Remarks for Progressive Spiritual Leaders' Interfaith Peace Revival
Delivered at All Souls Church, Unitarian
Washington, DC, January 19, 2009
In 1967, at New York’s Riverside Church, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a historic speech addressing the triple threat of racism, militarism, and poverty. The “Beyond Vietnam” speech is often described as the pivotal moment King’s growth from American civil rights activist to global human rights leader. This address also marked the start of the “Poor People’s Campaign” that King was advancing when he was assassinated a year later.
The “Poor People’s Campaign” was milestone event in American history, but it was never concluded. It is heartbreaking to realize that today’s minimum wage is lower in real dollars than the minimum wage in 1968—four decades ago—when King was fighting for the rights of working people. And while individual Americans of color have made remarkable strides in the past forty years, structural racism remains firmly entrenched. Many people were shocked when hurricane Katrina exposed profound inequalities in New Orleans, but that was just one of many American cities where structures of oppression are still intact, but remain largely invisible. Katrina gave America a painful lesson in the twin realities of racism and poverty, just as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us about the global and domestic consequences of corporate greed and cultural imperialism.
Today, as we fight the “triple threat,” let us remember that the civil rights movement realized its greatest successes while the nation confronted an unpopular war— as we are doing now. And during the current economic uncertainties, let us also remember that the federal minimum wage was not enacted during a time of plenty, but during the lean years of the Great Depression. Dr. King understood that we can’t choose one just cause at the expense of another; we can’t wait for “a better time” to do the right thing. He understood that the forces threatening peace, prosperity, and equality had to be fought simultaneously if there was to be any progress.
Dr. King lived in desperate times, but he never lost hope. And we need to sustain our hope as well, to create our own—stone of hope. I recall hearing those words, "stone of hope," from Dr. King as I sat in a crowded room at the Unitarian Universalist Association's General Assembly in Hollywood, FL, in June of 1966, listening to him deliver the Ware Lecture. Dr. King decried militarism, economic injustice and the scourge of racism. He invoked the words of Jefferson and Lincoln, a call for Americans to live up to the ideals that this country was based upon.
Today we honor Dr. King‘s memory by renewing our own commitments to peace and justice. We have seen that there is backlash every time the circle of equality is widened, but I hew my stone of hope with these words: “The arc of the universe is long,” said Dr. King, quoting 19th century Unitarian abolitionist Theodore Parker, “but it bends toward justice.”
Dr. King’s intellectual and spiritual evolution was driven by his growing understanding that forms of oppression are inextricably linked. May his insights continue to inspire our work today.