Good Afternoon. Thank you so much for your kind introduction.
Your Excellencies. Lord Mayor. Ladies and Gentleman.
I’d like to begin by thanking Dreamkeepers for inviting me to speak
at the 7th annual celebration of Martin Luther King Day in Ottawa-
an event that has become a cherished tradition in our community.
It’s an honour and indeed a privilege to be here.
I can’t remember not knowing about Martin Luther King Jr. It would
seem as if he’s always been part of my consciousness. The first time I
believe I referred to Martin Luther King in writing was when I was
about 8 or 9 years old. I was in elementary school and I had been
asked to give a short speech to either a class or a school assembly
about “the Negro” for what I think was a Black History Month event
-yes, back in 1979 in the term Negro was still used in some quarters,
I even had a book called the History of Negro Americans.
Unlike some of you in this room I wasn’t alive when Martin Luther
King first came to international attention as a preternaturally
gifted 20-something Baptist preacher in Montgomery Alabama who became
the de facto spokesperson for the Montgomery Boycott in 1955, or in
1963 when he delivered one of the seminal speeches of the 20th century
from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, or in 1964 when at the age
of 35 he travelled to Oslo,Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
I wasn’t around on March 7th 1965 Bloody Sunday, the day on which
hundreds of civil rights activists led by John Lewis of SNCC ( the
Student non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and King’s lieutenant
Hosea Williams were tear gassed and brutally beaten by police as they
tried to make their way across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way
from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Or 8 days later on March 15th
when US President Lyndon Baines Johnson, moved King to tears when he
introduced the Voting Rights Act to Congress, an act that would
eventually become law and signal the end of legalized
disenfranchisement of Black people in the United States.
I was not yet a twinkle in my father’s eye when King delivered the
1967 CBC Massey Lecture entitled Conscience for Change or on that
tragic day on April 4 1968 when he was gunned down at 6:01pm on the
second floor balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee.
I was born two years after King passed, and so growing up Dr. King was
always history to me. I have spent a lifetime trying to get to know
the man and connect him to my present. And thanks to that journey of
discovery I have arrived at some of my own conclusions:
That there is much that we have forgotten about King. That over the
decades, Martin Luther King the man has become Dr. Martin Luther King
Jr. the myth.
That the King who is now officially remembered has ceased being
the complex, flawed mortal being that he was, and has morphed into
this one-dimensional, omniscient, demigod-type figure that he was
not. That his message simplified, cleaned up... sanitized for mass
That “cryogenic–like” he has been literally frozen in time. That the
essence of his message has been diluted, distorted, ossified and
often submerged by obfuscation, stripped of its radical,
transformative nature. Sadly, a revisionist, officially-edited
version of King is the one that seems to now prevail and is now
presented to the world.
So today I want to search for and ultimately reclaim what I consider
to be the lost King. And try to glean some lessons from a life that
was relatively short in length but incontrovertibly well-lived.
The first thing that I think we forget is how young Martin Luther
King was when he became effectively the leader of the Civil Rights
Movement. He was a mere 26 years of age at the time of the bus
boycott , and, like Malcolm X and Che Guevera, just 39 when he was
murdered. In fact, it is rather daunting for me to realize that I
am now older than King was when he died. One can only imagine how much
more he would have grown and changed had he lived until today. How
much more he would have been able to give to his beloved community.
Martin King had yet to hit his peak, he was just getting
started...just hitting his stride.
The speech for which Martin King is renowned is his soaring “I Have a
Dream Speech” of 1963. The 35 words of the speech that continue to
resonate with people nearly a half century after they were first heard
were actually uttered towards the speech’s end:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a
nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by
the content of their character.”
But the speech was much more than those 35 words. What I think we
forget is that much of the speech focused on the matter of
accountability and broken promises. It was delivered 100 years after
Abraham Lincoln had declared the Emancipation Proclamation, at a time
in the early 1960s when Black People in the United States still did
not have the rights of full citizenship in their own land.
In his address King stated that the members of the civil rights
movement had come to the capital in their hundreds of thousands to
demand freedom and justice. Civil rights supporters from across the
USA were marching on Washington to cash the cheque that had been
promised to them in both the Constitution and the Declaration of
Independence, nearly 200 years earlier. A promise that all men would
be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit
of happiness. King’s appeal was a clarion call for justice... for
restitution. It was a redemption song. For too long America had
defaulted on its promissory note. Black people had been given a bad
cheque. Martin King was in a hurry, he was impatient for change. He
wasn’t interested in gradualism. He wanted to alert America to, as he
put it, “the fierce urgency of the now.” While he spoke eloquently
about how he imagined a world where people would be measured by the
content of their character, the speech was more than a dream, it was
an outright demand.
While lionized in death, King was often reviled and vilified during
his lifetime by the same forces who would falsely claim today to have
always been in his corner. When he voiced his opposition to the War
in Vietnam beginning in 1965 King came under not-so friendly-fire
from all sides, foes and indeed friends alike.
