his life. Those were the tools that he took to destroy the fire — to extinguish the fire — that threatened the destiny of our daily existence, the future possibility, and the eternal hope of his people.
But the reality is that same fire still burns today in America for black men and boys. For black men and boys in America, we are still waiting for someone to run toward the fire that is consuming our hope on a daily basis all across this country.
I read somewhere once that if you remove hope from the heart of a man or a woman, you render them a beast of prey. You know, sometimes people misconstrue the actions of our young men and our young women in this country because they look so destructive, even self-destructive. And you look at it, and you might consider them to be a vicious people. But a hopeless person who says, “All I have left is my respect, because you’ve taken everything else away from me” — a hopeless person will take another’s life when you try to take the last bit of respect that they have left, not because they are vicious, because they are hopeless.
In describing the internal motivation that wouldn’t allow him to turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to the human screams that he heard crying out of the fire, Dr. King said these words. He said, “When you come to understand what your calling or your purpose is in this life, you must move toward that purpose or that calling as if God Almighty, Himself, came down and told you that that is what he created you to do. That he created you to love your enemy. That he created you to love your neighbor as yourself. That he created you to pray for those who spitefully used you.”
If we’re going to extinguish this fire that has been burning for almost 400 years in America, then we must find a way to confront and change this system that has become so entrenched and so extremely successful at dehumanizing a segment of this population to the point that some of us have come to believe that everything that happens to them somehow is their own fault.
Dr. King’s dream was that one day America would live up to his promise of life, liberty and justice for all. But as I look around, I still see injustice all over this land. I still see injustice in this land of the free, this home of the brave, this America, so beautiful, so inviting to some.
I see the injustice of mass incarceration. I see the injustice of economic inequality. I see the injustice of entire communities trapped by the stranglehold of hopelessness.
Dr. King’s vision allowed him to see a stone of hope coming from a mountain of despair. But when you look at the mountain that has been erected to the obstacles of success of our most vulnerable citizens of today, what do you see?
What is the pathway to justice that you see for the young people among us who have only known that death grip of concentrated poverty and the overpowering fear of concentrated violence? What do you see?
What do you see as pathways to justice when you see 4-year-olds who are suspended from kindergarten — a population that is overwhelmingly and disproportionately black boys?
I find myself, every single day, asking the question, what could a 4-year-old possibly do that the adults around him see no other recourse but to expel him from school? We’re talking about kindergarten.
When we dehumanize an entire segment of our society, some of us will feel comfortable believing that anything that happens to them must be their own fault, and they deserve whatever they get.
Dr. King had a dream that things in this nation one day would be different. He saw a pathway to the possibility of what we hold inside of us as human beings. Make no mistake, no matter how callous the heart, every human being has the capacity to hope. Every human being has the capacity to change. The question is, are we willing to?
Sadly, here we are almost 50 years since his assassination, and “one day,” has not yet arrived. One day, this nation would rise up and live out the true meaning of his creed. One day, we will all be able to sit down at the table of brotherhood. One day.
Before we can get to the table of brotherhood, we need to get to the table. One day.
One day, this land would be transformed to an oasis of freedom and justice; not one that closes its doors to its needy and builds walls on our borders. One day.
One day, we will not be judged by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character. One day. One day.
One day, everybody would have a level playing field; not one playing field for the rich and another playing field for the poor. Not one playing field if you’re in this ZIP code, but another playing field if you happen to be over here. One day.
In his last speech, Dr. King said he had been to the mountaintop. And you see, going to the mountaintop symbolizes the fact that we have elevated our level of thinking. And so he elevated his level of thinking so that he could see where this nation could go from where it was at that time. He elevated his level of thinking so that his mind would not be clouded by the painful reality of his day.
I don’t know if you realize it, but there are people who live in pain every single day in this City of Destiny. I don’t know if you realize it, but all across this nation, on average, every 24 hours, more than 7 million children wake up in households where they’re trying to live off the equivalent of $8 a day, per family member, in the household. I bought two coffees this morning from Starbucks; $8 wasn’t enough.
He went to the mountaintop so that he could see possibility. He elevated his thinking so that he could truly believe that the people of America, including the people of Tacoma, were capable of moving from a place of anger to a place of hope.
He elevated his thinking so that he could truly believe that the people of America, including the people of the City of Destiny, were capable of moving from a place of dreams to a place of action.
He elevated his thinking so that he could truly believe that the people of Tacoma — everybody in the City of Destiny — would be willing to run towards the fire, so that every child in every household in Hilltop — every child in every household on the east side — every child in every household on the south end — that everybody in Tacoma would be willing to run toward the fire so that they could be saved from hopelessness.
If we, as a nation, and as a city, are ever going to live up to the promise of providing the full benefits of citizenship to all Americans, than we must be willing to elevate our vision to a mountaintop vision. We must be willing to move to a place where our history does not have to dictate our present or our future behavior.
When we elevate our vision to a mountaintop vision, we will come to understand that you cannot know the content of my character simply by looking at the color of my skin. You can’t know who I am just by looking at me. But yet, we still live in a world where what you see when you look at me has a greater impact on how you respond to me, how you treat me, and how you perceive who I am than anything I can do or say.
Because you need to understand that in America, what you see when you look at me will cause you to take me to Burger King, even though you just arrested me for shooting nine people in a church.
What you see when you look at me will allow you to take me to Burger King before you take me to jail, when you know I just murdered nine people.
