The following is a speech as prepared for delivery by Yvette Highsmith-Francis this morning at the Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast in Meriden.
I am sure that many of us have been impacted by Dr. King’s life and legacy both directly and indirectly. As a young woman, raised by a single mom, living in public housing, living in poverty financially but wealthy in love and support – Dr. King’s legacy became very relevant to me in a serendipitous way – I was applying to schools, the first in my family to pursue higher education, not really knowing what to do, just knowing my mom had always instilled in me, that I would go to college one way or another. My only concern was to get the grades required for admission. So I was just a bit naïve and a little surprised when the time came to meet the financial requirements. Yes, a lot of scrambling took place in Tom LaBella, my guidance counselor’s office one sunny afternoon in May. But Mr. LaBella, was as adamant as my mom that there would be no deterrents for me attending the college of my choice. He spent hours on the phone with the admissions dept at LIU and finally got Kaye Mealing, the administrator of LIU’s MLK scholarship program on the line. Ms. Mealing allowed me to give an oral essay over the phone, in lieu of the required written essay that was due that day. And I was awarded the academic scholarship on the spot. That scholarship not only helped me attend LIU, it kept me there, it required I maintain a minimum 3.5 gpa and also had conduct and leadership expectations. We were an elite group on campus, the MLK scholars and we all felt of sense of pride representing the legacy of Dr. King. Today at noon on eastern Long Island that champion of education and young people, Kaye Mealing is being laid to rest, she would be so proud to know that on this morning I am addressing you all. May she rest in peace.
In 1994, congress designated Dr. King’s holiday as a national day of service. How fitting because service is the way to transform Dr. King’s life and teachings into community action that helps solve social problems. Service can empower and bring people together to build bridges and foster collective work and responsibility.
This brings to mind the parable of the Good Samaritan – there was a famous seminary study done in 1973 and it has been repeated in series of iteration since. The experiment was done with seminary students who were told they were going to be participating in an event that was being held in another building on the college campus and that they had to get there on time. Some were told that they were going to give a short talk on the Good Samaritan; others were told they were going to talk about seminary jobs. Some were told they were already late for the next part, others were told they had a few minutes but they needed to get going.
As they walked to their “appointment” there was a person clearly in need and distress along the way. Overall 40% offered some help to the victim. In low hurry situations, 63% helped, medium hurry 45% and high hurry only 10%.
When the researchers talked with the students afterwards and revealed the true nature of the experiment, showed them the videotapes of themselves as they hurried along their way avoiding eye contact, pretending that they didn’t see or hear the person crying out for help, those who didn’t help or minimally tried to help, identified that they hadn’t stopped to help because they had somewhere to be.
Are we our brother’s keeper? Are we our sister’s keeper? Or are we too busy getting to where we are going to realize that we are going nowhere fast and helping no one at all. All the personal gain in the world will do us no good if we aren’t uplifting one another and striving for the greater good. What we do for ourselves dies with us, what we do for others is what we leave behind. Just like Dr. King, I’m sure Mr. Owens never thought that long after he had gone on to glory, that a scholarship would bear his name and provide financial support and encouragement to outstanding students. Your life legacy lies in what you do for others.
So you ask what does this have to do with me? And I may be talking to the proverbial choir, and should be applauding you for the work that you have done vs. challenging you to do a little more, give a little more of yourself. You may be in the 40% that is willing to help someone else despite what your own personal agenda is.
Or you may be in that place where you believe you just have too much on your plate to extend yourself for service. Yes, we are parents, students, elected officials, employees and employers. We go to church, we usher, serve on the missionary board, help with the youth church, You see just like each of us, Dr. King had a full life and also put his theology into practice. He could have been a remarkable man, just by being a Pastor and shepherding his congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church, he could have been admired simply for being a devoted husband to Coretta and a loving father to Martin, Yolanda, Dexter and Bernice. But he knew that he had a responsibility to extend love to the greater good, for the greater good. He put life to the lyrics of Mahalia Jackson’s classic song “If I can help somebody as I travel along, if I can If I can help somebody with a word or song, If I can help somebody, from doing wrong, my living shall not be in vain.
We cannot be complacent or satisfied with the status quo as long as what Dr. King referred to as the triple evils; racism, poverty and militarism still loom large. While much has changed, much remains the same.
In his 1963, I have a Dream Speech, Dr. King urged Americans to see the fierce urgency of NOW. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. His comments 45 years ago could just as easily have been made this morning. Do you feel the sense of urgency as we have entered into this monumental year? Yes, we are going rush to the nearest television to witness the inauguration ceremony for the 2nd term for President Barack Obama. Yes, we are going to have a radical, well overdue transformation of our health care system. And that in and of itself makes some think there is no more to accomplish, That President Obama’s role as the leader of the free world means the dream has been fulfilled. But we know better and we know that we must devote some of our time, talent and treasure to make Dr. King’s dream of a world free of hatred but full of love and justice a reality. Dr. King said, “A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. 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 re-structuring.”
We cannot be complacent or satisfied as long as:
- The city of Chicago, is low key being called Chi-Raq because there were as many shootings and fatalities in the city as in the Iraqi war zone. In 2012 alone, there were 532 murders and 2,670 people were shot in Chicago. In all, it means that on average almost 1.5 people were murdered in Chicago each day last year, while on average 7.3 people were shot each day. While blacks make up about 33 percent of the city’s population, they accounted for nearly 78 percent of the homicide victims through the first six months of 2012.
- We cannot just going through the motions of life knowing that an estimated 15% of Americans — 46.2 million — lived in poverty last year,
- We cannot be complacent as long as there are more black men in prison than in college and as long as the median household income for black families is $32,000 and yet the median income for white families is almost $51,000.
- We cannot be complacent as long as people of color are disproportionately affected with chronic diseases and have more negative health outcomes
Dr. King preached about justice, empowerment, love and peace. Love is a verb; it’s an action word. We show love not by saying we love, but by doing, by serving. Dr. King’s commitment to theology was more than academic; he put his beliefs into action. His passion was a catalyst for change. He inspired people to make a commitment to a better life not just for themselves but also for others. And he persisted in spite of opposition in it’s truest form, opposition that ranged from being arrested to physical assaults and threats to him and his family, and ultimately his life. Greater love has no man than this,that a man lay down his life for a friend.
It may sound corny or even cliché, but when we operate from a place of love, that’s when we render our best service. And love towards all, not just those who look like us, vote like us; support the same causes we support but all mankind.
This is relevant today because you see, 45 years ago, those were ordinary men and women, straight backed and clear eyed, determined that they were going to take a stand, make a difference and ultimately change a course of a nation. You can never underestimate the power of a small group of determined individuals. They were ordinary men and women, just like you and me, except they were united in a cause, a struggle to make the world a better place not just for themselves but for all of us, for each of us. They were willing to step out of their comfort zone to do the right thing.
Dr. King said an individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.
Love is a great motivator; Love will get you to serve.
I leave you with the The Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.