In one of his most trenchant speeches against the war entitled
“Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence” delivered at the
Riverside Church in New York on April 4th 1967 one year to the day
before his assassination, King outlined his opposition to the mad,
destructive conflict. He spoke as a child of God and a brother to
the suffering poor of both Vietnam and the United States… As a
citizen of the world he felt compelled to speak because of his horror
at the savagery and wastefulness of it all. He called for an end to
the senseless, dishonourable, murderous misadventure. He spoke of
the need for a radical revolution of values…“We must rapidly begin the
shift from a thing oriented society to a person oriented society. When
machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are
considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism,
materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
For his indictment of the US War in Vietnam King was labeled
unpatriotic, naïve, a communist stooge, a dupe. Members of his own
organization the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and
civil rights stalwarts such as A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins of the
NAACP, Whitney Young of the Urban League, and even King’s trusted
confidante Bayard Rustin, decried his “recklessness” accusing him of
jeopardizing the gains made by the movement. They were convinced
that King’s denunciation of the Johnson administration, would so
alienate the President – a man, who, they believed, had done more for
civil rights in America than any President in the twentieth century -
that prospects for changes on the domestic front would be dashed..
Senator Thomas Dodd of Connecticut, a close confidant of President
Johnson stated that King had “ absolutely no competence in foreign
affairs “ and had “ alienated much of the support he previously
enjoyed in Congress”
At the time only 25% of Americans of public thought US had made a
mistake sending troops to Vietnam. A poll found only 18% of Blacks
felt that the US policy was misguided. King may have been clear in
his own position on the war but amongst his countrymen and women
Black and White and Brown, Christian Muslim or Jewish, he was in a
The press was equally contemptuous and scathing in their criticism of
King. Time magazine blasted him for “ confusing the cause.” In the
Washington Post his views on the war were dismissed as “inventions of
unsupported fantasy.” The New York Times excoriated King for combining
the civil rights movement and the peace movement while “recklessly
comparing American military methods to those of the Nazis.” The
Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most widely read papers in Black
America argued that King was “tragically misleading [American Negroes
on matters that were ] too complex for simple debate.”
Martin Luther King was resilient and principled enough to absorb
the blows that rained down on him in the midst of his condemnation of
a rapacious economic system, a venal military industrial complex, and
his country’s misguided war in Vietnam, because he understood that
the “calling to speak is often a vocation of agony , but we must
speak.” As a standard bearer of liberation theology a man of God
Martin King demanded his country, a nation of unparalleled affluence
and ingenuity, offer a radically different dispensation for the poor
As a revolutionary and freedom fighter... A radical apostle of
non-violence, King insisted that “ every man of humane convictions
must decide on the protest that best suit his convictions.”
As a radical democrat Citizen King believed in the words of the
Trinidadian radical intellectual CLR James that “every cook can
His was a call to the shirtless, the barefoot and the homeless of the
world...the downtrodden... the have nots. But it was also a call to
those with shoes and shirts and homes. Those people of means.
King in his practice subscribed to the journalist’s maxim of
“Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the powerful.” But he also
spoke to the humanity of world’s peoples and recognized the commonness
of us all.
So what is it that we can learn from Martin King’s example? What can
his life and example teach us some 42 years after his untimely death?
Well I think there are a number of lessons that we can learn:
That whatever our station we have agency.
That we have the ability and the responsibility to act to create the
just , humane world that we imagine for ourselves and the generations
That a time comes when silence is betrayal and so we must be unafraid
to speak and to challenge power.
That a revolution in values and in the economic and political system
is not instant coffee. That the business of making revolution is a
long often lonely road but it is a road worth taking.
That to make profound change we must be ready to be derided and
humiliated and to be prepared to sacrifice. That we must have the
courage of our convictions.
That like Socrates said in Plato’s Apology 38A “the unexamined
life is not worth living.” To really interrogate one’s life, to look
at it without those rose coloured glasses that we too often don, is
the absolute best thing that a human being can do.
That another world is possible. And that with community and
imagination and pluck we can achieve it.
I will end with these last few words.
Martin Luther King was an extraordinary and yet “oh so ordinary man”
who walked among us, not above us.
His feet, like our own, were made of clay. He was an individual with
idiosyncrasies and seemingly inexplicable, but very human,
contradictions. He was a leader who led, but he was also a leader who
followed...He was both a teacher and a student who had both strong
convictions and a plethora of doubts.
We need our children, all of our children, to aspire to reach Martin
Luther King Jr.’s heights, but in order to do so, Martin must be
rescued from the clouds and brought back down to earth. We need our
young people to see Martin King in themselves. We need them to know
that they too possess the gifts and the imagination and the gumption
to help to transform and heal our world... That they are indeed a part
of the solution. That we are now faced with the fact that “tomorrow
is today.” That we are confronted with the “fierce urgency of the
now.” And that we can’t afford to wait. Thank You.