What you see when you look at me will allow you to shoot me in two seconds of arriving on a scene because, in your head, I looked like a grown man even though I was 12, which would suggest to me that you have somehow internalized this notion that it would be justified to shoot a grown man without real provocation in two seconds of coming on the scene.
When we succeed at dehumanizing an entire segment of society, some of us will feel comfortable believing that anything that happens to them must be their own fault, and that they deserve whatever they get. It’s time that we, as a nation, start to look at our black men and boys with a mountaintop vision, because when we elevate our vision to a mountaintop vision, we can see that our men and boys are community assets and not national liabilities.
When we elevate our vision to a mountaintop vision, we can see 4-year-old boys as just that, little boys, and not see them as the men that we’ve already determined they’re going to become; men that they will only become if they can live long enough to get there.
I’ve been to the mountaintop, and I’ve seen the possibilities of America. I’ve seen the possibilities of the City of Destiny. When we become willing, as a nation, to elevate our vision to a mountaintop vision, we will be able to ensure that all of our children have free and uninhibited access to those inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
When we can elevate our vision to a mountaintop vision, we won’t stand around and watch a 15-year-old girl get slung across a room because she wouldn’t give up her cellphone. When we have a mountaintop vision.
When we have a mountaintop vision, the ZIP code and the parents of your birth won’t be the main thing that tells you what your destiny is likely to be.
When we elevate our vision to a mountaintop vision, we can even get along for the good of all the citizens of our great city. We can put our own differences aside. Because, you see, you didn’t have to tell me because I’ve been to cities all across this country, and I realize that just like in every other city in this country, there are people in this room right now that you interact with every single day, but you find it hard to work with them. You find it hard to reason with them. You find it hard to accept your differences because you’ve already decided who they are and what their shortcomings are. You find it hard to get to the table of brotherhood, because you have so much in between you, history has caused you to say, “They will never.”
And whether that is a black person looking at a white person saying, “They will never;” a white person looking at a black person saying, “They will never;” an Asian person looking at a Latino person. It doesn’t matter who is pointing the finger.
When you move to a mountaintop vision, you will be able to accept that different does not mean deficient. And you will come to embrace the fact that you cannot know the content of my character simply by looking at me. But still, when you see what you see when you look at me has more of an impact on how you respond to me, how you treat me, and how you perceive who I am than anything I can do or say.
It has been said that it is not bad people who have polluted our world with their behavior, it is the good people who have sat around and watched and waited and chose to do nothing about what they see happening around them. When good, well-meaning people don’t speak up for fear of losing friends or losing their social status, our world continues to become polluted and the fire continues to burn.
When good, well-meaning people choose the convenience of doing nothing over the inconvenience of doing something, our world continues to get polluted and the fire continues to burn.
When good, well-meaning people run from the fire as opposed to doing everything possible to stop the screams of those being burned and to stop the arsonists from continuing to set the fires, our world continues to be polluted, and the fire continues to burn. And nothing changes.
Almost 50 years after the assassination of this man that we have celebrated every year since there’s been this holiday, unless you lived in Arizona, or unless you live in Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama, where they have a joint holiday that celebrates Dr. King and Robert E. Lee on the same day. Think about that. The ultimate contradiction. I fought to keep slavery. I fought to liberate my people from the devastating impact of slavery, but we must celebrate you both at the same time. Somebody help me.
But if nothing changes, this is what I want to leave you with …. Because, you see, if we change nothing, this script will play out.
- On average, every 24 hours in America we lose 29 young people from violence. On average, every 24 hours, we lose four young people to child abuse and neglect — babies, most of them before they reach their fifth birthday.
- We lose 13 young people to homicide, most of them shot by somebody who looks just like them.
- And we lose 12 young people to suicide, making a statement, by taking their own life, they’re saying: “Death seems to be a better option to me than to live one more day of life as I know it.”
I roll that number out for the next 10 years. If we don’t change anything across this country by the way we are responding to the hopeless cry of our children, 10 years from now, I will be standing here telling you that we’ve lost 105,850 young people under the age of 25, either because of child abuse, neglect, homicide or suicide.
But I ask you, how many of those young people would be from the City of Destiny, and what will your actions or your inactions, what story will they tell about what you thought about the value of those young people?
When this nation truly becomes willing to elevate our vision to a mountaintop vision, then, and only then, will we offer the full promise of citizenship to all of our citizens. That same promise that has stood on the plaque of the Statue of Liberty since 1903:
Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamps beside the golden door!
I ask you this afternoon, when will this promise apply to all of us?
I also ask you, what do you see when you look at me? A black man born a black baby in rural Mississippi in the late 1950s, a black boy growing into a man, what do you see?
When I was born, the people who owned the plantation that we lived on decided that because my mother had no older men to work the fields, we needed to become homeless because that was the code — if you can’t work here, you can’t live here. That’s what they saw when they looked at me. They didn’t see a beautiful baby that needed to be cared for. They saw an expendable child.
I say to you, because I know the good work that you’ve been doing in this city; I know the efforts that have been on the way to bring about change. I simply say to you in parting, as Dr. King said, “The destiny of everyone in this city is inextricably linked to the destiny of everyone else in this city.” But our lives begin to die when we decide that it’s acceptable to remain silent in a face of the injustice that we see around us.
I thank you for allowing me to share this afternoon with you.
Thank you, and God bless you.